Montreal Canadiens Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
After Montreal upset the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, it appeared as if the magic was back with Les Habitants.
And then the 2002-03 season happened. Jose Theodore's Hart and Vezina Trophy form left as quickly as it came, Andre Savard fired Michel Therien as head coach in January and then Savard was himself demoted in June to make way for Canadiens legend Bob Gainey as the new general manager.
Gainey was brought back to town in an effort to bring long-term glory rather than one fleeting playoff run back to Montreal. Savard stayed on to assist Gainey in the front office, and the tandem should work well together because their strengths lie in different areas. Savard built a reputation as a shrewd drafter in building a top-notch farm system, but he struggled managing the money and negotiating player contracts. Gainey, on the other hand, proved to be a crafty negotiatior while in Dallas, as well as an excellent judge of talent at both the NHL and amateur levels.
Gainey was one of the best defensive forwards in league history, winning the Selke Trophy four consecutive times from 1978-81. He played on five Stanley Cup championship teams during his 16-year career, and while Gainey's return to Montreal is partially a public relations nod to the Habs' past glory, it is even more the result of his fine work building the Stars' organization from a perennial loser into a Stanley Cup champion.
The Habs were hoping that captain Saku Koivu would take more of a leadership role this season, but the restricted free agent remains home in Finland just one week before the scheduled start of training camp. A deal with Koivu appeared to be within reach when he declined salary arbitration after turning down the Habs' $3.3 million qualifying offer. But negotiations have hit a snag and Koivu's absence for the start of camp wouldn't be the message that Gainey would want to send to fans at the dawn of a new regime.
Regardless of what the Canadiens do at other positions, a return to form by Theodore is a must. After posting a 30-24-10 record with a 2.11 goals-against average in 2001-02, Theodore slumped to a 20-31-6 mark and a 2.90 GAA last year. The expectation level was raised significantly after Theodore inked a three-year, $16.5 million deal in 2002, and fans and the organization obviously were disappointed that he didn't live up to the status as the highest-paid player in team history.
Theodore's tough season on the ice gave way to a challenging one off it, as well, as his father and four half-brothers were part of a criminal investigation into a loan sharking ring. Part of the investigation centered on the seizure of $85,000 from a safe deposit box that Theodore and his father shared. In an effort to reduce the distractions surrounding his trying season and family situation, Theodore is refusing to speak to the media. Rumors circulated that the Habs might deal Theodore, but Gainey spoke out in support of his netminder and claims that Theodore will be in Montreal for a long time.
The Habs' blueline will be bolstered by Sheldon Souray's return and the help will be much appreciated considering the team allowed 234 goals last year. After playing extremely well in the 2002 playoffs, Souray missed the entire 2002-03 season while healing from several wrist surgeries. His return will add a physical presence to Montreal's rearguards.
But the real emerging leader of the defensemen is 24-year-old Andrei Markov, who is coming off a career-best season in which he scored 13 goals and 24 assists. Markov inked a two-year deal on Aug. 26 and should continue to build on his impressive two-way play. Bell Centre whipping boy Patrice Brisebois likely will continue to get chided for his olé defense and his midseason European sojourn. Promising youngsters Ron Hainsey and Mike Komisarek will battle for jobs in camp, but the ordinary quintet of Francis Bouillon, Karl Dykhuis, Craig Rivet, Stephane Quintal and Patrick Traverse rounds out the Montreal blueliners.
A return to the playoffs after a one-year absence isn't out of the question, but Gainey and Savard have put the focus on long-term success rather than instant gratification.
Richard Zednik, RW -- The 6-foot-0, 200-pound Slovakian has averaged 19.5 goals over his six full seasons, but he has improved from 19 to 22 to 31 in the past three years. Koivu is the team's unquestioned leader, but Zednik has emerged as the team's resident sniper, a role Yanic Perreault looked ready to inherit last year when he scored 11 goals in the first 24 games. Zednik's consistent play makes him more of a go-to guy for head coach Claude Julien than a player like Perreault, who later slumped to just one goal in a 26-game span from late December until early March.
Zednik has played in 236 of a possible 246 regular-season games over the past three seasons. His durability is impressive, but the most memorable play he has been involved in during his career was unfortunately the cheap-shot elbow from Kyle McLaren in the 2002 playoffs that knocked Zednik out for the remainder of the postseason. But his 138 penalty minutes in the past two seasons show that he isn't a shrinking violet and plays bigger than his size might indicate.
When the Canadiens need a crucial goal, you can expect to see the playmaking/scoring tandem of Koivu and Zednik on the ice together, even if they don't start the season playing together at even strength.
Size -- Are the Habs big enough to hack it in burly the Eastern Conference? With diminutive forwards like Koivu and Donald Audette, Montreal's top-six forwards aren't renowned for their abilities to fight for the puck in the corners or battle for position in the slot. In the open ice, few teams have freewheeling flyers who are more entertaining to watch, but the lack of size up front does pose a bit of a stumbling block against some of the bigger teams in the East.
The Canadiens re-signed tough guy Gordie Dwyer, whose protector role could expand this season with Doug Gilmour, Bill Lindsay and Randy McKay all departed. Fourth-liner Chad Kilger has a big body (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) but he may be asked to mix it up more and boost his PIM total (21) in order to help the little guys.
The fact that Marcel Hossa (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) and Jason Ward (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) are likely to play among the top-nine forwards will help things too. Though Hossa's European roots may be in skating, stickhandling and finding open spaces from which to shoot the puck, he has shown a bit more knack to get his nose dirty than older brother Marian did early in his career.
Mike Komisarek, D, 6-4, 240 pounds
The Canadiens' system is loaded with talented young forwards like Jozef Balej, Jonathan Ferland, Chris Higgins, Hossa, Andrei Kastsitsyn, Duncan Milroy, Alex Perezhogin, Tomas Plekanec, Michael Ryder and Ward, but defenseman Komisarek may be the best of the bunch over the long-term. The mammoth blueliner is a good skater, a fierce hitter and excels making the first pass out of his own zone.
After two excellent seasons at Michigan, Komisarek signed with the Habs in 2002 and spent the majority with AHL Hamilton. He had five goals, 25 assists and a plus-27 rating in 56 games before getting called up to Montreal on Feb. 12 for the remainder of the regular season. Back with Hamilton for the AHL playoffs, Komisarek chipped in with one goal, five assists and 60 penalty minutes in 23 games. The impressive 49-19-8-4 regular-season record and deep playoff run gave valuable experience to Komisarek and many of the Habs' other top young players.
Both Komisarek and Hainsey will be given the chance to win jobs with the big club in training camp. Even if they don't this fall, they are sure to be midseason callups and both players will be fixtures in Montreal for many years to come.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.