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Remodeled Canadiens will rely on speed and skill

by John McGourty
Montreal fans who were disappointed in the performance of the Canadiens last season can take heart: General Manager Bob Gainey was even more upset, especially after coaching the team during the last month of the season.

Gainey's displeasure turned into a team-wide shakeup: He let 11 veterans depart and also hired a new coaching staff.

The most dramatic roster overhaul in team history saw Gainey bring in four new forwards to play on the top two lines and three new defenseman to play for new coach Jacques Martin. Gainey is sticking with his goaltending tandem of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak.

It's interesting that only three players on the roster will be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season -- but only five players are signed through 2011-12. That reflects the wealth of talent progressing through the Canadiens' system, including players who may crack this season's lineup. Centers Ben Maxwell and Kyle Chipchura, wingers Max Pacioretty, Greg Stewart and Matt D'Agostini, and defenseman Yannick Weber all played for the Habs last season and are considered key elements of the Canadiens' future.

The Canadiens also boast a fine group of prospects that includes defensemen P.K. Subban, Mathieu Carle and David Fischer, centers Louis Leblanc and Joonas Nattinen, and right wing Danny Kristo. Martin's job is to integrate the young talent into the lineup over the next couple seasons.

The Canadiens should be a very fast team with great passing skills, strong defense and, if Price can return to his earlier form, good goaltending. That's the formula that made Montreal the most successful franchise in NHL history.

Gainey traded Chris Higgins and three prospects to the New York Rangers to get first-line center Scott Gomez. He then signed free-agent wingers Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta to five-year deals and checker Travis Moen to a three-year deal. Gionta and Gomez were successful together in New Jersey; Cammalleri, who had a career-high 39 goals for Calgary last season, seems tailored-made for Gomez's passing skills.

The Canadiens could ice a second line of Maxim Lapierre centering for Guillaume Latendresse on the left and Andrei Kostitsyn on the right; a third line of Tomas Plekanec between Moen and D'Agostini; and a fourth line of Glen Metropolit centering for Pacioretty and either Sergei Kostitsyn or Georges Laraque. But there will be competition for those jobs from Chipchura, Maxwell, and Stewart. Don't forget advanced prospects Andrew Conboy, 21, and Brock Trotter, 22, who left American colleges to join the pro ranks.

Gomez is clearly the centerpiece of the rebuilding project. An energetic, upbeat individual, his game is a reflection of his personality -- go, go, go. The 2000 Calder Trophy winner has 148 goals and 578 points in 706 NHL games and ranks 26th among active players with 430 assists.

Gomez, 29, had a career-high 33 goals and 84 points in 2005-06 and followed with 60 points the next season, prompting the Rangers to sign him to a lucrative, long-term deal in 2007. But he was a disappointment in New York, scoring only 16 goals both seasons and dropping 12 points to 58 points in the second. The Canadiens are hoping that he was ill-suited to the playing styles his New York coaches employed, rather than declining with age.

Cammalleri, 27, has been one of the NHL's most prolific scorers in two of the past three seasons. The six-year pro had 34 goals and 80 points three seasons back for the Los Angeles Kings, then slipped to 19 goals and 47 points in 2007-08 when he was beset by midseason groin and rib injuries. After being traded to Calgary, he bounced back last season to rank ninth in the NHL with 39 goals and 13th with 82 points.

Gionta, 30, is also trying to get back to top form. He broke through for 48 goals in 2005-06, sixth-best in the NHL, while playing on Gomez's right wing but has averaged only 22 goals the past three seasons. Shot selection may explain his problems. Gionta scored on almost 17 percent of his shots in his best season but on only a little over 8 percent the past two seasons.

Gomez is listed at 5-foot-11; Cammalleri at 5-foot-9 and Gionta at 5-foot-7 – which would make them one of the smallest top lines in the NHL. For that reason, a larger forward may be assigned to the line, possibly Moen, Andrei Kostitsyn or Latendresse.

Lapierre was the Canadiens' most improved player last season, recording career highs of 15 goals, 13 assists and 28 points while going plus-9 in his third season. Lapierre, who tied for second in goals when the Canadiens' AHL affiliate in Hamilton won the 2007 Calder Cup, is an excellent penalty killer and won 53.6 percent of his faceoffs. He led Canadiens' forwards with 52 blocked shots.

Latendresse has had three consistent seasons in which he averaged 15 goals and 27 points but he made major strides in improving to plus-4. He has worked hard to address an earlier reputation as a slow skater and he was third on the team with 140 hits.

It's no secret the Kostitsyn brothers and Plekanec underperformed last season and must do better to keep their jobs. Metropolit, 35, has been hailed widely for his character and work ethic, but the Habs may want to see Maxwell or Chipchura take over that job in the near future.

The Canadiens have a priceless gem in lefty-shooting Andrei Markov, who led NHL defenseman last season with 52 assists and was second with 64 points. Markov was fifth among NHL defensemen with 5:09 minutes per game of power-play time. Markov plays strong defense, anticipates well and makes crisp passes, both out of his defensive zone and in the offensive zone.

