Three years into their run as team mates on the Montreal Canadiens, it’s time for the three players who helped redefine this team in the summer of 2009, to pay some serious dividends as a group.
I’m referring to Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri. While at the team’s annual golf tournament today, two of them, in fact, Gomez and Cammalleri, made reference to this being year three; year three of Bob Gainey’s five-year plan. You remember Bob Gainey, don’t you? The then-general manager who literally changed the face of this hockey club in the span of 48 hours by first trading for Gomez, and then signing the likes of Cammalleri and Gionta via the free-agent route.
I will long remember that day: July 1st, 2009. While Gainey worked the phones in his office, reporters were parked in the media room at the team’s practice facility at Brossard waiting for news. And the news came with dizzying speed as we were greeted with press release after press release on a day that was highlighted by the acquisition of Cammalleri and Gionta. Those moves, coupled with the decision by Gainey to set people like Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay adrift, led to what was nothing short of a remarkable off-season transformation.
You literally couldn’t tell the players without a program.
But that was then. This is now. And we know the players, all right.
We know Brian Gionta as the captain of this hockey club; a gritty, determined and productive member of this team who had “Captain” written all over him in his first days at training camp.
We know Michael Cammalleri as an offensively gifted player who looked to be on pace for a 40-goal season in his first year in Montreal, before the injury bug took a bite out of his season; and the following season. We also know him as a player who seemed to “give up” on the play far too often last season, particularly when asked to play on the defensive side of the puck.
And we know Scott Gomez as — well — Scott Gomez and his $7 million yearly contract. We know him as a notoriously slow starter who proved to be one the Habs’ most productive players in the second half of the season, two years ago. Last season his notoriously slow start covered 82 games. For the record, at today’s golf tournament, Gomez said he had turned the corner on his disappointing 2010-11 season, and had worked hard to prepare himself for this season.
Obviously, they’re not alone. We’ll also see if newcomer Erik Cole can live up to his off-season billing as a big body who can put up some numbers. We’ll also see if Tomas Plekanec can shake off a so-so second half season and perform like the player who lit it up in the first half of the campaign. We’ll also see Lars Eller is ready for prime time; if Andrei Kostitsyn can finally deliver a first-line performance on a consistent basis, or if he’s destined to be a third-liner (or worse.)
And on it goes as we assess this team’s chances for the upcoming season. We haven’t even touched the team’s defence or goaltending (a conversation for another day.)
Me? I’m waiting to see what Messrs Gionta, Cammalleri and Gomez, three veteran talents, bring to the rink, game in, and game out. I’m waiting to see if they can finally come together as team mates and take this club by the scruff of its neck, and lead it to the promised (playoff) land.
Three years? It’s time.
On a wind-swept day in the Laurentian mountains, Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey held court just outside the St. Jovite arena while, inside, the Habs were putting the finishing touches on two days’ worth of scrimmages. It was then that the Canadiens’ GM casually disclosed that the team had agreed to a contract extension with head coach Guy Carbonneau.
No news conference. No formal announcement. Which suited the coach just fine.
“I don’t believe having a press conference to announce that the coach has signed a contract,” said Carbonneau after practice. “I’m just happy when Bob approached me this summer that he wanted to get something done before the start of the season.”
Although neither Gainey nor Carbonneau would announce the terms of the deal, the phrase “three-year extension” crept into Carbo’s conversation, if somewhat cryptically, when he talked of what the new deal meant to him.
“The extension isn’t going to change my style…feel maybe a little bit more comfortable, maybe. But I’ve seen about eight coaches last year get fired with contracts in their hands, so, I’m going to keep on working.”
Carbonneau has been working at it behind the bench since May 5, 2006, when he took over as head coach of this club after initially joining the team in January of that year as an associate coach. In two full seasons running the show, Carbonneau’s Canadiens are 89-59-16. This season, after acquiring the likes to Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Georges Laraque, the Canadiens are serious Cup contenders. However, Gainey is hesitant to go down that road in his assessment of this team.
“We all want to win the Stanley Cup,” said Gainey. “But it’s like asking me how I’ll feel at the 26th mile of a marathon. You’ve got to get there. You can’t sprain an ankle. You can’t get dehydrated. You have to get there.”
