Monday, September 29, 2008

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Wingers (Part 1)

Following on from the preview of the centres in the organization, I'm going to go through the wingers (based on the list of those who have progressed as far as a training camp invite). Once again, Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of wingers in order of importance to the team:

  1. Alex Kovalev
  2. Alex Tanguay
  3. Andrei Kostitsyn
  4. Chris Higgins
  5. Sergei Kostitsyn
  6. Tom Kostopoulos
  7. Guillaume Latendresse
  8. Georges Laraque
  9. Mathieu Danadenault
  10. Gregory Stewart
  11. Matt D'Agostini
  12. Max Pacioretty
  13. Thomas Beauregard
  14. JT Wyman
  15. Danny Kristo
  16. Alexandre Monohan
  17. Mike Glumac
  18. Ryan Flinn

The top-line wingers

Alex Kovalev

The MVP of the regular season last year sure did surprise a lot of people. A lot. When i was being outspoken on him actually being worth holding onto, the mainstream media were calling for his head. For him to do the same again this year would be an impossibility. The pundits are already saying the entire Canadiens season depends on him.

So there's the question of which Kovalev we will see. The media puts it as the Kovalev of 2006-07 who took nights off and got less than 50 points or the 2007-08 MVP. The reality for me is that the gulf between the to Kovalevs is not all that wide. The gulf was mainly on the scoresheet. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that Kovalev was largely the same guy for most of both seasons - often trying hard, sometimes single-handedly winning games. The difference for him, at least statistically last season were his linemates. They grew up. Plekanec in particular learned how to play offense at a different level to his previous one.

So, in that way, I am not very worried about which Kovalev will show up, how many points he will get or how we will remember this season for him. I think he will still amaze us most nights with his stick handling and will probably chip in another 30 goals and 70+ points.

But that is not where Kovalev's value ends, nor has it ever been. What Alex showed us last year even more clearly than in year's previous was that he is a leader and a player to build an entire offensive scheme around.

As a leader, he not only famously took the young Kostitsyns under his wing and helped Markov to come out of his shell, but he also showed everyone else how to act. He showed the players how to see milestones (1000 games? I'll do 2000) for what they are (i.e., not nearly Stanley Cups). He taught the youngsters that you can win back the fans and even the uber-critical media.

As an offensive cornerstone, he is at his most valuable. You see, Alex brings qualities that no one else on the team, no league, can bring. The way he can hold the puck is uncanny. And, it is this puck control combined with a willingness on the part of the coaches to actually exploit it that has made the Canadiens powerplay the best in the league after years, nay eons, of dumping into the corner. Alex gains the zone and keeps the zone, and if that weren't enough takes half the coverage and scores with ease. That's why when he's on the ice, it's the Kovalev line and not the Plekanec or Grabovski line.

Alex's 2007-08 Review

Alex Tanguay

At the end of last year's playoffs, I thought the biggest need to be addressed was scoring - a paradox if you only looked at regular season stats. I mean, for all the 6-5 comebacks against the Rangers we sure made the Bruins and Flyers look like the defensive standards on which to judge all future teams. Nervous players took nervous shots at what should have been nervous goalies. Gainey did not disagree with me, he stated an upgrade to the top 6 forwards was the biggest priority and he came through.

Critics of this trade are right to point out that Tanguay had been coming to Montreal in trade rumours for the past 4 seasons. But, like the Halak for Lecavalier dreams we always knew Ryder for Tanguay wouldn't happen. Well, miracle of miracles, it just did - well almost. Gainey lets Ryder go for nothing and gets Tanguay for next to nothing. All in all, a great acquisition.

So what type of player did Gainey get in Alex Tanguay. Well, an injured one thus far. Also a major francophone star, though strangely the media haven't latched onto him like they have to Latendresse(s). Maybe he undid the expectations (yeah right!) with this:
"I'm a little nervous, being French Canadian and coming here and knowing about the expectations and stuff like that," Tanguay said Monday before leaving for Halifax to play in the team's pre-season opener against the Boston Bruins.

"But I'm not coming here to be the saviour. The team is excellent. It's got a lot of firepower. They fell short a little last year (in the playoffs) and I'm just hoping to add to that and do my share to help them out."

But really what the Canadiens get is a Stanley Cup-winning, bona fide top-line winger. I'll call him a consistent 20-goal and 70-point man for his career, but he might thank Sakic and Forsberg for those numbers. Even so, it can't be ignored that the Avalanche in those years didn't mess around up front, and Alex virtually from stepping into the league got top offensive duties - the guy has serious skill.

