Thursday, July 12, 2012

The new Habs, more like your dad’s Habs

Sorry folks, this post has been long overdue.  Hope you’ve all been well in the interim between the Habs failure to make the playoffs and now.  I’m sure that many of you would agree that the 2011-12 season was somewhat of a write-off.  Not only did we lose a lot of games, we played a fairly boring brand of hockey, which did not make for what you’d call an exciting TV experience.

The good news is that it can only go up from here. With tons of losing usually comes renewal and a fresh start, and that is the case with the Habs of 2012-13.  Will we win the cup? Probably not.  Will we make the playoffs? Possibly, but nothing is guaranteed.  Will we be better than last year? Most assuredly.  Let me explain.

Culture Change

Sure, you’ve heard these words before, but rarely have you seen them actually being put into practice in Montreal.  Well, I’m here to tell you that gosh darnit it’s actually happening: things are changing, and for the first time in years (maybe ever) I’m confident that the team has a real plan in place to win the cup, not just make the playoffs. 

The first step was simple enough: get a GM who gets it.  Gauthier clearly didn’t, Marc Bergevin clearly does.  Gauthier was not a delegator; he kept things private and tried to do it all on his own.  This does not work in today’s NHL.  Bergevin has made it clear from day 1 that he planned on surrounding himself with a team of hockey minds to make the best decisions possible.

Since that time he’s poached ex-GM Rick Dudley to be his assistant, hired ex-Habs Michel Therrien, Patrice Brisebois and JJ Daigneault to be coaches, and brought ex-teammates Scott Mellanby and Martin Lapointe aboard in key management positions. 

The organization has not looked so cohesive in years.  Most importantly, Bergevin has opened the door to a new day in communication skills.  “Monsieur this and monsieur that” have taken a back seat to honesty and saying it like it is. Thank god for that.

The Draft

The next step was the draft, the first opportunity for Bergevin to really put his fingerprints on the club.  What he did with the team’s first selection was obvious to most, but not so obvious when you consider how disappointing our draft record in the first round has been in the last 30 years or so.  Here he drafted what everyone in this city has been begging for, for years: a big, talented centre. Hallelujah.  Alex Galchenyuk was the player everyone with half a brain wanted, and we got him. 

The rest of the draft was also fairly impressive.  The 2nd round selections were made up of two players who many thought would be first rounders. Sebastian Collberg looks like a boom or bust type winger, a razzle-dazzle, Claude Giroux-type who could either grow into being a dynamic top 6 forward, or fall by the wayside due to his lack of size and physicality.  Dalton Thrower looks like a real gamer, a D-man with grit and offensive flair.  Think Kevin Bieksa.  Like Bieksa he’s not the biggest man, but has made a name for himself in the WHL for not backing down from a fight.  Dalton Thrower: yes, the name really does fit the player!

Bergevin filled out the last few rounds with more talented players that seemed to drop in ranking rather inexplicably. Tim Bozon, son of former NHL’er Phillippe Bozon, was drafted 64th overall.  Playing in just his first year in Canada, Bozon led the WHL in rookie scoring with a line of 36-35-71.  His stock may have dropped due to his nationality, French, and his raw defensive skills.  His finishing ability reminds me of Michael Ryder.

Brady Vail went in the 4th round, and was one of the more safe picks.  Vail is labeled as a solid two-way centre in the mold of a Ryan Kesler, but who projects more as a 3rd line shutdown guy.  He fits into the same category of prospect Michael Bournival, a steady, reliable forward with NHL-ready hockey sense. Whether his actual skill-set will translate into an NHL career remains to be seen.

5th rounder Charles Hudon came next, another boom-or-bust-type forward. Relatively small, Hudon has the talent and scoring ability to be a top 6 forward, but his lack of speed and size is what scared most teams away.  Similarly to Collberg, if he can bulk up and retain his overall ability, this could be an interesting pick.

Next up was Eric Nyström from the Swedish Elite League, and from the way head scout Trevor Timmins describes him, he’ll turn out to be the steal of draft.  Apparently Timmins sent scouts to check out 2012 first rounder Henrik Samuelsson, and ended up being more interested by the shifty 5’11, 180 lb Swede. Time will only tell if the Swedish scout hit a home run here, as will be the case with the rest of this year’s picks.  But all indications point towards a successful draft by the first year GM.

The Signings

Marc Bergevin has preached patience from day 1 of his candidacy, and his FA signings thus far have done nothing to dispel that notion.  Sticking with his mandate to make the team “tough to play against”, the GM’s first order of business was bringing gritty forward Travis Moen back into the mix.  Moen was a revelation last season, scoring key goals while filling in on the top 2 lines.  The rugged winger was on pace for his most goals and points ever before an upper body injury ended his season. 

Moen had shown enough to the new management team, however, as they inked him to a 4-year deal worth $7.4m. The most important part about this deal for me is the term, four years.  A two-year deal would have been a waste of money, simply because the team will not be competitive (Stanley Cup competitive) in that timeframe. You want a guy like Moen around when a potential superstar like Galchenyuk really starts rolling in 2-3 years.

The same can be said with the first, big UFA pickup, Brandon Prust.  Also inked to a 4-year deal ($10m), Prust gives the organization another ultra-physical player, an excellent, grinding two-way winger that puts a contending team over the top. Like Moen, he doesn’t come in as a potential team savior, but he’s the kind of player that you feel comfortable slotting into any number of roles: a true team guy.

Lesser signings Colby Armstrong and ex-Hab Francis Bouillon also fit that bill. Both signed to 1-year deals of around a million each, these vets will have no trouble integrating themselves into the team. Both will know their role, and barring injuries (which both have been plagued of, of late) will fill them nicely.

A term that gets thrown around a lot in hockey is that of the “role player”.  Bergevin didn’t break the bank in free agency thus far, but he identified a real weakness on the team, and addressed it head on.  The bottom six of the club has been in disarray for a number of years, and the concept of having specific roles for each player on the team has gone by the wayside.

That clearly ended this year. With the return of Moen, and the additions of Armstrong and Prust, the team already looks to have solidified the bottom 6 with tough, gritty individuals.  The team may not be the most talented, but they surely won’t be pushed around by the Bruins of the world with this new lineup.

In addition to these signings, the team made maybe it’s most important transaction of the year, locking up star goalie Carey Price for 6 years at $6.5m a year. There was no surprise here, but it’ always good news when you re-sign a player of this caliber. Other notable re-signings were Lars Eller to a two-year deal (1.325m per) as well as Aaron Palushaj to a two-way, one-year deal.

Next up will be a comprehensive, up to date report on the Montreal Impact, who are currently fighting for their playoff lives in the MLS.  Till then!