Before the Canadiens can “get there,” there must first take to the ice for tomorrow night’s final pre-season game at the Bell Centre against the Minnesota Wild. Then, the final cuts must come as the team gets to the 23-man roster limit. With youngsters Max Pachioretty and Yannik Weber still in camp, there is much speculation that one, if not both, might still be with the team by the end of the weekend. Although injuries could come into play, especially with Francis Bouillon expected to miss the first week of regular-season action and Georges Laraque nursing a sore groin that has kept him out of the entire pre-season slate, it would appear that Gainey has made up his mind about the two aforementioned young men.
“Whether it’s Pachioretty or Weber, with those very young players it’s what’s best for their growth, what’s going to make them get to the NHL quickly, but prepared and ready,” explained Gainey. “And it isn’t just getting here quickly that’s the answer.”
Gainey went on to use the example of Sergei Kostitsyn of one year ago.
“When he got here (from Hamilton), he was a producer. He added to our team.”
The GM says there is a lot to learn in the minors. “It’s a learning experience that not everybody needs, but I don’t really see how it can be negative for anybody.”
If you read between the lines, as of this moment, Pachioretty and Weber are ticketed to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League.
And speaking of lines, there they were at the St. Jovite arena for today’s session:
Laraque? There will be a spot for him when the puck drops on the regular season. Pachioretty and Weber? They were on the ice today, but, barring injuries, don’t look for them to be on the ice when the Canadiens do it for real Friday night in Buffalo, against the Sabres.
Defenceman Yannick Weber and forwards Max Pacioretty and Ben Maxwell were among the players to survive the first-round of cuts as the Montreal Canadiens sent a total of 18 players packing this morning.
PK Subban and Olivier Fortier were sent to their respective junior teams, while the following players have been ticketed to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League:
Goalies Cedrick Desjardins and Loic Lacasse, defencemen Paval Valentenko, Shawn Belle, and Chad Anderson, as well as forwards Brock Trotter, Ryan White, James Wyman, Mike Glumac, Olivier Latendresse, Yanick Lehoux, Ryan Flinn, Mathieu Aubin, Ryan Russell, David Desharnais and Thomas Beauregard.
The chances of Weber, Pacioretty or Maxwell sticking the big team once the Canadiens close out pre-season play Saturday when the Minnesota Wild come to town are slim. The chances that perhaps all three might be invited to join the Big Club for the two-day bonding session at Mont Tremblant this Thursday and Friday are somewhat better. Management could make the decision to reward the three for their solid play (so far) by extending an invitation.
It would be well deserved.
Although Pacioretty looked tired in Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Ottawa (he didn’t play in last night’s 3-2 shootout win over the Panthers at the Bell Centre), the young man has had himself a very solid training camp and pre-season. Although only 19, that 6-2, 200-pound frame of his fills out his jersey number 67 nicely. He has a very solid presence on the ice, and is clearly beginning to live up to his billing as a power forward.
The slick Maxwell has battled injury problems in recent seasons, but the 2006 draft pick, who was impressive at training camp last year, has been even more impressive this time around.
But it’s young Yannick Weber who is really giving Canadiens‘ management something to chew on, with three pre-season games remaining. Weber, a gifted offensive defenceman who lit it up with Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League last season (20 goals, 35 assists in 57 games), notched his second goal of the pre-season last night: a terrific shot from the faceoff circle to beat Tomas Vokoun on the power play. A stocky 5-10, 194 pounds, nobody is going to confuse Weber with, say, Mike Komisarek. But the native of Switzerland is a smooth skater, crisp passer, and the owner of a deadly shot from the point: like fellow Swiss star Mark Streit, who left the Canadiens at the end of last season for the greener pastures of unrestricted free agency.
Yannick Weber is an upgrade over Mark Streit, certainly in terms of defensive talent. However, whether or not he’s enough of an upgrade to steal a spot along the Canadiens blueline, is doubtful. One thing that Streit had going for him in Montreal was his versatility which saw head coach Guy Carbonneau use him up front, more often than not.