The question of which skill he has is a funny one to answer. Obviously playing with Iginla and Sakic (two of the best goalscorers in recent NHL history) will help you pile up assist, but did you know that Tanguay's 19.4% career shooting percentage is the highest among active NHL players? The guy can pick a corner when he wants to apparently, which, considering the play f every winger in the Philadelphia series means our biggest weakness on the team is a little bit closer to being filled.

Statistically, I' m not sure I'm with the Hockey News on Tanguay being the Habs top point-man at the end of the season. Personally, I think that position is occupied. However, I do think he will do his part. Realistically, he'll get 70 points and 25 goals on a team where the scoring is more spread out then he has been used to. More than statistics of his own, the most important thing he might do is bring out the real Saku Koivu - the one who leads all tournaments in scoring when playing with a decent winger or two. Provided they don't hate each other, I can't see how Tanguay for Koivu and vice versa could be a bad thing. That said, Tanguay would make a nice complement to Plekanec's line as well, should the Kostitsyns be the ones to revive the captain.

Obviously, as with Lang, this addition was not meant to remedy the loss of Ryder in the regular season. I think the hope is that once the playoffs come, a little bit of Colorado attitude comes out and Tanguay can show the other guys how the playoffs are just like the regular season with less diverse travel schedules.

Andrei Kostitsyn

Other bloggers say they have a man, Chipchura, Higgins, Komisarek. Andrei Kostitsyn is my pick. As I've said many times before, no Canadiens prospect, not his brother, not Komisarek, not Price has anything near the potential of this guy. The way Andrei skates and handles the puck at speed is all instinct and all impressive. The fact that he can shoot makes him superstar potential. I have said it ad nauseum, he is the only true 50-goal threat we have and have had in years.

Andrei started to give us a little taste of what eh could do last season from about December on. It was the awakening off Andrei Kostitsyn that awoke the whole team. The Plekanec Kovalev due became a full-line threat, the new top line meant Koivu and Higgins got easier checking, and the effect trickled down. Yes, once Andrei was awoken, the Canadiens went from team who might never score even strength again to team where no 3 goal lead against is ever safe.

To preview Kostitsyn, though, is a difficult task. Take last year. Considering it was to be his first full season, I don't think anyone would have been surprised if the whole year went by as October and November did. But, his brother gets promoted and wham, Andrei notches it up a gear or two. To become a true league star, he needs to find some more notches, but who knows which cold windy January night he'll choose.

If I'm a betting man, I will project what he did for the second half of last season, which gives me 30 goals and 60 points. If we see some categoric leap to stardom, it'll probably be +5 and +10, respectively. In my opinion, 50 goals will wait for another season in the future.

As to who he'll play with, I don't think it will matter to him or his statistics. In some ways, Andrei and Kovalev together is redundant, but in other ways just plain amazing - and so many chances to be generated. He may personally benefit from a centre who much prefers the pass (in Koivu), but as I said, I don't think too much one way or the other. Koivu stands to benefit the most (statistically), though, from all these wingers at our disposal now.

If Andrei can learn another lesson: how to play in the playoffs (i.e., it's not a shinny game with your brother), then the Habs will really benefit. Given that he and all the team were so devastated after last year's exit, I really don't see how that could not be the case. Oh, the prospect of a firing Kostitsyn in the playoffs is already getting me pumped. There's no pathetic Julien counter for that.

Andrei's 2007-08 Review

Chris Higgins

What a difference a year makes, eh? Whaddya think Chris?

Last summer we were hearing about Higgins and Komisarek's wonderful adventure to a yoga instructor who taught them mind tricks. Last year, every mention of Higgins was prefaced with "Future captain". And get a load of this (from HW archives):
Chris Higgins is that unique player that has first line talent but plays like a fourth liner; a player who plays as if every shift is his last. He is in many ways the most versatile forward on the Habs roster, he excels on the power play, he is a threat on the penalty kill, and he can play all three forward positions. But more importantly it is how he plays the game.

His focus on the game and what it takes to succeed is unmatched.

Hyperbole from every corner. Not so this year.

Funny really, because Higgins didn't do any worse. He progressed normally considering where he came from and where e is going. He had a great start, an OK middle and an OK finish. He played the hero on a few occasions and played hard on all the others.

