Hab-Nots No Longer
In the late 1990′s the Montreal Canadiens were being decimated and through some terrible trades became a team bereft of any talent on the parent team and in the system. Once a proud franchise with a rich tradition of winning, the Habs became one of the league’s worst teams with bad coaching and a terrible GM in Rejean Houle.
But the last few years under the guidance of Andre Savard and Bob Gainey, the Canadiens have been able to turn themselves around and could now be considered one of the deepest teams in terms of young talent.
Built around a franchise goalie, the Habs have put together plenty of skill on both defence and forward and are looking to reap the rewards of being patient and building from within. Though the last couple of years the parent team has been a bit thin, over the next few years the influx of young prospects that are or soon to be ready and should make the Habs into one of the better young teams in the league.
The cornerstone of the franchise is Jose Theodore. As he goes, so go the Habs. He is a bit of a throwback in that he is a small goalie who relies on reflexes, quickness and agility which he is among the best in. Unlike many goalies now who are 6’3 and wear big pads and do nothing but eat space, Theodore does not have the body mass to cover alot of ground and relies on his athleticism. Facing daily about 40 shots a game he is one of the few goalies who can carry a team on his own. At 28 he has many good years ahead.
Like always, the Habs have a young French Canadian prospect in goal. Yann Danis has shown signs he will be the next top goalie to come out of Montreal following the likes of Thibault, Theodore and Garon. Danis went the unconventional route of US College when most of the top French goalies go through the Q. But like others, he plays the usual butterfly style to almost perfection taking away the bottom half of the net. He fared very well in his first season in the AHL with 28 wins, and a .924 SP to go with his 2.34 GAA. With Theo around he wont get much playing time in Montreal but he should put up a good battle with Cristobal Huet for backup duty.
For years Habs fans were spoiled with bluelines that consisted of top players such as Savard, Lapointe, Robinson, Chelios, Desjardins and Schneider. Now, the same cannot be said as the Habs defence is one of the weakest. And defence that relies heavily on the likes of Patrice Brisebois, Craig Rivet or Francis Bouillion would be considered weak.
But there is hope. Mike Komisarek is the future of the Habs blueline. Though not an offensive stud that is typical of top Habs blueliners, he offers size a mean streak and bring strong skating to the back end. His play is similar to that of Adam Foote. He should be a mainstay for years. Joining him may be one of the other Habs top picks in Ron Hainsey. He is a different player than Komisarek. He is more of an offensive minded defenseman with good mobility, passing skills and offensive smarts. The problem has been his play in his own zone. for a player his size he is quite soft. In each year on the farm his play has regressed causing some concern with the Habs brass. the hope is he will be a late bloomer who can still be a decent offensive contributor. The hope is for these two to contribute sooner rather than later otherwise the Habs will need to look elsewhere to address their blueline needs.
The Habs still have Sheldon Souray and Andrei Markov who are still in the prime of their careers. Souray is their toughest and strongest defensive blueliner who contributes on the PP with his booming shot. Markov is a solid puck moving defenceman who is skilled and fast enough to join the rush and contribute on offence. So their are some solid pieces in place for Montreal.
Where the Canadiens brass is most excited about is the forwards. They already have a top centre in Saku Koivu who is their leader and heart of the team. They also have tons of speed in Richard Zednik who can break a game open with one rush. And they have started to strengthen their third and 4th lines with players such as Radek Bonk, Niklas Sundstrom, Jan Bulis, Steve Begin filling in checking roles among other things and adding good depth to the team. In all likelihood, the Habs will add a free agent or two to strengthen an already decent group of forwards.
But the habs know the future is even better. They have already had some of their home grown prospects make the big club and have plenty more on the way. Mike Ribiero and Michael Ryder have formed an solid 2nd line duo to follow Koivu and Zednik. Ribiero is a terrific playmaker and stickhandler who can score some real highlight reel goals. However being small and soft has cause him difficulty in handling the daily NHL grind. Ryder however has good combination of size and skill. willing and able to battle in the corners and in front, yet can play a finesse game as well. He had a terrific rookie campaign and the Habs hope that is a sign of things to come.
In a short while the Habs hope Alex Perezhogin, Andrei Kostsitsyn, Chris Higgins, Kyle Chipchura, Tomas Plekanec, Marcel Hossa and Corey Locke will join Ribiero and Ryder in Montreal.
Perezhogin has all the tools to be a top line player. Great speed, decent size, high skill level, terrific playmaking abilities and good hockey sense. The Habs hope that the one year lost due to suspension does not hurt his development in the North American game.
The same can be said about Kostsitsyn. He too is a highly skilled winger with top line potential. He has the size you like on the wings making him able to handle the NHL grind, yet he also possesses speed and good hands. If his illness troubles are over with, he should make the grade in short time. Plekanec is a solid two way player who has been very productive in the AHL but his lack of size and pure goal scoring ability have held him back from reaching the NHL.
Hossa too has produced at all levels except the NHL. he has all the tools with size, speed and skill but lacks desire. though at times he shows flashes of skill like his brother Marian, he seems to not want to do it every night.
And with Corey Locke, the Habs have the 2003 CHL player of the year and a player who has played under the tutulage of the great Brian Kilrea. The Habs may have the next Alyn MacCauley on their hands.
These offensive gems are balanced out with a couple of solid prospect who play more of a two way game. Chris Higgins, though small could be a slower version of Kris Draper as someone who can check well but has some offensive potential. Kyle Chipchura on the other hand has good size but may lack pure offensive ability. but he will be effective in the corners, around the net and in terms of forechecking. He is certainly a Bob Gainey type of player.
With so many young forward prospects on the horizon, the future is looking really bright for the Canadiens. If the Habs upgrade their blueline to help out in front of Theodore, Montreal could be a team to reckon with no only in the future but now. And perhaps we may see the winning tradition return to this once proud franchise.