One year ago at around this time, the Canadiens had already played more games (29 b Dec 8th) and were sitting near the threshold of the playoff teams.
Critical things were happening though, that turned the season from a fight for the last playoff berth to aspirations of bigger prizes. Huet got injured, Halak was promoted, Price was entrusted. O'Byrne was trialled, Brisebois was phased into the background (again). Lapierre was promoted also, to take Grabovski's place. Only a few losses later, amid some debate, Sergei Kostitsyn was moved to the big team as well. The youth movement hinted at with the retention of Price in October was realised last December.
A year later and certain members of the movement are struggling with their course load, while others have graduated from the ranks of rookie/sophomore. In the midst of benchings and roster debates, let's have a look at the second/third years:
Andrei Kostitsyn – I could dedicate a whole piece to Andrei Kostitsyn. I have said many times before he is the only 50-goal talent on the club (and I stand by that, even during D'Agostini's impressive run). I am not afraid (like Benoit Brunet) to declare his super-vedette potential.
The way Andrei is playing now (see goal above), and has been playing for the majority of this season, it is easy to forget he has only played 136 NHL games. It's easy to forget he was a 3-goal man at this time last year.
This season, Andrei is the new king-maker it seems, as whichever line he is on seems to be the top line recently. He and Koivu together is a long-overdue partnership, and from what I have seen could flourish if left to mature. If I want a goal against a tough defence, he's the man of the moment for me.
Where does the success come from? For me it's been a story of patience with Andrei all along. After he was drafted, he was allowed a season in the then Russian league to witness play there. In Hamilton, he was introduced slowly, he was eventually given the linemates and was allowed time and space. Again in Montreal, the Habs showed rare patience with a rookie when they promoted Andrei, demoted and then re=promoted in 2007. When ready he was given linemates to spring him onto the scene and he responded. A slow start last year was patiently waited on for a break.The patience has paid off in confidence – confidence that Andrei has the freedom to be Andrei.
Often we can be very critical of the management and coaches. The file on Andrei Kostitsyn has been a first class example of asset management in the NHL. Even his contract exemplary.
Maxim Lapierre – Fellow 2003 draft alumnus Lapierre has been the other player to really grab the torch. 123 games down, Max is also finding a groove.
Following the additions of Robert Lang, Tanguay and Laraque, the retention of Begin and Dandenault, and the commitment to Latendresse and Sergei; Max had his work cut out just to find a pressbox place. In the adverse conditions, he has not only done that but played himself to almost indispensable status. His penalty killing is mature. His even-strength play is exceptional. His effort is non-stop, but also well-directed. When you look at a draft, you hope to find players like Andrei Kostitsyn; but to find a player like Max – in the same draft – is a huge bonus.
Where does the success come from? In my opinion, Maxim Lapierre's success has been stirred from his inner passion. I think his demotion last autumn (fully undeserved at the time so we could fit 8 Dmen), and his response was career-defining. He's had bad games since then, but not really bad stretches.
Maxim is a critical player for the organization at the moment. Management, try as they might are struggling mightily to find and keep homegrown talent. Tanguay is here for now, but for how long? Latendresse is hanging in there, but should he be? Laraque and Begin are long in the tooth. Some of the defencemen are Quebecois, but nor are they young or optimal roster members. Look to the minors and the reinforcements aren't sure-fire NHLers. I think it is hard to balance player recruitment for winning with a certain template for team identity. Maxim Lapierre is a player who fills both sets of criteria.
Carey Price – Younger than the others even, no one speaks of Carey as rookie anymore. Yet his next game is his 61st in the regular season – start or relief. How long does it feel since he was anointed last autumn? How long since he wore Hamilton red?
This year, Carey has been a sensationally reliable keeper. Saving 92% of shots? Excellent. He's had his glitches, but appears to bounce back better than he did last spring. In short, he is learning his trade very well. To say he is graduating from the class may seem premature, but is a reflection of the way he is already seen around the league and, indeed, Montreal.
Where does the success come from? We were told it would be his icy demeanour, his concentration, his maturity. All of these things have no doubt contributed to his success. But the biggest factor for me has been Bob Gainey. Bob's fingerprints are all over this file. His roster place, his demotion, re-promotion. The Huet trade. His carte blanche again to begin this year. This goes beyond the patience shown to Kostitsyn. There is dedication to his cause, his progression.
This dedication has benefited Price. Whether it has benefited the Habs at every turn is up for debate. In the long-term view (Gainey's job), a veteran, reliable, confident Price is something very desirable indeed. Expediting this progress was a risk, but may pay off with the goods a year or two earlier than expected. While I won't concede that throwing in the Huet card last year was a good move for Cup opportunities, it certainly looks like Gainey has helped Price's career along. Next time we get a gift-wrapped first two rounds, I think price will be up for it, which is very positive.
Josh Gorges – Borderline youngster here. I include him because his first game this season was only his 166th in the NHL, so he's a young serviceman. A mostly forgotten option at this time last year, he's progressed in commendable fashion.
It marvels to think of Josh as that young because he has been more inconspicuous than anyone in usurping his place on the team – our number 3 defenceman. There are no jitters about Josh on penalty kill – in fact he may be top choice. There are no qualms about him playing at any time at all.
Where does the success come from? In the Habs case, I think luck would be my answer. A series of injuries to others and bad play as well have offered opportunities that might not otherwise have been granted to Josh. Each time he's been promoted he has responded with panache. Number 6? No problem. Number 4? No sweat. Number 3? I'm good guys, get over it...
The success from Gorges' point of view comes from effort and good sense. You see him in good position because: a) he knows what good position is (maybe he could teach some of his elders); and b) he works very hard to get and stay there. From all accounts this has always been Josh. it's lucky we've had opportunity to find out.
I look at the names above and think: "Where would our team be without the four players above (Andrei K, Lapierre, Gorges and Price)?"
Where indeed. I think the answer is 2006-07. Remember how much we enjoyed that?
(Tomorrow, for those concerned, I'll have a look at the non-graduates, the repeaters...)