Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top 10 Things to Look Forward to this Season

As if you needed reasons to find the beautiful Montreal summer long and to be counting down the days till we drop the puck once again, today we bring you 10 unfolding storylines to excite you for 2010-11 as a Habs fan.

10) The pro debut of Louis Leblanc
Of the 17 players drafted before Louis Leblanc in 2009, only 6 have yet to make their NHL debut. Five players taken after him in the first round have also played NHL games, while Habs fans have waited patiently for the man dubbed the team's next French Canadian star on draft day. This Fall will mark the fourth consecutive season in which Leblanc starts play in a new league (USHL, ECAC (NCAA), QMJHL, and now AHL) and he is further coming off summer shoulder surgery. Hab fans, then, should continue to show patience even if he has a slow start in the American League and shouldn't expect him to see any National League ice until 2012-13. Still, all will be eagerly monitoring his progress with the Hamilton Bulldogs as one of the organization's top hopes up front for the future. Other stories to follow with the 'Dogs will include the progress of Alexander Avtsin, and the first impressions of Rafael Diaz.

9) Peter Budaj's (few) performances as Carey Price's new back-up
Alex Auld performed reasonably well last season in Price's few nights off. Still, he invoked little confidence in his ability to play multiple games in a row, and so the Habs looked to upgrade their insurance policy in Peter Budaj. Accepting that the performance of the team's back-up won't ultimately decide the Canadiens' season, thus mitigating the risk of the signing to an extent, Budaj has a lot of upside as he was once seen as a quality future starter. He never really lived up to the hype in Colorado, but encouraging for Habs should be that his best NHL numbers came during the season where he was a full-time back-up to Craig Anderson, with a .917 save percentage in 15 games in 2009-10. This compares to Auld's numbers of .914 in 16 games last season in Montreal. It will be interesting to see how he does after working with a new goalie coach.

8) Competition between Lars Eller and David Desharnais
At least thus far, the Canadiens haven't moved to bring in a veteran depth centerman, much in contrast to the past few years. That means a large role for both Lars Eller and David Desharnais within the forward group, with fans hoping they don't fall into an NHL sophomore slump. Unless one is moved to the wing, the two will push each other for the third line ice time, and hopefully this competition will keep both on top of their game. Because of the glimpses of skill he shows, many expect a breakout year from 22-year old Eller, but we mustn't forget that Desharnais was also playing perhaps his best hockey at the NHL level during the playoffs, and he will still have just turned only 25 when the season starts. It gives the organization nice depth and reliability to have two young players at center behind two veterans in Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez.

7) A better season from Scott Gomez
Speaking of Gomez... I mean... he couldn't possibly have a WORSE season, right?? Likely to start the year with Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty, the trio should be able to produce consistently, and an improvement from last year will be the team's depth, not forced to bump a plugger like Travis Moen into the top 6 just because of an injury or two. As such, whether it's with Andrei Kostitsyn, Erik Cole, or David Desharnais, he'll have a chance to catch fire with a number of different combinations of linemates. It isn't unthinkable for Scottie to bounce back with 50-60 points, but after last year's debacle, it will take more than just production to appease uneasy fans. The Canadiens need to get 100% effort from Mr. Gomez at both ends of the rink on a nightly basis.

6) What will Pierre Gauthier do with > $5M in cap space?
The past couple of seasons, Montreal's cap situation has been somewhat precarious come trade deadline, making a deal to rent the top available talent somewhat difficult as it would require sending salaries elsewhere. As of now anyway, this season looks to be different with the Canadiens having a full roster under contract and over $5M in cap space. By trade deadline, this room will allow them to trade for any player in the league (that is, any playable available of course). It seems as of now that the biggest hole is on defense (as we covered previously), and there is no short supply of potential rentals out there depending on how their clubs are faring in the standings. So what happens with this cash? Does it go unspent? Is it a patch on the blueline? Or... just maybe... Gauthier finds a way to land a big fish and upgrades one of Montreal's top performers to a bonafide superstar. He has certainly shown he isn't afraid to make a concerted effort to be aggressive/proactive.

