Tonight my beloved Montreal Canadiens will hit the ice for their first exhibition game of the fall. I’ll miss nearly the entire pre-season, as well as their season opener against the Leafs (blurg!) while we’re in France, but I’m intensely curious about how the team will look.
I’ve held off talking about all the off-season changes Bob Gainey’s made as I wanted to see the final product take shape before commenting. This was the most change I’ve seen my Habs, or maybe any team, go through in one summer. After the disastrous 08-09 season, the centennial celebration in which the Canadiens were supposed to contend for the cup, Gainey knew he had to do something. And what he did was blow up his team’s leadership core and start over.
Saku Koivu, the heart of the team and one of the club’s longest-serving captains, wasn’t signed. Likewise Alex Kovalev, their most talented player and assistant captain. Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins, both of whom have worn the A and have been projected to eventually don the C, are gone. Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Patrice Brisebois, Tom Kostopulous, Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon…all gone.
Plenty of players came back in return, and on a talent-by-talent basis they’re as good or better as what went out the door. The interesting part of the great reset of 2009 was the fact that Gainey looked at his core of veteran players and decided he simply wasn’t going to win with that group. Loathe as I am to admit it, he was completely right. There’s been something lacking on the Canadiens team for a long time, something intangible…usually teams use words like chemistry or cohesiveness to describe it. Maybe it was heart. Short of Koivu, who would probably run through walls or kill a hobo if that’s what it took to win, there were a lot of guys on the team who would disappear when their backs were against the wall. But even Koivu, with all the heart in the world, often couldn’t get his name into another gear in crunch time. The effort was there but the execution wouldn’t come.
So, Gainey brought in Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Jaro Spacek, Hall Gill (!), Travis Moen and Paul Mara to reform the bulk of the team. Whether they can produce the chemistry Gainey’s looking for, or whether the departure of the old guard allows others to finally step up, remains to be seen. There are already early whispers of better chemistry in the room, so we’ll see if that sticks. Interestingly, those comments about chemistry came from Carey Price, upon whom success this season hinges more than anyone. If Price doesn’t bounce back from a bad year, all of Gainey’s machinations may be for naught.
However, the time for introspection is passed. The time for hockey is…uh, tonight. I can’t wait to hear the sweet sounds of blades carving ice and boards being rattled.
Go Habs go.