Amateur hour is over. The Canadiens are still a mid-level team, but at least they are a mid-level team with a clue.
After Montreal's bumbling eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and quick playoff exit last season, general manager Réjean Houle replaced the dilettantish Mario Tremblay—Tremblay didn't want to be a hockey coach as much as he wanted to be a celebrity—with Alain Vigneault. Vigneault, most recently a coach with the Junior A Beauport Harfangs, might not have a dazzling résumé, but he is dedicated enough that he could be in Montreal for a long time, provided he develops a thick enough hide to survive in this city of two million Canadiens coaches. Fortunately, in an inspired move, Houle also hired the extraordinarily well organized Dave King, the former Canadian national team and Flames coach, to assist Vigneault. King will help lend structure to the chaos left from last season, and he has Houle's ear, making him de facto assistant general manager as well as Vigneault's top aide.
Houle also wisely signed free-agent goaltender Andy Moog. Moog, 37, won't be as stellar as he was last season with defensive-minded Dallas, and he doesn't handle the puck particularly well, but he will end the psychodramas that accompanied practically every save made by 22-year-old Jocelyn Thibault.
Poor Thibault. He arrived in Montreal in the trade that sent Patrick Roy to the Avalanche two years ago, and he never has been up to replacing the irreplaceable Roy. He alienated teammates by complaining of a lack of support and didn't stop enough pucks to win over the fans. Thibault probably will be Moog's backup, although it would be better for him if he started over somewhere else.
But even a real game plan from Vigneault—breakout schemes, the occasional trap—isn't going to save the Canadiens if they can't win battles along the boards, don't kill penalties better, don't cut down on their goals-against and are again chased out of the rink by bigger teams. There are, however, enough fire-wagon forwards to make the action interesting. Center Saku Koivu, who has bounced back from a knee injury last season, and right wing Mark Recchi form one of the NHL's most dynamic pairings. If left wing Vincent Damphousse can rebound from a poor season, the Canadiens will have two good scoring lines. "We have the ingredients up front," King says. "We're just not sure how they all go together yet."