After finishing first in the East in 2007-08, the Montreal Canadiens fell to eighth in 2008-09 and were swept in the first round. (Getty Images)
If a change is as good as a rest, the Montreal Canadiens will be one spry team next fall. And the fact they may not be a good one isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Major alterations are coming to Montreal. That fact isn’t up for debate, given the Canadiens have just 12 regulars – including both goalies – from this year’s roster under contract for next season. Put it this way: Of the 249 goals the Habs scored this year, only 73 are under contract to come back – 74 if you count the one Ryan O’Byrne put in his own net.
How severe the metamorphosis becomes depends on how serious the Canadiens are about righting the ship and rebuilding a team that came nowhere close to meeting expectations – unrealistic as they may have been – placed upon it in its centennial season.
If fortitude, vision and long-term commitment drive the bus in Montreal, the Canadiens will commit changing the very essence of their team and create a ton of valuable cap space in the process.
They’ll also be looking for a new captain next fall.
Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Alex Kovalev, also known as Montreal’s three most talented forwards, are all eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer. For a multitude of reasons, the team should let all three players walk.
First of all, that trio will never form the core of a championship team. Koivu, 35 in November, has been a courageous captain since taking the ‘C’ in 1999, always putting on a brave front in the face of troubling times for the organization and himself personally. He has also come to epitomize the exact deficiency in Montreal’s game, basically since it last won the Cup in 1993: Koivu is good, not great. He’s impressive at times, never imposing. In short, it’s really hard to envision commissioner Gary Bettman ever saying, ‘Saku Koivu, please come and take the Stanley Cup.’
Tanguay, 30 come November, is best suited to providing background skill on a good team and continuing to make an entity as volatile as Kovalev, 36, part of your core is awfully hard on the nerves.
Not that biding adieu to your entire top line is conducive to peaceful sleeps, but why keep banging your head against a wall while the same players who’ve come up short in the past continue to do so?
Retain Kovalev, Koivu and Tanguay, and the Canadiens would be chaining themselves to the sorrowfully underwhelming status quo. Let them go and Montreal would not only be exhibiting the courage required to initiate true change, the team would be saving itself a whack of salary in anticipation of an expected cap crash in 2010-11.
Basically, the Habs would do well to focus on simply getting to the cap floor next year, which figures to be around the same $40.7 million figure it was this season because the league had already banked a lot of its revenue before the recession took hold.
Cap flexibility is a tough thing to sell on the front of a program, but that doesn’t undermine its importance. The Canadiens have lacked a franchise-defining player since Patrick Roy and haven’t had an MVP-type skater since Guy Lafleur. Cap maneuverability is the key in changing that.
If the cap drops as much as many expect for 2010-11, teams will be forced to unload salary. Certainly they’ll initially try to shed dollars attached to overpaid stiffs, but when that doesn’t play out, they’ll be forced into move quality players simply because they have to hack somewhere.
Montreal, which has shown repeatedly it is incapable of attracting top-tier free agents, would have the financial freedom to poach one or two of those players on the block. And thanks to a strong drafting and developing record, the Habs would also have the quality prospects to make a trade happen.
Forget a spate of injuries and spotty goaltending; the Canadiens never were the contenders many thought they’d be this season. That doesn’t mean the organization is in complete disarray. Yes, the Habs need to do the proverbial one back, two forward shuffle, but there is a base of talent.
Re-sign restricted free agents Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins because neither one is nearly as bad as he showed this year. If UFA defenseman Mike Komisarek’s demands are reasonable, bring him back, too. Let Jaroslav Halak see the net more to relieve some of Carey Price’s burden.
If the team is really bad, draft a new franchise face. If not, use cap space to land the player that has been missing from Montreal for far too long.
This article also appeared in the May 25 issue of The Hockey News magazine.
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Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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