We’ve seen what Weber is capable of along the blueline. Apparently he has some pretty good moves in the kitchen, as well. Claims he’s a pretty good cook. And he’s certainly added something to the Canadiens‘ training-camp menu.
Alex Kovalev is ready to make his pre-season debut for the Canadiens. But it won’t be on a line with Robert Lang.
Kovalev was on the ice at practice this morning as the Habs prepare to open the home portion of their pre-season schedule tomorrow night when the Ottawa Senators come to town. Although oficially listed as a groin injury, Kovalev says it’s more of a tightness in the general area that kept him back at home as “Team B” travelled to Detroit for last night’s contest, which the Canadiens won 3-2 in a shootout.
Head coach Guy Carbonneau will blend his lineup for tomorrow night against the Senators, and that will include Kovalev on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, who teamed up to form the club’s most effective forward unit last season. Which means Carbonneau has tempered his initial enthusiam to see Kovalev and Lang play together — the two were linemates in Pittsburgh as members of the Penguins. Lang will be among the healthy scratches tomorrow night.
For the opening three pre-season games, the coach has gone with a “Team A” and “Team B” concept. It’s Carbonneau’s plan trim down to his season-opening roster in time for the final handful of pre-season games, which means it’s just a matter of time before The Coach starts making some significant cuts to the 52-man training-camp contingent.
Kovalev was among a number of Canadiens on hand for yesterday’s announcement regarding the activities the club has planned leading up to the team’s Centennial Celebration, which will be held Dec. 4, 2009. Kovalev was modelling one of the six vintage jerseys the Canadiens will roll out for an assortment of games over the next 15 months.
Yesterday, the Habs unveiled a dazzling array of initiatives that have been planned to honor the team’s 100 years of hockey, including an initiative by the Royal Canadian Mint to strike a “Habs Loonie.” Canada Post will be issuing a Canadiens stamp, while the Upper Deck trading card company will release a set of 200 trading cards honoring the legends who have worn the CH over the last 100 years.
The possibilty of holding a game at the Olympic Stadium next season is still just that: a possibility. The team is currently in conversation with the NHL and Big O officials to hold a game at the Olympic stadium in the week leading up to the Dec. 4 celebrations.
Alex Kovalev and Robert Lang, linemates in Pittsburgh, will have to wait another day before they can skate together in a game as members of the Montreal Canadiens.
Kovalev did not take part in a morning skate at Verdun prior to the team’s departure to Detroit and tonight’s preseason game against the Red Wings, because of a groin injury. The two have been skating on a line with Guillaume Latendresse during training camp, but with the injury to Kovalev, youngster Thomas Beauregard will move into number 27′s spot.
“Another groin,” said a frustrated head coach Guy Carbonneau following the morning skate. “It’s kind of frustrating for a coach because we had a plan for preseason games and now with all those injuries we’ll have to change up a little bit.”
Kovalev is one of a number of Habs going through “groin pains.” Newcomer Georges Laraque is another. He was hurt during the opening weekend of training camp. Veteran defenceman Roman Hamrlik went down with a groin injury in the team’s opening-game 8-3 loss to Boston Monday night. Then there’s Team Captain Saku Koivu, who is still nursing a sore foot after suffering an injury while training in Finland about three weeks ago. Koivu is on skates, but has yet to see game action.
As frustrating as the injury situation is for Carbonneau as he looks to formulate his roster during the preseason, the important date that he has circled on his calendar is October 10th, when the Habs open the regular season in Buffalo against the Sabres.
“That’s what I’m gearing for. Injuries disrupt your plan that you had for training camp, but I know there is a lot of time left, including three games next week. It’s during the last two preseason games that I would like to have a full lineup that will start the season.”
After their 8-3 opening-game loss to Boston, the Canadiens beat the Sabres 3-2 last night in Roberval, a performance that pleased The Coach.
“I think the first game we were off a little bit. Yesterday was a lot better.”
The Canadiens will return home following tonight’s game in Detroit and prepare for their pre-season opener at the Bell Centre Friday, when the Ottawa Senators are in town.
Georges Laraque will have to wait for another day to make his debut with the Montreal Canadiens.
