It’s been one whole year since our now-familiar Habs took to the ice for the first time in a regular season that resembled a roller coaster more than anything.
One year in which we’ve been elated, stressed, overjoyed, horrified, relieved, frustrated – sometimes all on the same day.
With an entirely new roster, new coach, new owner, new system, the excuses, and the jokes wrote themselves. Whether it was a lack of chemistry, the wrong system, the wrong personnel, injuries woes, meddling by a confounding coach, mid-season GM changes, birthday celebrations, incompetent officiating, overbearing media, and some even suggesting an anti-Habs conspiracy, Canadiens fans had no shortage of excuses to resort to as to why the they were as inconsistent a team as you could find during the 09-10 campaign. Some of the excuses had some validity: injuries and poor strategy. Others are folly: officiating, media, conspiracy, and chemistry (for about 20 games, chemistry was an issue).
One of the things I’m looking forward to is a 2010-2011 season without those excuses, or, at least most of them. Officials will always get some blame, but as CBC’s Elliotte Friedman so perfectly put it last year – blaming the officials is a loser’s lament. That may be the best line I heard last all of last season simply because Canadiens fans made it such a habit to blame the zebras for any troubles.
If the Canadiens are forced to play the same passive, defense-first system this season, Jacques Martin will be roasted some more, and justifiably so. However, as it always has been, it comes down to the guys in the room. They know what to expect and they are the guys who are paid as much as the league allows – to win games.
The reality is that there are no more excuses for this Canadiens group, and I’m sure to a man they would concur. From the owner right through to the healthy scratches, the expectations are benchmarked and the culture is engrained.
The Canadiens pride themselves on how tight-knit this is.
Management is familiar with the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
The refs will often suck. For both teams.
Injuries will happen.
The media will be ever-present, and ever-voracious. We react to them more than the players do.
The coach, for better or worse, is a known quantity. Just hearing two of his press conferences will have you wondering if you’re having a deja-vu. Everyone knows what to expect.
The general manager has put a partial stamp on the team by keeping Price and remodeling the bottom-six forwards with youth, grit and hustle. He’s got very few places to hide if this season goes up in smoke.
Collectively, the players are now set with their locker room leaders. Gionta, Gill and Markov will bear the letters on their jersey, but for each one of them, there’s at least one more without a letter that is just as worthy as them to sport one. A rudderless room was no issue last season (unless you put a ton of stock in the Price – Markov rift). That excuse – if it ever was an issue – is dead and buried.
As for the players individually, Tomas Plekanec is embarking on a six-year odyssey that will pay him 30-million dollars to be the Canadiens best overall forward. After a career season last year, he’ll have to prove that he isn’t one of those guys who will take the money and run.
For Benoit Pouliot, he’ll have to prove that he cares about a career past the age of 25. He somehow managed to squeeze a raise out of GM Gauthier, and for that, he’s under the gun. A soft training camp hasn’t inspired confidence, but I know 1.35 million reasons why he should find some confidence – lickety-split!
For Andrei Kostitsyn, consistency and results are required if he wants to see another contract like the nearly 10 million dollar deal he signed just a few seasons ago. It took him 20 games last year to realize the season had started, but by the time he did, he was dominant. Then he got hurt and was not the same again. Barring injuries, he’s needed right off the bat. Bring the lunch pail, the wand and the sledgehammer, Andrei. No matter what line or role Jacques Martin puts him with, nothing can, or should stop AK46 from bulldozing opponents with his strength. His lil’ bro is gone, too, which removes that excuse from the minds of fans who thought Sergei was a rotten influence.
For Andrei Markov, a strong showing will be given. This we know. What remains to be seen is whether or not he’s the same guy who, when healthy and on his game, is a threat to contend for the Norris. His contract is expiring this season, and everyone – fans, teammates and management desperately want him to prove that he’s worth another long term deal to serve as the Habs anchor on the blue line.
For Carey Price, the spectre of Halak is gone, replaced by lingering voices of thousands of fans ready to pounce. As stupid and senseless as booing Price is, the job was given to him, and accepted by him to be the top dog in goal. It’s now his ball to run with. He’ll need to win games on his own, and he’ll need to not be the reason why the Canadiens lose games, something certain segments are all too quick to pin on him. Don’t worry, I’ll call it down the middle.
For Lars Eller, he’ll need to prove he was worth the tears and heartache. He may never make some people happy no matter what he does, but he can’t leave anyone with the impression that he won’t be a factor in the future. We don’t need 30 goals, but a dimension of physicality is. Bring it.
For Maxim Lapierre, coming off a majorly disappointing season, it will be vital for him to prove that it was his injured foot’s fault. If preseason prep is any indication, he’s raring to go and will be the guy who was on the verge of being a key component of this team. Oh, and apparently the fists are in the tool box now, too.
For Ryan White, should he make the team, he’ll need to continue playing like his hair is on fire. He’s shown aggressiveness and tenacity that we don’t normally see in the bleu-blanc-rouge. He badly wants to be on the team, and based on preseason play should be. But can he go full-bore for 82 games? Isn’t it false advertising if he doesn’t?
For Jaroslav Spacek, he’s got to put it all together. Last year he was defensively sound, but couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with his shot. This preseason, he’s been accurate with his shot, but ghastly defensively. Get it together, Jaro.
For PK Subban, push away from the kool-aid. He’s good, and will continue to get better. But he’s not Larry Robinson. Reign in the expectations, and whoa horsey!!
For Roman Hamrlik, if missing the preseason was a Favre-esque ploy, in order to save all energy for the season, then so be it. He’s seen enough preseason to last a lifetime. With one season to go on his deal, he’ll want to give all he’s got to prove he’s not finished. One way or another, he’s going to get a massive paycut next year, but he can mitigate that by mentoring and helping Subban adjust to a full season in the NHL, just as he helped Dion Phaneuf in his rookie year.
For Ryan O’Byrne, just keep it simple. Grind people to dust with the size. Be alert, be responsible. That’s it. Simple.
For the others that I haven’t mentioned, they also have something to prove, but we know what to expect from guys like Gomez, Gorges, Gionta, Gill, and Darche. They’ll bring everything they have to rink, and then some.
Finally, for the fans, it’s time to give our heads a collective shake. The year of excuses is over. Finished. The Habs are in a position to succeed individually, and as a group. If they fail, it’s on them individually, and as a group. If I hear or read one fan mention how if the Canadiens opening night loss to the Leafs (if that happens) is because Cammalleri was unjustifiably suspended, I’m giving up.
The ingredients to success – and failure are located within the confines of the Canadiens dressing room, and nowhere else. There will be hurdles, there will be highs and lows. Can we fans as a group, ride them out and keep the focus where it belongs – on the group that has accepted the task of raising the bar for hockey in Montreal?