MONTREAL – It was one of the few practice days in the midst of a busy pre-season schedule for the Montreal Canadiens and new head coach Jacques Martin decided to skate his players hard.
“It’s a demanding game we play and it’s a demanding schedule,” Martin said later. “You have to be at a good fitness level to play your best.
“That’s an area where we need to be better. It’s a change in the culture here, so players will know better next year.”
The off-season saw more than just a mass exit and inflow of players, but also a change in owners and a new coaching staff that promises more discipline and a different style of play for 2009-10.
Last year’s Canadiens began the season with high hopes after finishing first in the NHL Eastern Conference, but then barely made the playoffs and were swept in the first round by Boston.
Late in the season, with the team coming apart on and off the ice, popular coach Guy Carbonneau was fired and general manager Bob Gainey took over behind the bench.
Then Gainey cleaned house in the off-season.
He didn’t sign any of the team’s 10 unrestricted free agents – including 10-year captain Saku Koivu and star winger Alex Kovalev – and traded winger Chris Higgins and a prospect to the New York Rangers for centre Scott Gomez. Then he brought in wingers Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri and Travis Moen, and defencemen Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Paul Mara.
Assistant coaches Doug Jarvis and Don Lever and goaltending coach Roland Melanson were axed, while Martin came in with his longtime assistant Perry Pearn and goalie coach Pierre Groulx. Only assistant Kirk Muller was kept on. Pearn specializes in defencemen, something the previous staff didn’t really have.
Martin didn’t like the high-tempo but loose game the Canadiens played under Carbonneau, which is why winger Sergei Kostitsyn got an ear full one day about hanging out at the far blue-line waiting for a pass. Kostitsyn was demoted to the AHL on Sunday.
“We want to play a puck control game and to do that you need puck support,” Martin said. “We need you to be close to the puck carrier, where in the past they used a lot of stretch.
“When you get that long pass, the opponents are right on you. You’re standing still. I want a game where we’re moving.”
He certainly has skaters who can move.
Gomez and the speedy Gionta, who had success together two years ago in New Jersey, look like they will be reunited on the top line, possibly with either of two big young wingers, Max Pacioretty or Guillaume Latendresse.
The second trio would have small centre Tomas Plekanec with Cammalleri and slick shooter Andrei Kostitsyn.
Then comes checking ace Maxim Lapierre, possibly with Moen and shooter Matt D’Agostini, with the fourth line centred by veteran Glen Metropolit with Greg Stewart or enforcer Georges Laraque (when he’s healthy).
The Canadiens have a top flight No. 1 defenceman in Andrei Markov, who will likely play on regular shifts and the power play with Spacek, the shooter they lost when they let Mark Streit sign with the New York Islanders two seasons ago.
Gill, part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ shutdown unit on their Stanley Cup run last season, gives them a six-foot-seven body to go with six-foot-five Ryan O’Byrne, six-foot-four Mara and six-foot-two Roman Hamrlik. The tenacious Josh Gorges will be a regular. O’Byrne had a particularly strong camp and looks to have added meanness to his game.
If they opt to keep eight defencemen, hard-shooting rookie Yannick Weber could be used as was his Streit – as a fourth line forward and a point man on the power play.
Much will depend on the play of third-year goalie Carey Price, whose play took a dip last season after a promising rookie campaign. Having a new goalie coach may help, and promising Jaroslav Halak is there as a backup.
“I forgot about last season,” the 22-year-old Price said. “I took about two and half months away from hockey.
“I didn’t think about hockey or talk about hockey even once. I think that’s the mental break I needed to get prepared for a long season.”
On the market, Gainey wanted slightly younger players from successful teams that have no history of lingering injuries and that’s mostly what he got.
“Management made a conscious choice of who they were going to get,” said Gill. “Sometimes you walk into a locker-room and you wonder what role a guy is going to play, but in ours, you know exactly what this guy and that guy does.
“You know what Brian Gionta will bring. You know I’ll be a defensive defenceman. We’re all comfortable with what we do and now we have to do it all together.”
Estimates on how long it will take for the revamped roster to jell into a team vary from a few weeks to a few months
“You can see the guys jelling already – guys hanging out, going out for dinners,” said Gorges. “On the ice, relationships are starting to grow, you see lines and pairs forming. So I don’t think it will take that long.”
What kind of team it will be and whether it is bound for the playoffs is still up in the air. Chances are they will be one of the eight or nine teams battling for the four playoff spots left after conference powers Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.
“A hard-working, defensive team,” was Gill’s assessment. “I think that’s what we have to be and what I think everybody wants to be.
“We have enough guys that are going to score goals. We’ll get our share. But to be successful, you have to be solid in your own end and be a good forechecking team. What we really want to work on is being tenacious and in-your-face and we have a lot of guys who can do that.”
It will be Montreal’s first season since 2001 without George Gillett as owner. Molson brothers Geoff, Andrew and Justin, whose family has owned the Canadiens on and off since the 1950s, lead a group that has only small details to complete to take over the club.