Both Laraque and Team Captain Saku Koivu were kept off skates today as the Canadiens wrapped up two days of workouts in Pierrefonds with a practice session and a full scrimmage. Neither will make the trip to Halifax for tomorrow’s pre-season opener against the Bruins; the jaunt to Roberval for Tuesday’s game against the Sabres; nor the flight to Detroit for Wednesday’s contest against the Red Wings.
Which leaves Friday’s exhibition game against Ottawa at the Bell Centre as a likely start date for both — provided they are ready to go at that time.
Laraque is nursing a sore groin, while Koivu is being kept off skates as a precautionary measure. The Captain did put in a full day at the office yesterday in Pierrefonds, but the coaching staff isn’t taking any chances with Koivu‘s tender right foot, which he hurt a couple of weeks ago while working out in Finland.
As a result, head coach Guy Carbonneau is going to tweak his lineup for tomorrow night and replace Laraque with Mathieu Dandenault on a line with Maxim Lapierre and Steve Begin. Look for both Dandenault and Begin to be pushed hard for ice time as fourth-liners by some of the rookies who are looking to make a mark with this club during the pre-season. Among them: Max Paccioretty, Ben Maxwell and Brock Trotter. All three were impressive in today’s scrimmage. So were youngsters Yannick Weber and PK Subban along the blueline.
The same can’t be said of Kyle Chipchura, who looked lost out there, and was on the receiving end of a big hit thrown by Begin.
The rest of the key forward lines that we will likely see tomorrow night (and likely against the Sabres the following night) were the lines we saw in today’s scrimmage: the Kostitsyn brothers will Tomas Plekanec; and Alex Tanguay with Maxwell and Pacioretty. The following will see action on the blueline: Hamlik, O’Byrne, Gorges, Valentenko, Weber, Anderson and Henry. Jaroslav Halak and Marc Denis will share the goaltending duties, with Halak to start against the Bruins.
A number of players look to be in mid-season form, including Christopher Higgins, Alex Kovalev (who dazzled the crowd with a number of his patented moves), Mike Komisarek and Andrei Markov. There was some, not a lot, of magic between linemates Kovalev and Robert Lang. Guillaume Latendresse did not look out of place as the third on that forward line.
After a grand total of one scrimmage, this bold prediction as to what the Coach’s starting lines will look like heading into the regular season:
A. Kostitsyn-S. Kostitsyn-Plekanec
Dark horses to make this team: Max Pacioretty and Yannick Webber.
The air went out of the building for a split second as Team Captain Saku Koivu revealed to reporters yesterday at the Bell Centre following team training-camp physicals, that he suffered a foot injury a couple of weeks ago while skating and training at home in Finland.
“I was skating in Finland, during the practice, a defenceman took a shot and a guy who was in front of me just tipped it and it hit the side of my foot. It was just a simple foot injury, nothing more than that.”
Koivu said the injury kept him off skates for two weeks, but he’s been back on the ice for the last three or four days and feels fine.
Koivu and the rest of his teammates, 52-men strong for the start of training camp, take to the ice this morning in Pierrefonds. They’re back on the ice again tomorrow before they make their way to Boston for their first pre-season game, against the Bruins.
Koivu is going into his 13th season with the Canadiens. The Captain has seen some good times and some lean times.
“I’ve seen some ups in the mid-90s when we had a good team, and then the late 90s, when it wasn’t alot of fun,” admitted the Captain. “The reason why I stayed (in Montreal) was because I saw the potential and the fun that is possible here. And I want to be here if this team wins the Stanley Cup in the next couple of years. I’m excited because of where we are.”
Although Koivu stands to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, he doesn’t even want to think about a contract now.
“Hopefully we can have the focus on hockey. When there is the time for negotiations during the year it’s up to the team, and then after that, it’s obviously up to two sides to negotiate. “
Koivu is coming off a campaign which saw him score 16 goals and add 40 assists for 56 points: a significant drop in production from the previous season, when he piled up a career-high 75 points. It has been too easy for some in this city to dump on number 11 for the team’s failure to make a significant impact in the playoffs, during his reign as Team Captain. But no one on this club has had the ability to pick this bunch up by the scruff of its neck and carry it, forward, like The Captain. No one plays with more grit and determination than The Captain. No one works harder, game in and game out, than The Captain.
