Montreal Canadiens 2011-12 Season Preview

We are finally here!  It is almost the beginning of another NHL hockey season.  The Montreal Canadiens are holding their annual preseason golf tournament today at the Club de Golf Laval-sur-le-Lac, which is always a sign that training camp and the regular season are just around the corner.  Their rookie camp is already under way.  There have been several changes in personnel and players over the off season and they all should contribute to another exciting season for nos Bleu Blanc Rouge.

The rookie camp is under way at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard and will run until September 15th.  Thirty one players are taking part in it with special attention being paid to first round draft choice centre Louis Leblanc (coming off off season shoulder surgery), winger Aaron Palushaj (on the brink of making the next step to the big club?), defenceman Brendon Nash, defenceman Jarred Tinordi, this year’s first round pick defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, and centre Gabriel Dumont.  Despite the fact that the Canadiens’ roster seems pretty much set some of these players will be eager, I’m sure, to show the progress they have made since last season.  While the defence seems set (Hal Gill, PK Subban, Josh Georges, Andrei Markov, Alexei Yemelin, Jaroslav Spacek, and Yannick Weber), there might be a spot at least in the beginning of the season for one forward as centreman Lars Eller (shoulder surgery) will not be ready for the beginning of the season.  Winger Aaron Palushaj seems like he would be the first forward called up to the big team, so having a good training camp is in his best interests.  Centreman Gabriel Dumont, a former Drummondville Voltigeurs player who was drafted by the Habs in 2009, might be a dark horse, though.

There have been some changes with the Montreal Canadiens in the off season.  Gone are defenceman Roman Hamrlik, defenceman James Wisniewski, winger Tom Pyatt, defenceman Paul Mara, defenceman Brent Sopel, winger Benoit Pouliot, centreman Jeff Halpern, defenceman Alexandre Picard, and backup goaltender Alex Auld.  To replace those gone some players have been signed like winger Eric Cole (formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes), backup goaltender Peter Budaj, defenceman Raphael Diaz (of Switzerland), defenceman Alexei Yemelin (of Russia), goaltender Nathan Lawson (formerly of New York Islanders), and veteran defenceman Jeff Woywitka (formerly of Dallas Stars).  Cole and Budaj are guaranteed spots on the team with Woywitka probably going to be a depth player.  Yemelin (physical defenceman with not much offensive capabilities) and Diaz (more offensive upside, but not as big as Yemelin) will probably fight it out for the 6th or 7th spot on the team.

Players like Josh Georges, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Ryan White, and Andrei Markov will be looked at to make bigger contributions this year.  Georges (knee), Markov (knee) and Pacioretty (head/neck) were out significant parts of last season due to injuries.  They are now back and will be counted on heavily.  Especially, Andrei Markov, who has suffered two huge knee injuries (ACL tears) over the past two seasons.  The team is hoping  that their number one defenceman will be healthy for the whole season.  When he’s there the Montreal powerplay is better due to his vision, less time in their own end due to his superior puck moving skills and he plays against the other team’s top offensive line.  Desharnais and White are young players who were called up later in the season, played well in spurts and are now looking to becoming permanent and productive members of the team.

It is not only on the player personnel front that there were changes.  Some coaching changes have been made in Montreal and in Hamilton (farm team).  Jacques Martin will once again be the head coach, but gone is assistant coach Kirk Muller (now head coach at the AHL’s Milwaukee franchise).  Martin has added two coaches from the Hamilton Bulldogs, Randy Ladouceur and Randy Cunneyworth, as assistant coaches.  Taking over the head coaching duties in Hamilton is Clement Jodoin, who is on his second tour with the organization.

Veterans like Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, captain Brian Gionta, and Eric Cole are steady players who will continue to contribute the majority of the team’s offence barring injury.  Cammalleri, Gionta and Cole all have the potential to be 30 goal scorers.  Plekanec is the team’s best two-way player.  Veterans Andrei Kostitsyn and Scott Gomez will have to have a better season.  Gomez is making too much money ($7.5 million range) and playing too many important minutes to be only contributing 38 points and having a -15 plus/minus stat.  Kostitsyn is a big body, a good skater and has a great shot.  He just has to be more consistent.  When he was paired on a line with Eller towards the end of last season he played some of his best hockey, so here’s to hoping their chemistry continues this coming year.  The fact that the team only resigned him to a one year contract indicates to me that their patience has worn thin and this will be his last chance to prove that he can contribute what a player of his skill set should.

The team is also counting on players like Pacioretty, PK Subban, Eller, and Carey Price to continue improving (though I’m not sure Price can play any better).  They are the young core of the team and representing where they are going in the future.  Someone like Yannick Weber is kinda on the bubble with the team.  With the recent signings on defence of bigger bodies he might be victim of the numbers game, but you hate to lose his offensive upside (good puck mover with a good shot).  Playing up forward he is a little on the small side (Habs don’t need another small forward) and his skill set is sorta lost on the 3rd or 4th lines.

With the addition of Cole and Budaj providing Martin a more reliable backup option to Carey Price than Auld was last season the Canadiens should be a playoff team once again this season.  I see them finishing anywhere from 3rd to 6th in the Eastern Conference, but behind the Boston Bruins in the Northeast Division.  General manager Pierre Gauthier has left himself some wiggle room under the salary cap, so if he identifies a need for his team due to injury or other reasons at the trade deadline he can address those needs.

The first preseason game is less than a week away.  September 20th they will hit the ice against the Dallas Stars.  After 8 preseason games their first regular season game is on October 6, 2011 in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.  Their first home game is October 13 against the Calgary Flames.  Let the fun begin!

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