So what happened?

Well, 3 things to start with: Kovalev, Kostitsyn and Plekanec. Higgins is suddenly now an interesting second-line winger, not first-line scoring machine. But I think there was more. I can't find the quote now, but Christopher Higgins certainly alluded to something else, that had always occurred to me when I saw him after games. I think someone told him to shut up - basically, someone on the team. I think he is being a little more low key because for all his hot air in interviews last season, he was really only the 10th best player on the team. He has settled into his place, I think.

Aha, but I think this could be a panacea for Higgins. First of all, with one more season of observance to benefit from, I think we can safely say he does not possess first-line talent. Imagine if Tanguay and his 19.4% shooting had been on the end of those Higgins chances, we'd have a 45-goal man. Higgins is what he is though. An excellent checker. Excellent second-line forward. 25-30 goalscorer. Now, he could get 30 (I mean his luck couldn't get any worse), but let's not kid ourselves about 40.

I think Chris will benefit from lower expectations, being the third best player on a given line and by not having to pump himself up in every post-game scrum. This year should be a maturing year for Chris in which we see him develop into the player he will be from here on. And, i think the stage is set for him to learn and develop a lot. The evolution of his role within this team will help him too. Instead of stretching to find skills he doesn't have, he can now concentrate on using the ones he does to the fullest.

In terms of linemates, I wouldn't separate Chris from Koivu right away. After all, I think even Saku needs some continuity. But, as to the third piece, I think Tanguay or Kostitsyn would both fit very nicely. In my mind, there is no doubt that Higgins will be a bigger point-getter this season, if not a bigger goal contributor. If it's Tanguay and Koivu, or Kostitsyn and Koivu, I could see high 60s for Chris, though mostly assists this time.

Chris' 2007-08 Review

Sergei Kostitsyn

If you ask Bob Gainey how he replaced Michael Ryder, he'll probably tell you that he did that mid-way through last season when he elected to keep Sergei Kostitsyn with the big club. And it would be true.

Sergei Kostitsyn was certainly one of the big surprises of last season. Some people were quite sure we had a top-6 player in Sergei, but even the most optimistic weren't thinking that within months he would fulfill that promise.

This year, the expectations have gone a bit too far the other way, in my opinion. I think Sergei is a good player and showed great promise last season too. I think he rescued us from a lot more frustrating Ryder moments. But, we shouldn't forget he now has all of 64 games of NHL experience, with 12 goals and 35 points. Although we might like him to be a top-liner, he may not be entirely ready for the whole responsibility just yet. He's still a prospect for that position, he still has a profile on Hockey's Future, after all.

The things that get people so worked up about Sergei are plain to see, however. Even if I'm not as worked up as most, I can still fully appreciate his skill. His skating is great, with speed to compete with NHLers. His puck control is what we have come to expect from a Kostitsyn, as is his game sense. But, what sets him apart from other prospects in his peer group are his passing and his strength. Passing and sense as fine as Sergei's must be exploited on the PP if possible and on a line with someone who can score (now that we have 3 centres, this should be easy).

I see a good season ahead for Sergei, but not as good as Andrei's. I think he'll make a run at 20 goals, though probably end in the high teens, and 40-50 points as well. Of course, we've seen that Sergei is a quick study and the he has the Kostitsyn genes which may cause him to become twice the player he was the day before overnight, so I may be overly cautious with these numbers. But again, numbers underestimate this player's value. Another season, and by the playoffs he should offer a great threat in the tradition of third line wonders of the past like John Leclair and Claude Lemieux.

Sergei's 2007-08 Review

Filling out the NHL roster

Tom Kostopoulos

Tom falls into the filling out the roster category, but his place is guaranteed on the team in my eyes. But for the altercation in Tampa, he did little wrong in his first season with the Canadiens. If you think back to the playoffs, you will surely recall the spirited performances Tom gave.

Though Tom won't be called upon to be much more than an occasional goalscorer, I feel what he does can be summed up in one word: important. It seems every goal he scores is important, every fight he gets himself into. He is one of those classic players who play like they have no limits. If asked, I bet most people would make Tom a big man, but in fact he's not. He just plays that way.

