MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens’ season has completely strayed off course.
All-star defenceman Andrei Markov hasn’t played since injuring his right knee on Nov. 13, 2010, and special teams struggles cost assistant coach Perry Pearn his job.
Head coach Jacques Martin followed, replaced by assistant Randy Cunneyworth, a controversial move because of Cunneyworth’s inability to speak directly to the team’s French fans.
The trade of 2010 playoff heroes Michael Cammalleri and Hal Gill (with the veteran defenceman going for a second-round pick and a pair of prospects) signalled the remaining Habs are unlikely to get any external reinforcements before Monday’s trade deadline.
It’s a position goalie Carey Price has yet to experience in five seasons in Montreal.
“It’s definitely a different look,” he said. “I’ve never been on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs before,” said Price, who made it clear that he was not conceding the possibility of a Cinderella finish.
That is pretty much what it would take for the Canadiens’ to extend their playoff streak. Montreal currently sits 14th in the Eastern Conference with 58 points, one ahead of last-place Carolina, which has a game in hand.
Eighth-place Toronto, seven points ahead of the Canadiens, is one of six teams Montreal would have to overtake in its final 20 games.
It wasn’t supposed to play out this way when general manager Pierre Gauthier and Markov agreed on a three-year, $17.5-million contract on June 23. The 33-year-old Russian, whose services were retained despite suffering two major knee injuries in 2010, has had repeated setbacks in recovering from the last one, which required another procedure in December to remove debris.
Markov will travel with the team on its current three-game trip to Washington, Florida and Tampa Bay. There is still no timetable for his return.
“When that time comes then obviously he’ll be a welcome addition to our group,” Cunneyworth said following practice Thursday.
While losing Markov was a severe blow, Scott Gomez has provided some comic relief for fans.
The centrepiece of former GM Bob Gainey’s complete makeover of Montreal’s lineup in the summer of 2009, Gomez has two seasons left on the seven-year, $51.5-million deal he originally signed with the New York Rangers. The oft-injured centre was showered with a peculiar mixture of supportive and mocking cheers earlier this month in his unsuccessful bid to avoid going a full calendar year without scoring a goal.
Josh Gorges was acquired from San Jose in a deadline trade in 2007, the last time the Canadiens were clearly sellers.
An alternate captain whose leadership status has grown in the absence of Markov and injured captain Brian Gionta, Gorges was well aware as Montreal prepared for an upcoming road trip that there could be changes before it plays the Bell Centre again.
“There’s always a possibility of that,” Gorges said. “Obviously with the trade deadline only being a couple of days maybe it gets magnified a little bit more, but as players you do the best you can to stay focused on the task at hand.”
Besides being integral components for any possible miracle finish, Price and Gorges are cornerstones of the Canadiens’ plans for the future.
Meanwhile, Andrei Kostitsyn has been in Cunneyworth’s doghouse lately and could end up being moved.
“I want to play here but I can’t control what happens because you never know,” said Kostitsyn
Travis Moen, who won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Moen is currently on injured reserve and Gauthier has reportedly told other GMs that he is not available.
Defencemen Chris Campoli and Tomas Kaberle were brought in to help fill the void left by Markov.
Kaberle was traded by Toronto to Boston prior to last year’s deadline. He went on to win the Stanley Cup before signing a three-year, $12.75-million free agent contract with Carolina.
Campoli signed a one-year, $1.75-million contract with the Canadiens during training camp. He has been traded at the deadline two of the last three seasons, including last year, when Ottawa dealt him to Chicago, the reigning Stanley Cup champions at the time.
“They were a great team and you want to take advantage of that experience, and I think that looking back it was one of the more memorable times for me in my career,” said Campoli. “I look at it that I played a really high level of hockey that I’d like to get back to, frankly. There are a lot of positives that can come out of it, too. Youjust take it for what it is and you go to work.”