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Welcome to 2010-2011: The Make or Break Season

Pierre Gauthier’s press conference this week highlighted “team stability” and the “core strengths” of the Montreal Canadiens. Gauthier is telling the media that the current roster, which looks a lot like last year’s roster, will be the same roster for the foreseeable future. Yet there a number of players who, if they don’t play to expectations, will likely not return. It’s a long enough list that the entire organization may undergo a large overhaul in the summer of 2011. Perhaps not as big as the one the Canadiens underwent in 2009, but an overhaul nonetheless.

For instance, take Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouiliot, Ryan O’Byrne, Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Darche: It is IMPOSSIBLE to see how any of these players come back next year if they do not produce this year.

Gauthier will not have the stomach to re-sign Kostitsyn if he pulls his incomprehensible sleep walking act yet again. Better to let him go to the KHL. No one will pick at the discards of Benoit Pouliot’s “high draft pick pedigree” if he can’t put the puck in the net with consistency after failing in Minnesota and Montreal. Ditto Max Lapierre, who has been groomed through the Juniors and Hamilton and has been given chance after chance to produce.O’Byrne may not even finish the season with the Habs. Darche, at his advanced age, with Jeff Halpen in the lineup and a number of hungry kids in Hamilton, may not be coming back no matter what he does. But if he is able to make a real contribution, maybe he sticks around somehow?

Best Draft Pick Ever!

Best Draft Pick Ever!

In essence, this season represents their best, last chance to prove they can be stars, or at least valuable contributors, to the Montreal Canadiens for another few years. If they wish to remain in the colors of Lafleur, it is a make-or-break season and they know it.

And there are plenty of other players for whom there is an enormous amount at stake.

Dustin Boyd  and Tom Pyatt are both RFA’s and largely unknown quantities within the organization. And neither will get a free pass if they don’t produce this season. They are easy to replace and easy to trade.

Then there are players who are not easily replaceable, but it’s no guarantee that they will return to the Habs next year. First on that list is Andrei Markov. He is a UFA and he needs to prove he has overcome his injuries and can be the Top-50 player he was two years ago. I think he will, and I think Gauthier will sign him. But it is also possible that Gauthier will deem him expendable and expensive, depending on how well PK Subban performs.But Markov needs to show, once again, that the Habs can’t afford not to sign him.

Josh Gorges is arguably the Habs’ second-best defenceman. But he too, has an expiring contract and he will want to confirm that he is deserving of a BIG raise.

Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik are UFA’s. They will likely not return to the Habs after this season. But I don’t think they’re ready for retirement, either. If they still want to play in this league at a salary anywhere near what they currently earn, they will have to prove they can be warriors, yet again. They are under pressure to perform.

And the player under the most pressure to perform is Carey Price. True, Price is signed to two years so he will be back. But if Price does not perform, there are others within team management who may not be: Obviously, Gauthier will be under the gun to prove that he made the right call in trading away Jaroslav Halak and installing Carey Price as the top netminder – to say nothing of the decisions to bring in Lars Eller and backup Alex Aauld. Bottom line: If Price fails, so does Gauthier.

As if that wasn’t enough, new owner Geoff Molson is in line to replace Pierre Boivin as President of the Montreal Canadiens. He will spend the year “shadowing” Boivin and will “officially” take over on July 1, 2011. Which means the owner of the Montreal Canadiens will literally be looking over Gauthier’s shoulders all season long. Will he like what he sees?

Behind This Smile Lies a Ruthless Killer

Behind This Smile Lies a Ruthless Killer

If Gauthier is feeling any heat, so is coach Jacques Martin. Because if he has any chance of winning, Martin will have to find a way to motivate and teach his young players, chief among them, Subban and Eller. To ensure Gauthier’s legacy and the success of the team, Martin needs these players to perform at the top of their expectations. It’s a huge and delicate job when you consider that last year, almost ALL of the young Habs forwards had career-worst seasons under him (see Pacioretty, D’Agostini, Latendresse, the Kostitsyns, Lapierre, etc etc). Martin will also have to take on O’Byrne and possibly Yannick Weber, too. If he fails to redeem the diamond prospects of the organization this year, he will not be trusted with future prospects like Louis Leblanc, Alex Avtsin and Jarred Tinordi.

