On June 30th of 2009 I was instantly horrified as I checked TSN.ca for my regular hockey fix during the lead up to the free agency period. Bob Gainey had just solidified the rumours that Saku Koivu's time in Montreal had come to an end as he made a trade for Scott Gomez from the New York Rangers. Not only was Gomez overpaid for about the same size and point totals as Koivu, but we gave up a solid player in Chris Higgins, and a blue chip prospect in Ryan McDonagh. Within 36 more hours the team was completely remade both on forward and on defense.
While I was extremely angry about the Gomez trade, as I really believed Higgins would be a perfect fit with Jacques Martin, and I loved the potential of McDonagh, I could not argue the effect Gomez had in bringing in at least one top flight player (Cammalleri), and another great complimentary forward (Gionta) to play with. On the day it happened several people panned the signing of Mike Cammalleri as far too expensive. How ridiculous! This guy had more goals than any other free agent on the market this year, more than the highly coveted Marion Hossa. As for Gionta, yes he's overpaid, but worth the risk if he can regain his magic chemistry with Gomez.
On defense Matheiu Schneider was replaced by the younger, and much more effective all around player Jaroslav Spacek. Hal Gill and Paul Mara were brought in to replace the outgoing Mike Komisarek, Francois Bouillon, Matheiu Dandenault and Patrice Brisebois. Clearly the loss of Komisarek, despite his poor play last season is a big blow defensively, however if Ryan O'Byrne can take a step forward in his development, I believe we've become much better defensively overall, especially with the increased size.
In just a couple short days many fans no longer recognized the team they cheered for, but is this really bad news? Of those that have left there are several I'll truly miss; Koivu can never be replaced as a tenacious leader and inspiring public figure. Tanguay was supposed to be the long awaited French Canadian first line player, and he was let go. Dandenault was mistreated but always played admirably when called upon, and I'll miss his speed beating icings several times a game. Chris Higgins seemed to finally be finding his game as a checking forward who could score in the clutch. Robert Lang was a breath of fresh air in the dressing room, and had a smile that could cheer up anyone, not to mention his clutch scoring and chemistry with the Kostitsyns. But in every one that's left, there's hope anew that this team can pick itself up, skate an a fresh sheet of ice and be successful.
THE OFFENSIVE LINES
The line combination possibilities is one of the main reasons I've gone from hopeless to excited about this upcoming season. Although a lot of people believe we're going to have a 'free agent first line with an average height of 5'9"', I don't think Jacques Martin would be so foolish to put all his new eggs in one basket and create a line that would be very vulnerable to big checking lines at even strength. On the powerplay that line will definitely see time together, but here's how I see the lines shaking out this season, with an explanation of why I think it'll work.
Line 1: Andrei Kostitsyn - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta
Andrei lends size to this line that Cammalleri can't. Over the last two seasons we've seen flashes of brilliance from him in both offensive acumen and physical prowess. Putting him on this line forces him to be the big man on the ice and play physical. Gomez and Gionta don't shy away from the physical side of the game at all in their own right, and their grittiness will rub off on Andrei. Without Kovalev hogging the puck the entire time Andrei is on the ice, look for him to shoot much more, and convert on some slick passes from Gionta and Gomez.
Line 2: Mike Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Sergei Kostitsyn/Matt D'agostini
This line gets a bit more complicated as I don't think Sergei or D'ags will be able to stay on this line all year. This isn't necessarily knocking either one, I just think that they both bring different things to the table. Sergei will most likely start the year on this line as the main playmaker for Mike and Tomas. This line will not only have some offensive punch with Cammalleri (probably our best forward now), the sure 20+ goals from Plekanec and the great passes from Sergei, it also has a solid defensive presence with Plekanec and Sergei both able to kill penalties. This is going to allow Cammalleri to take more risks offensively, and it'll pay dividends for the team as a whole. In games where we need to score more effectively however, I believe Martin will shift the playmaking responsibility to Plekanec and put D'agostini on the line with his quick wrist shot and slightly superior foot speed.
Line 3: Guillaume Latendresse - Maxim Lapierre - Matt D'agostini/Sergei Kostitsyn
I think it would be obvious to most people by now that Lapierre brings out the best in Latendresse, and I would count Jacques Martin in this group. Many people are disappointed in the development or lack thereof in Latendresse, and sad to see him languishing on the 3rd line. I like to think of it differently however. On most teams in the NHL the 3rd line is usually the checking line, counted on for defence and grit, and maybe to pot a few goals now and then, while the 4th line is basically pluggers to bang and crash and create energy. Here in Montreal we have the good fortune to have a 3rd line that can not only be defensively responsibly, but be more of a 2a line than a 3rd line. Lapierre has playmaking ability and skill to a much higher degree than most 3rd line centers, while Latendresse and D'agostini are much better scorers than most 3rd line players. Playing on this line will help D'ags develop his defensive play (and maybe learn French!) while accenting the offensive side of this line. Another positive of this set up is that with D'ags as the sniper on the line, Latendresse will be forced to play the way he should play, tough and big in front of the net. Expect some garbage goals from those soft hands Guillaume has. When D'ags is pushed up to the 2nd line, Sergei's playmaking ability will no doubt improve the goalscoring of Latendresse substantially, while creating a better defensive unit. Both variations have upsides that Martin will love to play with.