Simply put, he's among the NHL's elite defensemen and was Montreal's best player last season, when he finished second in scoring, one point behind departed forward Alexei Kovalev despite missing the last four games with a knee injury that has since healed.

Roman Hamrlik was second among Canadiens' defensemen with 27 assists, 33 points and 21:54 of average ice time. He's a seasoned pro who makes few mistakes. Hamrlik was last season's leader among returning Habs' defensemen with 104 hits and a career-high 195 blocked shots, fifth in the NHL. He was second to Markov with 41 takeaways. Hamrlik is equally effective on the power play and penalty killing. Hamrlik, Josh Gorges and Markov all saw time on both special-teams units last season.

Gorges is an underrated, but very effective, defender who had 4 goals and 19 assists last season while missing only one game. The Canadiens traded Craig Rivet to get him from San Jose. Gorges was second on the Canadiens with a plus-12 rating and performed well as Markov's partner.

The three new additions each fill a special role. Hal Gill is a giant at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds. He is an excellent shot blocker and has been one of the best at clearing opponents away from his net under the new rules adopted four years ago. Gill was one of the five Pittsburgh Penguins on the ice to defend their one-goal lead at the end of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup – a testimony to his reliability and effectiveness. Gill is a good passer and possesses one of the hardest wrists shots in the NHL.

Jaroslav Spacek was signed to play top-four minutes and serve as a point man on the first power-play unit. That means he'll partner on the blue line with Markov, whose passing skills set up Sheldon Souray and Mark Streit for their best seasons. Spacek, 35, keeps getting better -- he tied his career high with 45 points last season. He's tough, too – he played 80 games despite blocking 126 shots, second-highest on the Sabres.

Paul Mara was the Rangers' fifth defenseman last season, averaging 18:57 of ice time. Like Hamrlik, he's a versatile defender who can play on the power play and kill penalties. He's got good size at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds. It took the former first-round draft pick a long time to become a reliable NHL defender, but he's been in the plus column the past three seasons, although he is minus-95 for his nine-year career. Mara is a very good skater who carries the puck well.

Ryan O'Byrne, 25, is 6-foot-6 and 228 pounds and has played 70 games the past two seasons for the Habs, scoring 1 goal and 12 points. It would appear Gill was signed to fill the role O'Byrne hoped to, making O'Byrne the top reserve defenseman.

Weber, a third-round pick in 2007, was named to the 2009 AHL All-Rookie team after posting 16 goals and 44 points at Hamilton. Gainey gave him extensive power-play time in three season-ending games, including some time at forward. In size and aptitude, he's a Mathieu Schneider clone. The Habs hope he can be as productive and reliable. He'll likely return to Hamilton to start the season, but could see time during the season.

Subban, a second-round pick in 2007, was named to the OHL First All-Star team last season and was one of Canada's top players at the World Juniors. He has the "can't miss" tag all over him and the free-agent signings will give him a year to grow at Hamilton.

With new owners on the way and a rebuilt roster, perhaps no other player will have more impact on Gainey's future than goalie Carey Price. Gainey surprised the hockey world when he used the No. 5 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft to select Price when he had recent Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore in net.

The early returns were excellent: Price was named Canadian Major Junior goaltender of the year in 2007, jumped to Hamilton and was named the MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs. He then made the 2008 NHL All-Rookie team after going 24-12-3 with a .920 save percentage.

But Price slipped to 23-16-10 and a .905 save percentage last season, showing some problems on the glove side. But it's hard to say how much of Price's struggles were his fault and how much were due to a decline in his teammates' play? There are probably more people outside Quebec than within who agree with Gainey that Price's sophomore decline was a reflection of team play.

Price, still only 22, showed his combative nature when, in a late-season game, he responded to booing by mimicking Patrick Roy's dismissive gesture 14 years earlier that led to Roy's trade to Colorado. But Price said he doesn't want to leave Montreal; he was telling the fans that booing a struggling team doesn't help. Now he wants to win them a Stanley Cup.

Jaroslav Halak will again be the backup -- and here's where things get interesting. At 24, Halak is understandably not thrilled about being a backup; especially this season, when he has a chance to be Slovakia's starting Olympic goalie. But he'll need ice time to prove he's better than Colorado's Peter Budaj, who has also been relegated to backup status.

The downside of pairing Price and Halak could be friction between the two (don't forget that Halak was passed over when Hamilton shelved Yann Danis for Price in the 2007 Calder Cup playoffs) but the upside is Halak will be at his absolute best.

Halak was the Canadiens' player of the month in February, posting five wins while Price struggled.

If the Price-Halak duo doesn't work, Gainey made a smart signing this summer when he got Curtis Sanford. A great character influence, Sanford has been given more lousy opportunities and suffered more career disappointments than almost player you can think of and still perseveres. Plus, he can stop the puck. "The Sandman" needs to avoid the injuries that have so often derailed his hopes of being an NHL starter.
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