5) The progression of Carey Price and P.K. Subban
Funny to think that a year ago, the term "Triple Low-Five" meant nothing to Canadiens fans, and now most can't wait to see the next one. Two of the more promising young players at their positions, both Price and Subban took major strides last season towards reaching their potential. For the Habs to have a good year, they need neither of these players to regress, but rather to continue in their development. The two may have a little extra incentive to perform, as both will be restricted free agents next summer looking for big, long-term contracts. And if Carey Price manages to perform like the top 5 goaltender he can be, and P.K. Subban continues to show he will be a top pairing blueliner for many, many years, the Canadiens will have no problem shelling out the dough to keep both around. The lengthy playoff run they can help bring the city next Spring will hopefully assist in covering the team's future tab.

4) Finally seeing Alexei Yemelin in North America
Year after year, Habs fans were teased by rumours that the promising Yemelin would finally sign a deal and come over to North America for training camp. Well this summer, that fantasy finally came true as Yemelin inked a 1-year contract. Now 25 years old, Yemelin is coming off a breakout season offensively in the KHL, rounding out his game by besting his previous high of 7 points with an amazing 26 in 52 games. Given that he brings toughness and physicality lacking on the Montreal blueline, and that he apparently has a contractual clause allowing him return to Russia rather than report to the Bulldogs, he should be given every opportunity to make an impression with the Canadiens. One thing he must do is control his temper, as he has been known to sometimes take bad penalties, something the Habs already did in abundance last year. He should battle Jaroslav Spacek and Yannick Weber for ice time on D.

3) The return of Andrei Markov
An undoubtedly risky signing, the Canadiens brass basically gave Andrei Markov a mulligan on his injury-filled past few years by extending his contract at the same salary for 3 more seasons. If a little nervous, all Habs fans will be super excited to see Markov The General back patrolling the Montreal blueline this season and so long as he can stay healthy, he could return to being a top 5 or 10 two-way defenseman in the league. Yes, Markov suffered a series of repeated ACL/MCL injuries, but the truth is that for the most part, they were relatively freak situations. Now that he has been fully repaired, they should not be seen as predictors of his future health, so Canadiens fans can only be nervous about his age by contract's end slowing him down. Jacques Martin might choose to start Markov off slowly given how little he has played the last two years, but once he hits his stride, he should be soaking up big minutes to make up for the losses of Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski. And his saucer passes over to P.K. Subban on the top powerplay unit will hopefully be a thing of beauty for all to behold.

2) The debut of Erik Cole
For a player that Habs fan hated to see touch the Bell Centre ice for many years, Erik Cole's perception to Montrealers has done a full 180-degree spin and now his debut as a Canadien is one of the most hotly anticipated stories of the upcoming season. The Canadiens hope his time here will be more fruitful than the last time he left the Carolina Hurricanes (for the Edmonton Oilers) so that the club doesn't regret handing him a rich 4-year deal. Cole brings the club the type of player it has lacked for oh so very long. The type of player that Andrei Kostitsyn can be when he's on his game (with a little more grit and a little less skill). A big body who can throw his weight around, go to the net, and has soft hands to bury the puck. Those who have been with our blog from the beginning know we were advocating for his signing since early June, so adding another 20+ goal scoring Stanley Cup champion to the line-up is something we all should be excited about. Playing the same style of game as Max Pacioretty, and also having recovered from a serious neck/spinal cord injury, he could serve as a great role model for Max, which brings us to...

1) The return of Max Pacioretty
When he is introduced on opening night, Pacioretty will get a long and loud round of applause from the Bell Centre faithful. After an up-and-down start to his pro career, it seemed Max had managed to put everything together last season. After ripping up the AHL with 32 points (including 17 goals) in just 27 games, Max got the call-up and didn't disappoint, registing 14 goals and 24 points in 37 games with the Canadiens. His breakout season was cut short by the infamous check into a stanchion by Zdeno Chara, and his recovery has been a long and difficult one. But before that injury, Pacioretty had been arguably the team's best attacker, looking like an emerging top power forward, and so his return to the line-up this Fall will be greatly anticipated. With Pacioretty and Cole both in the top 6, the concerns over the club's small stature will be diminished. Habs fans need to hope, however, that the hit won't have any adverse effects on Pacioretty's mental game. He is saying all the right things during his recovery (aside, perhaps, from a joking insult to Brad Marchand's nose), but only he can know (and maybe not even he right now) how he'll react when he hops back on the Bell Centre ice. A Pacioretty who is hesistant to go into the corners or to charge the net is far less effective than the one of last season, so hopefully he can put all effects of his serious injury behind him and get back on track.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article, worth every minute reading. In addition, Hab fans should also be excited for Josh Gorges' return as he will continues what he's been doing with more effort to get a multi year contract by the end of the season.

Thanks again!