Thursday, 6 October 2011

2011--12 season prediction for the Montréal Canadiens

I was moderately optimistic about the Canadiens' season outlook this summer, but lately I've come to temper that enthusiasm. I thought the addition of Erik Cole, the return of Max Pacioretty, Josh Gorges and especially Andrei Markov, the rejuvenation of the defence corps with Yanick Weber, Alexei Yemelin and Raphaël Diaz, and an upgrade at our backup goalie position meant our team would be much improved. Any return to form by Scott Gomez would be gravy.

Training camp has caused to reconsider. My concern is on defence, as it is probably with most observers.

My main worry is the delayed recovery of Andrei Markov. I wrote frequently this summer that while recovering from ACL reconstruction is no walk in the park, Mr. Markov's work ethic and dedication to his physical conditioning, along with the fact that his operation occurred early last season and afforded him plenty of time to rehab, would ensure he would be raring to go by the time the season started. My only concern was that he might look good as new and the coaching staff might overwork him, as opposed to easing him in. That is no longer an issue, the problem now is that Andrei might feel the urge to return before he's 100% ready to go, with his teammates playing without him.

Surprisingly, Josh Gorges has come back feeling as fit and ready as ever, even though his surgical procedure occurred a couple months later than Mr. Markov. Notwithstanding the fact that this is his first reconstruction, as opposed to Mr. Markov's second, I expected him to lag behind because his recovery window was shorter. In any case, I was counting on Andrei to provided limited but valuable minutes early in the season, and to take on more and more minutes as the season progressed.

I was also counting on Yannick Weber to assume the role of a full-time NHL defenceman, after a few seasons of preparation as the #7 or pressbox D-man. I also hoped, and almost expected, that Alexei Yemelin was mature enough and seasoned enough, at 25 and after a few seasons in the KHL, to step right into the rotation and become a workhorse relatively quickly. Unfortunately, Mr. Weber wasn't able to gain the trust of the coaching staff and is now relegated to playing forward on the 4th line, Mr. Yemelin has been slow to adapt, and this forced GM Pierre Gauthier to sign free agent Chris Campoli as an insurance policy. Swiss free-agent signee Raphaël Diaz, who I thought would need some time in the AHL to get his bearings, has snuck in and will be starting for now. Overall, this is a disappointing development.

In goal, Jacques Martin and I shared the same qualms about starting Alex Auld, so we signed Peter Budaj as what was thought to be an upgrade, and a safer opportunity to rest Carey Price more often during the regular season. Mr. Budaj had some relatively poor performances in training camp, to the point where I'm concerned that we may have gone backward in that area. Much was made of his lack of access to a regular goaltending coach while in Colorado, so it is hoped that Canadiens coach Pierre Groulx will be able to work with him and get him to perform at full capacity.

At forward, we have more talent than any time in recent memory. Scott Gomez has made good on his promise to work hard over the summer on his fitness so as to perform better than last season, and had an encouraging camp, showing good chemistry with a seemingly fully healthy Max Pacioretty. Captain Brian Gionta should normally complete that respectable second line. The first line combo of centre Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri seemed destined to be teamed with Erik Cole, but for now their right winger will be the enigmatic Andrei Kostitsyn, on a one-year contract before being eligible for free agency next summer. It can be hoped that this provides him with a source of motivation. The third line will be a mix and match of youngsters Lars Eller, David Desharnais, Mr. Cole or Kostitsyn, and Mathieu Darche. The fourth line should include waiver claim centre Blair Betts with Travis Moen, Ryan White and occasionally Mr. Weber. This should be as strong a fourth line as was iced in recent memory, one that will be able to contribute defensively and provide a physical presence. While the Canadiens will be on the smallish side, the lines should have some balance with a big winger on each three top lines.

The coaching staff is experienced and capable, with Mr. Martin as head coach, his trusty assistant Perry Pearn, the aforementioned Pierre Groulx, and newcomers Randy Cunneyworth and Randy Ladouceur. Mr. Cunneyworth having played and been team captain under Mr. Martin probably will ensure a smooth transition.

Having reviewed these considerations, I have to agree with most experts who expect the Canadiens to battle for a playoff spot and finish eighth. The Canadiens need too many things to go right to finish much higher, and don't have the depth to weather many injuries. While this can be said of many teams, the fact that we are pouncing on players not good enough to be signed by other teams or put on waivers by them is instructive.

Another reason to be realistic is the strength of the other teams the Canadiens have to compete with. For example, the Flyers are deep enough at forward that they waived centre Blair Betts, who was pushed out by free-agent acquisition Maxime Talbot and first-rounder Sylvain Couturier. The Canadiens have no such depth in their roster. Looking at the Eastern Conference, there are many such teams loaded with talent, such as the Penguins, Capitals, and Bruins. I'm not convinced, but all the experts agree that the Sabres are much improved. This would mean that a top 4 finish is unattainable, and puts the Canadiens in a dogfight with Tampa Bay, the Rangers and Carolina for a 5-8 finish. This is discounting any surprise showing from the dregs of the conference such as Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto, and the Devils or Islanders who could be stronger than they appear on paper.

Having said that, I don't think this will deter from a great season. The Canadiens are much improved from five years ago, are slowly building depth in Hamilton (although the cupboard seems bare for reinforcements this season) and have many talented prospects in junior and elsewhere. We should have some exciting games this year, cheering a team that is skilled, fast and plays a fan-friendly skating style, and is filled with character players. My hope is that come trade deadline time, we can trade in bargaining chips like Andrei Kostitsyn, Jaroslav Spacek and Chris Campoli for some draft picks and continue to stock our team for the future.

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