MONTREAL – Year Two of the big makeover is providing proof that management’s decision to change the look and chemistry of the Montreal Canadiens is paying off.
Despite the loss of top-four defencemen Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges for the rest of the season with knee ligament tears, the Canadiens are well ahead of their pace from a year ago, when they needed a late-season push just to snag the eighth and final playoff spot in the NHL Eastern Conference, but then battled all the way to the conference final.
They are still by no means assured of a playoff spot, but heading into the all-star break, the Canadiens are (27-18-5) for 59 points after 50 games, after going 23-24-3 for 49 points in the same number of games last season.
Part of the improvement comes from the large number of new players led by Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek brought in after the 2008-09 season, as well as a new coaching staff led by Jacques Martin, having had a full year to grow together.
But Martin says it is more than that.
”That’s probably a factor, and I think the other factor is we have better depth this year,” the veteran coach said. ”I know last year we had issues at times using a fourth line.
”I didn’t know the players last year because I was new in the organization. There were kids that were moved up the year before that finished the season with the big team and that we kind of penciled in, people like (Gregory) Stewart, (Matt) d’Agostini, (Kyle) Chipchura, and it ended up that our depth, our kids, weren’t as good.
”Probably another factor is we’ve been healthier up front this year.”
Stewart, d’Agostini and Chipchura are long gone from the Canadiens, along with forward Guillaume Latendresse. The tinkering with the roster continued this season when they traded away forward Maxim Lapierre and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne.
What Martin didn’t mention was that the big concern going into the season—whether Carey Price was ready to take charge as the starting goaltender—has so far been answered with a resounding yes.
The 23-year-old’s erratic play cost him the No. 1 job last season and it was Jaroslav Halak who played the saviour through the stretch run and the upset victories over Washington and Pittsburgh in the post-season. Many fans were outraged last summer when general manager Pierre Gauthier traded Halak to St. Louis for forward Lars Eller and made Price the uncontested starter.
Price has been among the league leaders in games started and wins, and has strong numbers in both his goals-against average and save percentage thus far.
Another change was that, after going without a captain last season, the C was given to the veteran Gionta to settle any leadership issues.
But Martin was right about depth.
A key off-season acquisition was veteran Jeff Halpern, who gave them a solid right hand-shooting centre who is strong in the faceoff circle. But while Gauthier said at the time Halpern would relieve Tomas Plekanec’s short-handed duties, the gritty Czech would have none of that and they now have two ace centres for a PK that is among the league’s best.
Eller, playing his first full NHL season, has become a big winger who can play on a checking or a scoring line, although the points have been slow to come.
After they had already lost Markov, Gorges went down in late December and Gauthier pulled off a coup in acquiring veteran defenceman James Wisniewski from the New York Islanders. Wisniewski is not quite their equal on defence, but holds his own at the back and is a strong point man who has kept their power play among the NHL’s top 15.
The defence also added a gem with the promotion of 21-year-old P.K. Subban from AHL Hamilton. The flashy, highly skilled puck-moving defenceman looks like a star in the making and became a instant favourite of the Bell Centre crowd, even if his point play and decision making still need some polish.
Another plus was the resurgence of winger Max Pacioretty, one of the young players sent down last season. He returned from Hamilton in mid-December with new-found desire to produce and his six-foot-two frame has been a bonus on a line with the smaller Gionta and Gomez.
The crafty Plekanec remains everyone’s favourite linemate. With Cammalleri currently out with a shoulder injury, he has lately skated with Eller and the skilled but inconsistent Andrei Kostitsyn.
The solid play of veteran Mathieu Darche, a reclamation project last season, has given them a strong checking winger who can also crowd the front of the net on the power play.
Cammalleri is due to return shortly after the break from a shoulder injury and they hope he can get back to his 30-plus scoring pace of recent seasons after netting only 13 thus far. Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot are others who have the talent to score more.
Despite their power play, the Canadiens are among the league’s lowest-scoring clubs.