Monday, March 31, 2008

2006 to 2008: Strides Ahead

Saku Koivu is hurt.

We are not sure how badly yet, but he'll miss some time, that's a certainty.

So, how does this bode for the Canadiens? Will his absence be felt to the same extent it was 2 years ago after that freak eye injury he suffered?

Firstly, I would like to address how surprised I am by the fear and worry surrounding the Canadiens from a large number of fans. Isn't Saku Koivu the player who we should have traded or unloaded? Isn't he just a passenger anyway? I find it interesting to see the very same people who criticise Koivu all year long turn around and say that his loss is critical to the team. Where is their logic?

Oh wait, if they were logical, they might have deduced the value of Koivu earlier – from the contributions of wingers he played with and results he influenced.

Despite the fact I rattle on about the value of Koivu to this team, I would not go so far as to write the Habs off should Koivu's injury be the worst case scenario. Of course his loss will be noticed. However, I think the team will be able to adapt and thrive again once they've done that. When thinking of the similarity of the current situation with 2006, I look to several different reasons to be optimistic about the Habs first-round playoff hopes, even without Koivu:

1) Opponent: Carolina (2006) vs. Undetermined (2008)

Even with our opponent up in the air, it cannot possibly be worse than 2006. That year, Carolina dominated the league for stretches, garnered 112 points and 52 wins, narrowly missed out on winning the East and scored nearly 300 goals. This year, each of our possible opponents has had at least one or two rough patches, have identifiable weak points and are not offensive juggernauts. Though we could still theoretically face any team, we are fortunate to be in a position where we are least likely to face Pittsburgh, the one team that most resembles Cup Winners Carolina from 2006.

2) Koivu's replacement: Bonk (2006) vs. Grabovski (2008)

Bonk may have had offensive potential at one point and even showed some flashes with the Habs, but realistically he was always going to be much too conservative for a number one centre. Grabovski, in contrast, has youthful exuberance, speed and creative flair going for him. For all his faults, you'd be hard pressed to hold lack of offense against him – 20 points with 8 goals in the 12 games he played during his demotion to Hamilton show how potent he can be.

3) The other line: Bulis-Ribeiro-Kovalev (2006) vs. Kostitsyn-Plekanec-Kovalev (2008)

Man to man this year's "Line 2" is better, better and better.

4) Supporting cast: Zednik, Plekanec, Perezhogin, Murray and Sundstrom (2006) vs. Lapierre, S Kostitsyn, Begin, Smolinski and Kostopoulos (2008)

Apart from Plekanec (but a rookie then), the cast from 2006 were either stalled or on the wane. There was hope with Zednik, but as we know it went unfulfilled that series. Less hope, more concrete this time. Lapierre and Begin bring more energy than any of the aforementioned. Smolinski can fill a number of roles. Kostopoulos is a strong and willing warrior. And Sergei Kostitsyn is bottled lightning. Add Latendresse who is probably resting for a return, and that gives one more legitimate NHL option.

5) The team: Playoff squeak-in and worst goal differential in the playoffs with Koivu (2006) vs. Best in the East and best offense in the league with Koivu (2008)

The Habs are just simply a better team in 2008. For reasons well-documented, they have scored more and won more games. Most importantly, they have won more important games. They have found new leaders to support Koivu. They have scored when the Koivu line hasn't. They traded their goalie because the back-up was too good to hold back again, but the starter was not in a career free fall.

6) Timing: Game 3 (2006) vs. Game -4 (2008)

In 2006, there was no hope of a Koivu return whatsoever. Even a recovery against Carolina would have left us searching for offense in the next round(s), ultimately prone to fail at some point. In 2008, Koivu may have broken his foot about 2 weeks prior to the playoffs. If he takes 2 weeks to recover, he'll be in for Game 1. If he takes 4 weeks, he could be in for the end of round 1.

Furthermore, the nature of the injury and the fact that aggravation of it is unlikely to ruin the rest of Koivu's life means that should he be sorely sorely missed, he could come back on a hobble.

So Habs fans, no need to despair. There's as much reason to be hopeful as there ever was. This Habs team has been a success because of the emphasis on team. The fact that superstar Kovalev would tell you that is proof in itself:

«Nous ne pouvons pas rester là à penser aux joueurs blessés. Nous avons d’autres joueurs qui ont travaillé fort durant toute la saison. Ils ont à saisir leur chance et montrer ce qu’ils peuvent accomplir. Les jeunes joueurs de notre pourront démontrer qu’ils appartiennent à la LNH », explique Alex Kovalev.

Playoff hockey is coming and our team is in the hunt. It's time to get excited...

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