In fact, after Molson, new captain Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec, Price, Subban and probably Gorges and Markov, is there anyone else in this entire organization who is “safe” for next year?

Plus the percolating dynamics inside the NHL: the CBA expires in 2012, the NHLPA will harden with Donald Fehr at the helm, the salary cap is fluctuating, more teams are moving to younger and cheaper players….

Add it all up and what do you get?

Almost EVERYONE is under enormous pressure to prove that they belong.

And because there are so many players who know this is their last chance, along with the uncertainty surrounding the RFAs and UFAs, well…if enough people in the organization don’t perform this year, the Montreal Canadiens could again undergo a massive restructuring. From top to bottom.

You can officially call 2010-2011 the Make or Break season.

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3 comments ↓

#1 Rick Keene on 09.18.10 at 1:44 am

I agree with pretty much everything you are saying especially the Martin part. I found it very strange last season that all of the Habs second bananas did not produce. The one exception that I will have to disagree with you on is Kostistyn. Andrei was playing his best hockey when he went down with the knee injury and by the time he came back – it was too late to gather any type of momentum as the play -offs were starting and he had to remain true to his defensive responsibilities. He did not have the ‘freedom’ to get his groove back as he would have in a twenty game stretch where so much was not on the line.Either that or he lost his confidence after the injury as some players do. Pat Boutette of the Hartford Whalers put Guy Lalfleur out with what is now called a ‘knee on knee ‘ collision and Lafleur never regained his swagger. Injuries sometime hurt more in the pyche than they do on the body.
I believe that the Habs have an eight player core which is one – if not the best in the entire NHL. Something the team has not had since 1993 when they won the cup.The players that Gauthier brought in are excellent choices and it gives the team depth on the third and fourth lines. It is something that made the Habs winners in the 70′s.The core of that team were players that were entering their 7th, 8th and 9th seasons while the ‘bus squad’ were always hungry to get in the line – up which made players such as Tremblay and Risebrough play their hearts out every game. This is what Gauthier is trying to accomplish and with players like Boyd, Schutz and Conboy waiting in the wings – it will make Lapierre and Pouliot think twice before they take a game off now and then.
I have been a Habs fan for thirty years and I can honestly say that this is the best squad we have iced since that 93 team and the 89 one before that.
Go Habs Go !

#2 Patrick on 09.19.10 at 3:25 pm

Great points, Rick. Best squad since 1993? Hmmmm…..the 90′s were indeed awful, but take a look at the 2000′s. A lot of the teams are comparable.

For example, the final 2003-04 roster: Theodore had the second best season of his career (2.27 / 9.19). On defense: Markov, Komisarek, Souray, Rivet, Quintal, Bouillon and Brisebois. That’s very, VERY, solid.
Forwards: Ribeiro, Ryder (career years for each), Koivu, Kovalev, Zednik, Perrault, Bulis and Begin, not to mention young Plekanec and Higgins). Comparable. That team finished with 93 points (and this is before the 3-point games). The 2005-06 finished with 93 points with a very similar roster.

But I am still very partial to the 2007-08 roster:
The forwards were excellent: Kovalev, Koivu, Plekanec, Higgins, the Kostitsyns had career years, not to mention Lapierre, Latendresse, Begin and Ryder chipping in. I don’t know if I would take everyone back in exchange for what we have now, but those forwards definitely sang very nicely together that year. Loads and loads of talent.
But the Defense was SPECTACULAR: Markov, Streit, Hamrlik, Komisarek, Bouillon, Gorges, O’Byrne. Yes, I would take this group over what we have now without any hesitation whatsoever.
In Nets: Carey Price & Christobal Huet. A very successful tandem. If Huet were affordable, I would definitely take him over Alex Auld as a backup, without a doubt. In fact, I don’t think its a coincidence that this still represents Price’s best season so far.

I agree that this year’s roster could be the best since 1993, but there are just so many intangibles, its hard to say for sure.

But that’s why they play the games, right?

#3 Patrick on 09.19.10 at 6:21 pm

Although, I realize that in 2007-08, there was no PK Subban, which could make a huge difference….and if there was a way to add PK to that 2007-08 roster in exchange for say, Streit, then that would top this year’s, ON PAPER, I think.