Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Experts" predict Habs to miss playoffs

Perhaps hockey analysts have just gotten lazy and don't do their homework anymore, merely trolling the Internet to see what others are saying and mirroring those opinions in fear of looking stupid. Well... they are. The Hockey News for example has picked the Habs to finish 13th this season and gave them an overall rating of D+ and in doing so proved to any doubters out there that the only knowledgeable thing that paper generates anymore is their Hockey Draft Preview.

I would expect weak-minded thoughts from the likes of, ESPN or CBS with little focus on hockey and poor resources but the Hockey News? All I can say is that it has been constantly slipping since Bob MacKenzie left as Editor-In-Chief for 9 years. And speaking of Bob MacKenzie, he hedged his bets a bit with some positive comments about the Habs young players and prospects but agreed with his TSN "counterparts" who unanimously picked the Habs to miss the playoffs by a wide margin, finishing 12th and naturally behind the Leafs.

So, why are all the experts off-base? To understand it you need to strip it down to the core reasons:

1. Lost Souray & didn't properly replace him
2. Marginal defense
3. Not nearly enough offense
4. Kovalev will become a distraction

Did anyone seriously expect Souray to have the season he had prior to last season? Even in a contract year, I thought Souray would be hard pressed to beat his career high by scoring 40 points. Nobody on this planet thought he was capable of score 64 points, let alone 19 power-play goals. Now the experts are asking how the Habs are going to replace his numbers when the reality is that nobody really thinks Souray can possibly repeat, let alone better those numbers.

There was a reason why Souray was one of the last UFAs to sign with a team and it was no surprise to see a deperate Edmonton throw an average of 5.4 Million at him over the next 5 years. His surgically repaired wrist meant fighting is no longer part of his game, despite the impression one might get from 135 PIMs. Souray only fought in 2 games last year. TWO. Now Souray can add a surgically repaired shoulder to his repertoire. The loss of the intimidation factor combined with very poor defensive skill makes one wonder what the overall cost was for Souray having his career offensive year in a contract year. The answer was a glowing -28, tied for third-worst in the entire NHL. Being a great leader on the ice and in the room only carries you so far.

If the Habs are to improve this year and replace Sourays "numbers" GM Bob Gainey knew he needed to improve 5 on 5 play while maintaining a solid PP & PK so sacrificing some individual offensive numbers could be more than offset by bringing in better defensive talent. The Habs were 15th in Goals scored last year and 22nd in Goals against. The year prior, with healthy goalies the Habs were 13th in Goals against and 20th in Goals scored which goes to show the impact young player like Higgins, Plekanec & Komisarek have been making as part of Gainey's Five Year Plan.

This is why the Habs went after Roman Hamrlik, signing him to an average of 5.5 Million over 4 years. His 5 on 5 offensive numbers are just as good, if not better than Sourays while his defensive numbers are far superior. Overall, a net gain for the Habs. It's the very same reason Radek Bonk was replaced with Brian Smolinski and Aaron Downey was replaced with Tom Kostopoulos.

Patrice Brisebois was a low cost lottery signing in case his surgically repaired back allowed him to help out on the PP while the team hopes Mark Streit could continue to adjust to the North American game and improve enough to take the #4 defensive slot for himself. The Habs have a rock solid top 3 on defence in Markov, Hamrlik & Komisarek and a cast of 4 others, led by Streit who are serviceable defencemen until the next wave arrives later this season with the likes of Ryan O'Byrne, Pavel Valentenko, Mathieu Carle pushing for jobs. Marginal defence? Come playoff time, nobody will be saying it and Gainey will likely make one trade to bolster it even more.

Up front, the Habs will be even better on offence as Plekanec and a healthy Higgins make the next step, followed closely by Latendresse while Andrei Kostitsyn & Kyle Chipchura get their first full seasons to show everyone why they were 1st round draft picks. Mikhail Grabovski has nothing left to prove in the AHL and will either stick with the team or be traded. If he's sent back down, look for him to sign with a team in the Russian Super League. Smolinski more than makes up for the departed Radek Bonk and we haven't even discussed Ryder and Kovalev yet.

This is THE season for Michael Ryder, not just yet another contract year but a UFA year. Multiple years of last minute, one year deals comes down to this. Ryder has all the incentive he needs to produce career numbers and playing with Higgins & Koivu will give him every opportunity to do just that. On the flip side, Gainey has learned a valuable lesson after dealing with Souray last year and won't wait until the trade deadline to decide what he's going to do. If the trade deadline comes and goes there is no question that Ryder will jump to the highest bidder next July. If Ryder won't sign a long term, fair market deal come January, and past negotiations put that as highly unlikely there is little doubt that Gainey will trade him rather than let him walk for nothing.

Alex Kovalev. The Enigma. The with progression of the new young core of the Canadiens the need for Kovalev to be THE leader on offence is no longer as pressing as it once was. Yes he only appears to play when he feels like it... and has really only done it once since he played with Mario in Pittsburgh. The challenge for Coach Carbonneau will be to find 2 players that can motivate Kovalev. So far in pre-season and the first games of the regular season, Andrei Kostitsyn may be the answer. A more experienced Plekenec will likely wind up centering the line over the long haul as the Grabovsky experiment will likely end with him moving down to the 4th line where he belongs to cut his teeth and learn from his mistakes without the pressure to deliver... now. So long as Kovalev can be anywhere close to adequate the 2nd line will be one of the better #2 lines in the NHL come year end.

Lastly there is goaltending. Hamilton Coach Don Lever told the Habs and the media that Carey Price is the real deal and he's NHL ready now. Not soon, NOW. With Cristobal Huet in the last year of his contract, my guess was that Price would become the #1 Goaltender sometime in January after a half-season in Hamilton. All signs now point to Price taking over before Christmas and for the next decade to boot. With Huet, Price and Halak the Canadiens are well covered in case of injuries so I highly doubt Gainey will seriously consider any trade offers for Huet or Halak for the next few months at the very least. Regardless, look for the Habs to jump up from 22nd in Goals against to the 10-12 spot which will be key to making the playoffs.

Upon closer examination, there is little to justify a prediction of a 13th place finish. Not with better overall replacements for the departed, a crop of young players ready for the next level and a new wave of NHL ready prospects pushing for jobs, especially in goal.

My "Expert" prediction? 7th place with a bullet.