With no less than 17 forwards on the ice at practice today (18, if you count Mathieu Dandenault), it’s clear that decision-making time is looming for both head coach Guy Carbonneau and General Manager Bob Gainey, on a number of levels.

The numbers swelled today at the team’s facility in Brossard as a result of the return of Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins to full practice mode.  Koivu, who is coming off an ankle injury, had been practicing with the team for some time.  However, he was off skates recently after suffering a setback.  Today The Captain was back in fine form and could be less than 24 hours away from a return to action.

Unlikely, but still, a possibility.

It’s a similar story for Higgins, who has missed six weeks with a shoulder injury.  But, unlike Koivu, Higgins had been limited to a few turns on the ice on his own, for the last week or so.  Today was his first full workout with his team mates since going down with his injury Dec. 9 vs. Calgary.  (Koivu was hurt just two days later against Tampa.)

Higgins says, any time you practice with your team mates, you feel like you’re ready to play.  But the reality is, he’s far from being a sure bet to return to action either tomorrow in Atlanta or Wed. in New Jersey.  A more likely scenario would see Higgins, and perhaps Koivu, returning to the lineup, post all-star break.

Crunch time for Guy Carbonneau.  And Bob Gainey.

Although Georges Laraque skated on his own today, and Dandenault took to the ice very briefly with his team mates before calling it a day, it’s Koivu and Higgins that Carbonneau will have to make room for, in the short term.  And that means players who have helped contribute to this incredible injury-riddled run of 11-2-1 over the last month will soon be making their way back to the AHL, and the Hamilton Bulldogs.

As much as Habs’ fans have become smitten with the exploits of Matt D’Agostini, Max Pacioretty, and, to a lesser extent, Kyle Chipchura and Gregory Stewart, when Koivu, Higgins and, down the road, Alex Tanguay are ready to return to action, they will indeed return to action.

Then, once players like Laraque and Dandenault are healthy enough to play, Carbonneau will again feel the pinch as he tries to squeeze 14 players into 12 starting forward positions, although you’d have to think Dandenault will again return to the blue line, when his time comes.

Unless, say, Bob Gainey makes a trade or two in the coming weeks, leading up to the Mar. 4 trade deadline.

Like I said, crunch time.

If nothing else, the injuries to a growing number of the team’s veterans, have given both Carbonneau and Gainey an opportunity to see what some of the organization’s most promising prospects can do at the NHL level.  Clearly they must be pleased with what they see.  Perhaps to the point that the coach and GM feel that one or more of these youngsters might be ready to step into a full-time role with the big team.  Which could make one or more veterans available as trade bait should, let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, a Vincent Lecavalier, or a Jay Bouwmeester, becomes available.

Hypothecially speaking, of course.

This situation is also playing into Gainey’s longer-term plans as the GM looks to decide which of his 11 potential unrestricted free agents he’s going to make pitches to, and which of his 11 potential UFA’s he’s going to say “goodbye” to.

Are any of the above-mentioned prospects ready to step in and fill the void that would be created with the departure of any number of the team’s potential UFA’s? Gainey and Carbonneau are certainly closer to knowing the answer to that question now, than they were a few short weeks ago.

Lots to to chew on, with the NHL trading deadline just 44 days away.

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