Just think for a moment - in just a few short weeks training camp will be starting up and the excitement and hope that a new season brings will engulf us. How do you guys think we'll fare this year? I know it's not always easy to think realistically, especially before we take on Buffalo on October 6th, but I can't help but feel optimistic right now.
Though the off-season started off slowly and I was very frustrated to see our team get spurned by Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott, but I think we can all agree that we have a stronger team now than we had a year ago at this time. I think Bob Gainey did an excellent job of upgrading our team without losing anyone of significance.
While I question only getting a third round draft pick for Richard Zednik, I absolutely love the end result of that day's trades. I think Mike Johnson will be a better fit for our team than Zednik yet somehow we ended up with a higher selection in the draft because of the deals. At the very least, at least we won't have to see anyone skating behind the net with one hand on the stick anymore; that always drove me crazy.
I was shocked when I saw we signed Sergei Samsonov, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. True, he does not fulfill our biggest need of a big, physical centre, but he does bring incredible speed to a team that was already one of the quickest in the NHL and it should be a blast to see him and Alex Kovalev stickhandle around some of the immobile defensemen remaining from the previous era of hockey. Plus, it will certainly make our games against Boston even more interesting.
As much as I love these additions, I'm most excited about some of our fantastic young players. I think Chris Higgins has a legitimate shot at scoring 30 goals this season while playing spectacular two-way hockey and will really blossom as a leader on this team. I also expect Tomas Plekanec to increase his output this year and bring a lot of energy to the team. He's a small guy, like most of our forwards, but he forced his way on to the team last pre-season and hasn't looked back.
Mike Komisarek had a slow start last year, but once Gainey took over behind the bench and gave him substantial playing time it was easy to see why he was chosen with one of our first round picks in the fabulous draft of 2001. I thought he was our best defenseman for the brief period in which he was paired with JP Cote and he continued to improve when patrolling the blueline with Andrei Markov towards the end of the season
The guy I'm by far the most excited about is Alexander Perezhogin. If you glance at his statistics from last season you'll probably be quick to write him off as a fringe player at best, but after paying particularly close attention to him all of last year I really think he's ready to soar. His line along with Plekanec and Zednik was our best in the playoffs a few long months ago and he almost has too much talent to fail. Many probably won't remember this, but Richard Zednik was injured for the first six games of last season and Perezhogin played on the top line with Kovalev and Saku Koivu which I truly believe was our best line of the season. Unfortunately, he became sick shortly after that and wasn't given many opportunities to prove himself by Claude Julien. Gainey's self-appointment as coach saw Alex's ice time gradually increase and while the numbers weren't there, his flashes of brilliance were hard to miss. He drastically cut down on his careless stick penalties and often made defenders look foolish with some amazing moves at a very high speed. I think he'll surprise an awful lot of people in the very near future.
Our roster is pretty much set, but there could be a few pleasant surprises in training camp. Andrei Kostitsyn is pretty much a lock to make the team, but don't be surprised if he ends up with a regular role rather than a press box assignment. I'd love to see Guillaume Latendresse get a shot as well as we could really use his size. It must be very special for him to be so adored by the fans of Montreal already and I really think he's capable of excelling despite the pressure placed on him. Yann Danis could also end up in Montreal if Gainey can swing a good deal for David Aebischer, but I think it's more likely that he'll be the starter in Hamilton for one more season. After seeing him a few times last year though I'd be pretty confident with him between the pipes in the event that something happens to Cristobal Huet.
I haven't heard too much about him lately, but I'm very excited to see what Guy Carbonneau can do for us as head coach this year. While I didn't agree with Julien's dismissal, I think Gainey made a brilliant decision in naming his successor while giving him several months to get acquainted with his players before taking the reigns. I expect to see a very high tempo yet defensively responsible game plan next season and I think he's a great fit for this squad. Our front office has had a great deal off success both on and off the ice and couldn't think of a better group to run the Canadiens than three former captains who have survived the pressure of playing in Montreal and brought home the Stanley Cup on several occasions.
Most of all, I'm excited for this season for the same reason I'll look forward to every season, regardless of the outlook. Being a fan of this franchise is such a privilege and though I'm embarrassed to say I don't know a great deal about Habs history and the many legends that have adorned the CH, every time the Canadiens hold a ceremony I'm reminded that I'm a fan of the classiest organization in sports. I've been a fan of quite a few teams in my short life - the Kings, Flyers, Lightning, and Bruins, but the Montreal Canadiens won me for life on October 18, 2005 when they raised a banner honoring the Montreal Expos to hang from the most impressive rafters of any team in sports. That probably seems lame or even stupid to many of you, but if you know me at all you can get an idea of what that night meant to me.
Things only became more memorable as the season progressed as the Yvan Cournoyer and Dickie Moore's #12 was retired before a game against the Maple Leafs. For some reason I can't even remember who won that game, but I don't care - these ceremonies are about more than just a hockey game. It truly is amazing to sit among fans of several generations just pouring their hearts out to the stars of the past.
By far the most emotional ceremony though was when Boom Boom Geoffrion's #5 was retired. I was so devestated to learn that he passed away just a few short hours before the event he was looking forward to for most of his life. I went to the Bell Centre that evening with a heavy heart expecting a very somber, quick proceeding, but instead I got to stand through an incredible 45 minute tribute that I will never forget as long as I live. Seeing Geoffrion's family at center ice according to his final wishes in tears, watching #5 go up to the top of the building along with the #7 banner of his father-in-law Howie Morenz, that's the kind of thing that stays with you for a long, long time. If you know anything about the city of Montreal, you know that its people are notorious for being extremely loud. Well on that day there was a moment of silence in Boom Boom's memory and there was not a sound; I get chills just thinking about it.
Despite initial skepticism that arose from the sale of the team to an American, the Canadiens have never been more impressive off the ice than they have been since George Gillett purchased the controlling share of the franchise from Molson. He's managed to secure the 2009 All Star Game and Entry Draft and Gainey is under heavy pressure to make the centennial season a memorable from a competitive standpoint as well. Over the next few seasons there will be more numbers retired and I simply can't wait. I only hope I'm accompanied by someone who can appreciate it as much as I do. Love them or hate them, nobody puts on a ceremony like the Montreal Canadiens.
I will once again be a season ticket holder in 2006-2007 (and at least the two years after that). I originally planned to add a third seat to my account after a good friend of mine shocked me by wanting to go get in on all 47 home games (especially since he's a Bruins fan!), but sadly I couldn't get three seats together without spending a lot more money or moving to one of the corners. Instead I will keep my same seats in Section 436 right along the attacking blueline and will bring my friend to even more games than last season (he probably went to about 12-15 last year), including the home opener and every game against Boston.
Anyways, I think I'll wrap up this post now because I have a feeling I'm not being very coherent, but I'd like to get my fellow Habs fans' thoughts on this year's team. If only I could find words this easily when I have to write school papers...