If you're reading this for a hockey pool, don't pick Tom, however. Tobalev and I were joking about our upcoming pool, which now has so many participants we thought Kostopoulos could be picked. I'll tell you, it won't be me picking him. Barring a major catastrophe, Tom will be playing 10 minutes at a time on the fourth line. The coaches will tell him not to do anything rash, just to let the other guys rest a bit. Even in my most generous state of mind, I give Tom 18 points. That could be 10 goals or 5, who knows.

Tom's 2007-08 Review

Guillaume Latendresse

Guillaume is the true wildcard of this whole list. He is the only player with the potential to move up to the top two lines from this lower tier. And, he is the only one who could start in Hamilton.

If you take him at face value, it seems that last year Latendresse learned a lot. He learned that his place on the team is not assured. He learned that prospects below him the depth chart can leapfrog him in a flash. He learned that if he can't play on the offensive lines, he might have no place with the NHL Canadiens.

What's more, it seems he learned that no one else is the least bit worried about how his career turns out. That if he wants to succeed and live his dream that the responsibility is all his.

Quite heartening then that Guillaume spent the summer learning how to skate and losing an enormous amount of weight. To be honest, even if he doesn't skate better or last longer, this show of intent speaks volumes on its own. He has declared with his actions that he's not messing around anymore. That he'll do what it takes to dig a place out for himself on the Canadiens. I say more power to him.

With the benefit of exhibition games to refer to, I can say that Latendresse has changed. He is making things happen without Koivu. He is taking his attitude born form the summer and putting it into action on the ice.

What does this mean for him and the team then? Well, at this point I think it means he's going to be on the team. And, I think he'll win the benefit of being centered by Koivu or Lang. I would keep him away form Kovalev, since statistics show they weren't working last year (both were better without the other), but anyone else goes.

If Guillaume does secure a place on a line and sticks, he'll be a 20-goalscorer at last. I can't promise he'll get any assists, but someone ought to chip some of his rebounds. What's more, hopefully what he can learn during this season will make him a different weapon when we need him on the PP and also in th playoffs, of course.

In general, I can't help but be positive about Latendresse. I feel the maturity he has shown in the face of immense pressure and the drive he clearly has to make this work only make me think highly of him. Gosh, he can be slow sometimes, though, can't he?

Guillaume's 2007-08 Review

Georges Laraque

All welcome Georges Laraque. This pick-up for me made little sense in a hockey management way, but a lot of sense from a PR standpoint.

Georges Laraque is the best fighter in the league. And, to top it off, he is the most outspoken francophone player around. He already contributed to RDS with such regularity that you might forgive people for forgetting that his full-time job was fighting hockey players. In this light, I can see where this signing comes from – perhaps to take some of the bright lights off Tanguay, Latendresse and Price for a while.

As a hockey move, I don't see it. Fighting in the NHL now is a relic of a time when team's actually hated each other. It is the appendix to the body that is hockey. It serves no purpose, and can be removed without consequence. I'm sure that some would argue that we acquired Laraque because our team was bullied in the playoffs. That is nonsense. We got outscored, nothing more. So unless we are going to suddenly become the bullies, Laraque's role is window dressing.

It may be that I am selling Georges short, because as fighters go, he can certainly play. But the fact is, when Georges plays we will bench a player who apart from not being able to beat up Jeremy Reich is superior to the big man.

Alas, we have him, so we'll use him. I do think he'll dress for the majority of games in the regular season. Come the playoffs, it will depend on the opponent. I do look forward to his interviews...

Mathieu Dandenault

The last forward on the team. Call him the insurance policy.

I entered Mat as a winger the day Brisebois was signed. If gainey has shown us anything, it's that he'll stick it to us with Brisebois, whether we like it or not. That leaves Dandenault out on the blueline, especially after a year's hiatus.

As a forward, Dandenault is vanilla. He offers nothing special really. Sure he's fast, but for what? He can't deke or shoot or really pass. He'll chase and chase and that's great, but we've moved beyond the Dackell-Sundstrom generation, haven't we?

As an insurance policy, he does quite nicely though – as long as he keeps himself from getting too disgruntled. He's no Mark Streit, but he can be diligent at any position we ask of him.

I won't bother projecting points here, it's hard enough seeing him playing much at all.

As a person, I feel sorry for Dandenault, I do. In his years with the Canadiens, he has been nothing but consistent. But in that time, he has seen the team around him change completely. Better defencemen have grown up and been signed. Better forwards too. It would be nice if he could win a Stanly Cup here at home, because this will be his last season as a Habs player, surely.

Mathieu's 2007-08 Review

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