10 March 2007

Is the Season Lost?

There is less than month left in the NHL regular season, and currently the Canadiens are sitting in 11th place--3 points out of a playoff spot--and have only 13 games left to leap over the other teams in the hunt for the last two spots that are really up for grabs (the 6th place Lightning are 4 points clear of 7th and looking good of late). It has been frustrating more often than not in the past two-plus months to watch them struggle early in games, fall behind, and spend the rest of the night taking poor penalties and not generating the offence needed to get back in the game. It is made all the worse knowing that on December 23rd, this team was only 5 points behind Buffalo for 1st place in the Eatsern Conference.

It is in this context that the lead story in today's Montreal Gazette suggests that the Canadiens' season is all but done, and they should blow up the team during the off-season and undergo some major reconstruction to build a better team in 2007-08. Jack Todd suggests that nobody outside of blue-chip goaltending prospect Carey Price should be considered untouchable. That includes the much beloved Saku Koivu, says Todd. It's been over a dozen years since the glorious victory of 1993, and the team hasn't made it out of the second round since then. Big changes are necessary in order to make this team a legitimate Stanley Cup contender again. Let's be realistic, Habs fans: even if they do make the playoffs, they'll be playing either Buffalo or New Jersey. That would probably mean lights out in a matter of days, even if Cristobal Huet is able to play in the opening round.

So what should be done, then? Obviously, the team owes it to their fans and themselves to play their hearts out for the next four weeks in an effort to make the post-season. As the Edmonton Oilers of 2006 demonstrated, once a team is in, anything is possible. They will need to start playing with much more intensity, desperation, and intelligence. No more terrible penalties, no more coasting through shifts, no more soft goals. They need to recapture the zeitgeist of the first two months of the season. They need people to step up, act like leaders, and get their best players playing like they are the team's best players.

After the season is another story. There's going to be a lot of free agents, including: Sheldon Souray, Andrei Markov, Janne Niinimaa, David Aebischer, Radek Bonk, and Mike Johnson. In this new era of the salary cap, not everybody can be re-signed, which means some difficult choices will have to be made. Of those 6 names above, the Habs should make every effort to retain four of them: Souray, Markov, Bonk, and Johnson. Niinimaa has been in the pressbox for most of the season, and his $2.4M salary will be much better applied elsewhere. Aebischer has clearly lost the confidence of the coach and the team--and the fans--and with Carey Price waiting in the wings, he has been made expendable.

Additionally, Sergei Samsonov and possible even Alex Kovalev should be bought out of their contracts. Samsonov has been a total bust, notching only 26 points this season and spending significant time in the press box while earning $3.5M. Again, money that can be better spent elsewhere. Kovalev has been a polarizing figure off the ice. The recent controversy involving the Russian media, whether real or hoax, has been a horrid distraction at the worst possible time. Couple that with earlier comments this season by the likes of Jean Beliveau about Kovalev's selfishness, and it may be time for the ultra-talented underperformer to be moving along.

The team has a solid core of young players, such as Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek, the Kotsitsyn brothers, Guillaume Latendresse, Kyle Chipchura, and of course Price. There are others in the system who may also get their shot next season to demonstrate that they belong in the NHL. As the Pittsburgh Penguins are currently demonstrated, youth has the potential to be dominant in today's NHL. Nobody will confuse Higgins for Crosby or Latendresse for Malkin, but these are two very able players that can make their mark with this team and become leaders and mainstays for years to come. Retain some of the veteran presence to help guide them and ease some of the pressure that playing in Montreal brings, but give the future a chance to make itself known now.

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