LAVAL, Que. – The most-asked question as the Montreal Canadiens gathered for their annual charity golf tournament after summer vacation Wednesday was: Who’s that?
It was an apt question for a team that took housecleaning to a new level in the off-season.
The Canadiens either shipped out or dropped 11 players from the team that was swept in four games of the first round of playoffs by Boston last spring and brought in eight new ones in the most sweeping changes in memory for the 100-year-old club.
“It’s going to be different,” said goaltender Carey Price, back for a third season. “I think the biggest thing we have to be concerned about is the chemistry.
“There are so many new elements to the team now that over the next couple of weeks we’re going to spend a lot of time bonding as a group. That’s going to be really important as we get into the season.”
Most of the attention was focused on three newcomers – Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, who will be the key men on attack this season after general manager Bob Gainey opted to let Alex Kovalev (to Ottawa) and Saku Koivu (to Anaheim) go as unrestricted free agents.
The new arrivals are all on the smallish side, but Gainey balanced that by signing big winger Travis Moen for the third line and big defencemen Hal Gill and Paul Mara, along with power play shooter Jaroslav Spacek. They also signed Curtis Sanford, likely to be the third goalie on the depth chart behind Price and Jaroslav Halak.
Others who have left are Chris Higgins, Robert Lang, Alex Tanguay, Mike Komisarek, Mathieu Schneider, Tom Kostopoulos, Mathieu Dandenault, Patrice Brisebois and Francis Bouillon.
Gainey did not like what he saw last season – a strong start followed by a tailspin that forced him to fire Guy Carbonneau and take over behind the bench. He was also unable to deal for a top player (Vincent Lecavalier) ahead of the trade deadline in March.
“The mass overhaul wasn’t planned,” said Gainey. “With the way the last three months of the season unfolded, it left the team in a position where big changes could be made.
“We had (10) UFAs and our team would have a lot of flexibility with money. That’s how it unfolded and now we’re going to have to form into a team with new players and new coaches. I think it will be an exciting challenge and there will be exciting results.”
A team that had been through four consecutive head coaches (Gainey not included) with no NHL experience also reached out for one brimming with it – defensive guru Jacques Martin.
His long-time associate Perry Pearn also came in assistant coach while Pierre Groulx replaced Roland Melanson as Price’s new goalie coach. Don Lever and Doug Jarvis were dropped but Kirk Muller was kept on from last year’s staff.
“We’ve had good coaches here, but we’ve had coaches without experience and when we’ve hit a crisis, or difficult situations, I think that has played a role in how things unfolded,” said Gainey. “When I went to fill that position, my mind was on experience, on background – to be able to withstand a solid blow at some point in the season and still keep your legs underneath you and continue on.”
Gainey said the key acquisition was Gomez, the playing centre from the New York Rangers who inked a five-year deal that pays US$7.35 per season. He said that showed the Canadiens were serious about improving and helped in signing the others. Camalleri came from Calgary on a five-year deal paying US$6 million per season and Gionta, who worked well with Gomez in New Jersey two years ago, signed for five years at US$5 million annually.
Returnees from last season include top defencemen Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik as well as the plucky Josh Gorges, who was Moen’s old junior teammate in Kelowna, and Ryan O’Byrne.
Up front there are Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse, Glen Metropolit, Tomas Plakanec and Georges Laraque. Youngsters looking for steady NHL work include Max Pacioretty, Matt D’Agostini and Greg Stewart.
The Canadiens will have time to bond in training camp, which will end with three days at a ranch in Caledon, Ont., north of Toronto, followed by a five-game road trip to start the regular season.
“It’s been compared to playing for the New York Yankees or a major soccer tea like Man U,” Gomez said of his move to Montreal. “You see how passionate people are.
“You only get to play so long and to do it here, where hockey is a religion, is something everyone should experience. If we get off to a bad start maybe we’ll change that, but it’s a great place to play.”