The 2011-2012 NHL season for the Montreal Canadiens kicks off tonight at the Bell Center, with the welcome of the visiting Dallas Stars.
I, for one, am usually a pessimistic individual when it comes to this team. I have been critical of our defense core, have despised the lack of grit and tenacity with our forward group, and have been extremely judgmental with the action—or lack thereof—of management.
Every September I sit here, or on other nameless hockey forums around the web and criticize what was done wrong, what we must do to improve and where I ultimately see this team fishing.
Now like anyone reading this, I absolutely live and breathe hockey. Before the birth of my children I would be inclined to watch 7-10 games a week, play 2-3 nights in various leagues and then of course fill my days conversing in all things hockey. Perhaps it was the birth of my daughter that changed things for me, perhaps it is just a means of maturing with age but this year is different. This year I feel, well, at ease.
Sure I still like to speak my mind when it comes to the NHL or to my beloved Habs, and I continue to play at least 2 nights a week but when it comes to the product that Pierre Gauthier has put forward, I am inclined to finally say “I believe”.
It's an easy thing to say when you are a fan of the team, but usually I am on the other side of the fence boasting about the struggles that Les Glorieux are going to feel. But this year I believe. I believe in our forward group, I believe in our defense our goaltending and our management.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I really like Pierre Gauthier. Not in that, “Hey Pierre, whatcha doing tonight” type of way but more along the lines that I have complete confidence in his vision.
I just hope that this confidence can translate into success on the ice.
A Lack of Toughness No More
I think it is safe to say that for many years there has been an apparent lack of physicality with this team. Sure we have had some success against our rivals in Boston and Toronto but for the most part when the physical play picks up; our team seems to show difficulty.
So what exactly was done?
Up front Gauthier allowed Jeff Halpern, Tom Pyatt and the much maligned Benoit Pouliot to all seek employment elsewhere. In their place he has secured a roster spot for Ryan White, and acquired two big players in the 6’2 power forward Erik Cole—who was 10th in the NHL in hits among forwards last season—and the 6’4 fourth line right winger Michael Blunden.
Granted it is still unknown whether Blunden will be able to secure a roster spot with the big club, but his NHL experience combined with his two-way contract now gives coach Jacques Martin options. When you add a player like the 6’2 Max Pacioretty to the mix—he missed a large portion of the season last year—it is extremely clear that we have become a lot bigger and perhaps better than any roster we have iced in the past half-decade or so.
On the Back End
The Departure of Alex Picard, James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara means the loss of five big D-men who, apart from Wisniewski, are all 6’2 or taller.
So at first glance it appears as though we did in fact get smaller.
Yes we lost 6'4 Mara and Picard and the toughness of Wisniewski but we have replaced these elements with a group of five that are younger, quicker and ultimately better.
The team set to welcome the return of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, combined with the acquisition of the 6’3 Jeff Woywitka and the arrival of the Russian enigma, 6’3 Alexei Emelin. As such, our D-core is set.
Forget about the rumours mongers suggesting pretty much every name under the sun. We have already replaced every name that was lost and have vastly improved in a position which was already considered our strong suit.
Do I have my my homer glasses on? Am I completely overrating these guys? Well do me a favor and compare them. Look at the five additions and the five subtractions and ask yourself, who would you rather have?
Markov or Wisniewski?
Gorges or Hamrlik?
Mara or Emelin?
Sopel or Weber?
Picard or Woywitka?
They are cheaper, younger, hungrier, quicker, and better, that's what I see.
A Lack of Depth No More
Do you remember when it seemed like our team was saving up for that ultimate vacation, but then had an issue with a leaky roof? Our GM had to spend all his money to fix that leaky roof simply to assure we made the playoffs.
Do you remember a time when the moment a forward was injured and we were obliged to try Jeff Halpern as our first line right winger? Or Travis Moen as a mainstay on the second line left wing?
With the arrival of Cole and Pacioretty we are now faced with a scenario where our top two lines have a combination of size, skill, veterans and rookies. We also have a complimentary third line that will feature a consistent 20-goal scorer and a player who was the leading point getter in the AHL just a season ago.
We have a line-up that will allow players like Moen, White, Mathieu Darche, Blunden and Andreas Engqvist to fill a role with which they are comfortable: as fourth liners.
My line-up would look like this:
Is this the best and perhaps deepest line-up we have seen perhaps since the late 90’s?
Just a season ago we were faced with having to rush players like Brandon Nash to the NHL or having to trade away prospects, players and picks just to be able to ice a competitive line-up. Less than a year later we have a roster that has nine or 10 players who can easily be considered NHLers.
A roster which includes Markov, Emelin, Gorges, Gill, Subban, Spacek, Weber, Woywitka, Raphael Diaz and possibly even Mark Mitera or Alex Henry.
It is a group which consists of veterans and rookies, offensive players and defensive players, puck moves, shot blockers, heavy hitters, players with heavy shots, power play quarterbacks and penalty kill catalysts.
Essentially it is a group which has it all and, personally, I would ice a roster which looked something like this:
Is this not a line-up to be optimistic with?
It has been a while since I sat down to write a blog.
It was originally my intention to carry on with at least some sort of presence on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, while Kamal tended to the arrival of his beautiful baby boy. But my intentions and priorities were altered over the course of the summer with what seemed like perpetual anguish.
Although my summer was terrific as it allowed me to spend ample time with my wife and children, it was also darkened with the passing of too many members of the hockey family. Words cannot express the set of emotions which filled my body when the news of the plane crash that took the lives of so many from the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
As a father of two beautiful children, I could not begin to fathom the complexity of emotions that the friends and families must be feeling. A parent should never have to bury their child no matter what the age. In times like this it puts life in perspective.
Simply put there is more to life.
Although it may not be the most masculine thing to admit, I went home that day and sat on the couch with my three-year-old daughter, Marley, on one knee and my 10-month-old son, Quinten, on the other. Even though this is a common occurrence for me, this time was different. I sat there hugging these two pieces of joy, said nothing but cried.
Yes the NHL has become a business and everything is determined by the dollars and cents that a franchise can make. We sit here on a daily basis criticizing this player or that without a care in the world as to what happens to these guys off the ice.
We see players as commodities to be traded or sold yet at no time do we consider the sacrifices that are made on their personal life.
We see a player who misread the play and was drawn offside instead of the husband who has not seen his wife in weeks. We see a player who has missed an open net instead of the father who missed the first words or steps of their child. We see the player who refuses to fight instead of the grandfather who now suffers from Alzheimer’s.
I live by the motto that Hockey is Life. It’s a motto which defines what I am and what I love. I just know that there is more to life than just hockey. Learn from what we went through this offseason, grow from it, and let’s all become better people.
Willey was the shinning light among the wicked growing up as the lone Habs fan in Toronto. Pray to Holy Ghosts of the old forum and all shall be answered I was told, and just like that my family was transferred back to Montreal and away from the damned. Olé Olé Olé.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America