The Montreal Canadiens got off to a lousy start this season, winning only one of their first eight games and dropping to dead last in the Eastern Conference.
Injuries struck early and robbed the team of top defenseman Andrei Markov. Speculation suggested head coach Jacques Martin would be replaced, or a key player or two would be dealt.
Montreal fans and pundits grew concerned the team would dig itself into a hole too deep to climb out of if it didn’t turn things around soon.
Three months later, the Canadiens are 12th in the conference, but that’s due more to the fact the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes have been miserable than any significant improvement in performance by the Habs.
Martin eventually lost his job, but not before suffering the indignity of watching assistant coach Perry Pearn get fired Oct. 26 as a “warning shot” to improve the club’s performance.
Assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth replaced Martin as interim coach, but the media and a segment of Francophone fans were more concerned over his linguistic capabilities than his coaching.
As it turns out, there’s been little Cunneyworth has been able to do to turn around an injury-wracked lineup that, when healthy, was a marginal playoff team to begin with.
Markov remains sidelined and probably won’t return this season. Joining him was right winger and team captain Brian Gionta, who recently suffered a season-ending biceps tear.
High-priced, under-performing center Scott Gomez returned after being sidelined for weeks with a nagging groin injury, but considering his poor play, he isn’t expected to make a significant improvement to the Canadiens’ anaemic offense.
To add a touch of weirdness to this season, low-scoring, high-priced left winger Mike Cammalleri got pulled in the middle of a close game against the Boston Bruins last Thursday, then informed he’d been dealt to the Calgary Flames.
GM Pierre Gauthier claimed he’d been working on shipping Cammalleri to Calgary for weeks, but most observers believe this deal went down because, less than 24 hours prior, Cammalleri publicly called out his teammates, claiming they lacked a winning mentality.
Throughout this ongoing soap opera, the Canadiens lurched along to a 17-21-8 record, putting them 10 points out of a playoff spot following Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to the Washington Capitals.
Their lack of size and scoring skills remain a significant weakness, as the Canadiens’ 116 goals this season are tied with Winnipeg for the fourth-fewest of all Eastern Conference teams, and tied with Winnipeg, St. Louis and Edmonton for eighth-fewest overall.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates Montreal’s lack of offensive punch than its once-vaunted power play, which was seventh-best overall last season, but is now the worst in the league.
A significant reason for the decline in power play production is the lack of firepower from the blueline.
With Markov on the shelf and defensemen James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik allowed to walk via free agency last summer, the Canadiens lack depth in hard-shooting, puck-moving defensemen.
Promising youngster P.K. Subban has tried his best to step up, but has yet to reach the stage in his NHL career where he can comfortably fill that role. Tomas Kaberle, acquired in December to bolster the power play, has only three man-advantage points (all assists).
Overall, it’s not looking good for a miraculous second-half comeback for the Canadiens.
It’s believed if they don’t show significant improvement over the next few weeks, they’ll become “sellers” leading up to the trade deadline.
Regardless of who’s doing the wheeling and dealing come February, they could ship out most, if not all, of the organization’s pending unrestricted free agents, such as defensemen Hal Gill and Chris Campoli, left winger Andrei Kostitsyn, and left winger Travis Moen.
Blueliner Yannick Weber, a restricted free agent, is also a trade candidate.
The next three to four weeks will determine where the Canadiens stand in the trade market. Given how they’ve performed this season, expect some current Habs to follow Cammalleri out of town by Feb. 27.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.