Line 4: Travis Moen - Kyle Chipchura - Glen Metropolit
Here's where I think some people will be surprised, because I think it's about time Kyle Chipchura made this roster. His size makes him a far better option at center than Metropolit, and he's ready for this move. Metropolit has played some wing during his life, and although it's not his natural position I'll assume that he and Kyle will switch back and forth during the season until Chipchura improves his face-off percentage. All three players are penalty killers and solid defensive players. Moen and Chipchura will crash and bang and create space for the smaller and slightly more skilled Metropolit. This line is no offensive juggernaut, however it is more solid than many other NHL teams can muster. This will be a line of clutch goals, toughness and great defensive plays.
Georges Laraque - will be sitting on the sidelines for most of this season if he isn't bought out. He'll replace Metropolit or Chipchura in the lineup for games against rougher teams like Philadelphia or Boston most likely, but with Moen now a Canadien his usefulness is questionable. Moen can do most things Laraque can do, only he can skate and make plays much better.
Max Pacioretty - will be in Hamilton for as much time as possible barring injuries. With Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn at left wing there's no room for him on the top two lines, which is where he would have to play to develop the skills Montreal wants him to develop. In Hamilton he'll be the top offensive guy on the team on Ben Maxwell's wing, where he will hopefully dominate and gain the scoring touch many hockey pundits expect.
Greg Stewart - will most likely stay in Hamilton most of the year, with the possibility of a short term call up due to roster injuries early in the year, or a permanent call up half way through as his waiver eligibility runs out. Stewart is tough as nails and willing to stick up for his teammates, but his services won't be needed in the bigs unless Travis Moen gets injured at left wing.
THE DEFENSIVE LINES
1st Pairing: Andrei Markov - Paul Mara
A lot of people I've talked to have Jaroslav Spacek on the top pairing with Markov, but if I'm Martin I don't want my two best puck movers on the top pairing to leave my 2nd scoring line with less ability to move the puck up ice. Paul Mara provides some grit in the defensive zone that Markov is used to from playing with Komisarek so long, but he provides a much improved level of offensive awareness, an ability to move the puck up ice to give Markov a break once in awhile, and a fairly decent shot when in the offensive zone for Markov to set up. I wouldn't expect more than 8 goals from Mara this year, but that's still a vast upgrade offensively on Komisarek's typical shot from the point that gets blocked and bounces behind him creating a breakaway for the other team.
2nd Pairing: Roman Hamrlik - Jaroslav Spacek
I have two reasons for having these two together. The first being they are Montreal's 2nd and 3rd best puck moving defensemen respectively, but more importantly they are familiar, and have played dominantly with each other on the Czech Republic's national team. Spacek's consistency and on ice vision will provide Hamrlik with a more experienced partner than he's had since he came to Montreal, and hopefully this will allow Hamrlik to play in a similar manner as he did in 07-08 when he was a hitting and shot blocking machine. The offensive responsibility will largely be taken off his shoulders and his minutes can probably drop a little as well. If these two recapture their former chemistry, expect some excellent break outs by the second line, and solid defensive play from both players.
3rd Pairing: Josh Gorges - Hal Gill
Hal Gill may not be the best skater in the world, but he has the wing span of a spruce goose, and a pretty good stick to go with it. When he's on his game he can check ferociously and his size rivals Zdeno Chara. The added depth on the top two pairings allows Josh Gorges to take a slightly smaller role to which he's more suited. Instead of 20-22 minutes a game he'll be playing 15-18, which will allow him to be more focused and connect outlet passes far more frequently, and join more rushes. Expect a marked increase in point production again this year from Josh. As for chemistry with Gill, I think that remains to be seen. While Gill is a very strong giant Pylon, Gorges is a tough for his size and speedy player. It sounds good on paper, but this is the pairing I'm most unsure of.
Ryan O'Byrne - will spend all year with Montreal. I expect him to make a big leap this year with the guidance of Jacques Martin. He'll be a healthy scratch for many games, but he'll draw in his fair share with customary injuries and slumps. Martin happens to have a great track record in developing oversized defensemen, ever heard of Zdeno Chara?
Yannick Weber - will start the year in Hamilton I'm guessing. He'll be the priority call up if any injuries occur, especially to offensive minded defensemen. His experience in last years playoffs suggest he already has the skill to break into the NHL, but the spots are filled for now. He'll dominate again at the AHL level as a sophomore and make the most of his chances when in the NHL.
P.K. Subban - will most likely spend the whole year in Hamilton. Weber has the priority call up because of experience as a pro, so it would have to be a decimated defensive corps before he gets called up I expect. He'll make a big impact in Hamilton, playing with Weber on the powerplay will be a force to be reckoned with.
Carey Price - mark my words will play better than ever this season. With a much improved defensive corps in front of him, a better system coach behind him, and a much needed change in goaltending coach, Carey will be a man on a mission and ready for anything. Look for him to be better conditioned this season and in all likelihood not miss near as much time with injury.
Jaroslav Halak - Jaro will continue to be himself, making steady improvement in his play while quietly challenging and pushing Price to be better. There's no reason to think these two won't get the job done in a big way this year.