BROSSARD, Que. – Asked to describe the new-look Montreal Canadiens defence, blue-liner Josh Gorges said “older and wiser.”
The off-season housecleaning by general manager Bob Gainey changed half the six-man defence group, bringing in veterans Hal Gill, Paul Mara and Jaroslav Spacek and letting go of Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Schneider.
The returning blue-liners – Gorges, Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik – all have new partners, at least to start training camp.
And like the forward lines, where veterans Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Travis Moen are adapting to new linemates, there are concerns about how long it will take them to be comfortable together on the ice.
“I don’t think it will be that bad,” Gorges said on Day 2 of camp Monday. “The guys we brought in are veterans, they’ve been around, they know how to adjust.
“With some pairings, you just go one or two games and you feel comfortable. It’s not necessarily a long-term process to jell.”
While pairings have yet to be set for the season, at a scrimmage at the team’s suburban practice facility Gorges was matched with the 34-year-old Gill, a six-foot-seven, 250-pound bull who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup last spring.
Markov, the Canadiens’ top two-way defenceman, was paired with the 30-year-old Mara, a six-foot-four 212-pounder who signed as a free agent from the New York Rangers.
And Hamrlik was with the 35-year-old Spacek, a free agent from the Buffalo Sabres who is likely to take over as the trigger man on the right point on the power play from Schneider.
“The veteran players we brought in – guys that have won the Stanley Cup and gone to the finals and been in playoff pushes – that experience you can’t teach,” said Gorges. “Having them on board is definitely going to help coming down the playoff stretch and at playoff time.”
He liked playing with Gill, a primarily defensive rearguard whose slow stride caused him to struggle in earlier stints with Boston and Toronto, but who was a solid performer in Pittsburgh.
“He keeps the game really simple but he communicates really well,” said Gorges. “I found that every time I went to the puck I knew where he was.
“I thought we were good out there together.”
Gorges was bowled over at his summer home in Kelowna, B.C., when free agent season opened July 1 and none of Montreal’s 10 unrestricted free agents was kept. They also sent winger Chris Higgins to the Rangers in the Gomez trade.
“I’ve never been part of any team with that many changes,” he said. “But change is good.
“Sometimes when you have the same thing, you get caught in a rut, it gets repetitive and you get stale. We had a great bunch of guys here last year and for whatever reason it wasn’t working.”
A problem with the new defence group is that they are all left-hand shots, and coach Jacques Martin said it hasn’t been determined which will play on the right side.
Gorges is a natural because he’s played on the right side most of his two seasons in Montreal. Spacek says he has never played on the right, although he’s unlikely to bump Hamrlik from the left side. And Mara skated on the right side with Markov in the scrimmage.
Martin said he hasn’t discussed with the defencemen which side they prefer to play.
“We’ll probably experiment with people there,” said Martin. “Sometimes when you talk to people you give them an easy way out.
“Sometimes when you don’t try things, you don’t know.”
Oddly, the next four defencemen on the depth chart are all right-hand shots – Ryan O’Byrne, Yannick Weber, P.K. Subban and Mathieu Carle.
O’Byrne went into camp last season with a spot on the team secured and played his way out of the lineup in a miserable season.
He came in this time determined to win his job back by using his six-foot-five, 228-pound frame for what management wants from him – solid, physical defensive play.
Even in the scrimmage, O’Byrne was throwing his weight around, sending Matt D’Agostini into the end boards and flattening Greg Stewart with an open-ice hit.
“I’ve got to play physical, I’ve got to play mean, I’ve got to make an impact on the game, but at the same time play smart defensively and move the puck well,” the Victoria native said. “But most important is to be physical and make it tough on opposing forwards.
“I got a few good hits. Stewie is one of my best friends, but that’s the way it goes. There are no friends out there. Maybe that’s what happened last year, there was too much hesitation. That’s no longer the case. I’m out here, like other guys, to prove a point.”
Subban was an eye-catcher for his speed and crisp passing, although Martin wants the 20-year-old to improve his decision-making on when to rush the puck and when to stay back. He’ll probably start the year with AHL Hamilton.
Weber was called up to Montreal for three games last season to test his cannon shot from the point, but with Spacek on board there will be no rush to bring the 21-year-old up full time. Carle also will likely have another year in the AHL.
Another player who stood out was 24-year-old centre Mikael Johansson, who signed as a free agent in May from Farjestad in Sweden, and who also is expected to start the season in Hamilton. He helped opportunistic linemate Brock Trotter score twice in the scrimmage.
But the players who caught management’s eyes, according to Martin, were two of the new veteran arrivals – Gionta and Moen, who played on a line with centre Tomas Plekanec.
“It’s no coincidence when you win Stanley Cups,” said Martin of Gionta, who won a championship with New Jersey, and Moen, who won one with Anaheim.
He said both players bring “good habits” to the team.
“They know how to get ready and to pay attention to the details,” he said. “I hope that attitude spreads to a lot of the players.”
Forwards Kyle Chipchura and Sergei Kostitsyn, who both had off-season shoulder surgery, did not scrimmage but took part in practice.