So goes Koivu, so go the Canadiens. You need look no further than last season, when Koivu suffered a broken bone in his left foot at the tail end of the regular season, and was unable to answer the bell for the start of the playoffs. The Canadiens were not the same team without him. It was only upon Koivu’s return late in the Boston series that some of the sceptics began to fully appreciate his importance to this team.
The knock against Koivu continued when The Captain failed to show up in Montreal for the team’s annual golf tournament earlier this month.
“I spoke to Bob Gainey before about it. It was just about the timing. Back in Finland I had my team I was able to skate with every day. We felt the best thing for me, and most of the Europeans, was stay there and keep up the routine.”
Koivu believes this team looks better than it did at this time, last year. And he’s right. With Robert Lang, Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque significant off-season acquisitions, there is a quality to the depth on this team that the Canadiens haven’t enjoyed in years.
One of the most talked about prospect in the Canadiens’ organization isn’t at this week’s rookie camp at the Bell Centre. However, Trevor Timmins, director of player development, is keeping his fingers crossed that defenceman Alexei Yemelin will be on hand for the 2009-2010 edition of rookie camp.
Yemelin, selected by Montreal in the third round, number 84 overall, in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, opted to stay in his homeland and play in the Russian League, initially with Tolyatti Lada. He is now into the second year of a two-year deal to play with AK Bars Kazan, and once the 22-year old completes his obligations in Russia, Timmins fully expects the 6-0, 187-pound blueliner join the Canadiens’ organization.
“He’s expressed interest and he wants to come here and he’s ready to make the step to North America,” said Timmins at the Bell Centre while this year’s rookie crop went through the paces on day three of camp. ”We just have to hope he doesn’t sign any more deals in Russia,” Timmins added with a whistful look.
“He needs to get over here so that he can play his style of game. He’s a hard-nosed defenceman who likes to play physical. Any time he tries to do that — a little bit over the edge — he’s in the penalty box in Russia.”
Timmins saw Yemelin play in April at the under 18 championships in Russia and sat down with the young man and reiterated that “now is the time.”
“He has to come over as soon as he can. He informed us that he’s ready. He’s got one year left on his contract and he’ll play it out. He’ll come over here if we can work something out with him, contractually.”
In the meantime, another young Russian blueliner is quietly going about his business during this rookie camp — having taken a very different career route.
Pavel Valentenko, who turns 21 on October 20, was selected in round 5, 139th overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. After two years of Russian League play, the 6-2, 214-pound native of Moscow played with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL last season, scoring one goal and adding 15 assists in 57 games for the Canadiens’ farm team. Timmins likes what he sees of this young man.
“Pavel, he’s a good old country boy,” Timmins says with a laugh. ”He’s big and strong and he has a passion for the game and he wants to play here. I think last year was a big learning step for him. It takes time to develop your game here, to change your game…a higher-paced game.”
Timmins said Valentenko is the type of player who could perhaps find himself in a Canadiens’ uniform at some point in the upcoming season, if the Habs find themselves in need of a player “like that” to come up.
“He’s close to being NHL ready.”
Valentenko seems to agree with that assesment by Timmins and admitted that he has visions of playing with the Canadiens at some point this season.
“I’m working hard for that. I hope so. I’m closer now than last year. I changed my game. I’m a little bit faster.”
A self-described “stay-at-home” defenceman, Valentenko said he is pleased with his showing after three days of rookie camp, but admitted that he has to work on his shot, and his physical play. The most important thing he’ll take away from this camp? The lessons he’s learning from the coaching staff.
“They teach us how to play, how to play the system. I’m learning a little bit more every day.”
Valentenko is part of the organizations’ next wave of blueliners. Several years ago, after identifying defence as a weakness in the Canadiens’ depth, Timmins and the rest of the scouting staff went out and did something about it.
“We’ve tried to improve on that and I think we’ve done a good job of providing an array of different types of defencemen, ” said Timmins. Now we just have to have patience and continue to help these players develop and to move forward. Some started last year, like Valentenko and (Mathieu) Carle. (Yannick) Weber will start this year. Next year we have a big flock of young defenceman possibly coming into our system.”