One thing is clear as the Canadiens head into a new NHL season this fall: in order for the Habs to make another deep post-season run, it is critical that the young players on the team emerge as capable support for the big-money earning foursome of Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri, and Plekanec. While its entirely fair to expect that those who make the money produce, in order to win in the NHL – you need a contribution throughout your lineup. Last season those four players previously mentioned combined to lead the team in points – even though Gionta and Cammalleri played only 61 and 65 games respectively.
The big four were brought in to lead the team – but they’re going to need some help if the Canadiens are going to be anything more than a middle of the pack team. The question is: who among the forwards will be the guy to make the leap forward?
We’ve all waited in agony while Andrei Kostitsyn took 1 step forward and 2 steps back during the past couple of seasons. The enigmatic sniper can be very dangerous when his game is on – but exactly when that will happen – I’m not convinced even Andrei knows. Everyone has heard about which players the Habs missed in order to select Andrei with the 10th over-all pick in 2003. I won’t get into that.. But I will say that since he signed his contract following the 07-08 season in which he amassed 53 points in 72 games , there has been a lot of waiting, and not much return. His 33 points in 59 games came in bunches, frustrating fans as he scored just often enough, to perpetuate the optimism that his break out was eminent. We’ll see what happens this year. If he can stay healthy he has the tools to put up good numbers – but in the eyes of most Habs fans – he already has one foot out the door.
Benoit Pouliot was a revelation when he come over in a mid-season trade from the Minnesota Wild for fellow under-performer Guillaume Latendresse. In 39 regular season games with the Canadiens Benny scored 24 points (15 goals) which would have been a positive story going into his first full year with the club if he had not disappeared entirely in the playoffs – scoring only 2 points in 18 games. Pouliot has the size and skills to make an impact on the top 6. The question is, does he have the drive to do the things he has to do to be a top tier forward in the NHL?
Lars Eller came to the Canadiens via the Jaroslav Halak deal and while there is always an abundance of optimism for young players wearing Habs sweaters – there is an added sense of urgency surrounding Eller’s debut. The fact that he was the major cog in the trade that sent the Canadiens’ playoff hero packing makes for added pressure considering Eller has only a handful of games at the NHL level. He does have the tools to be a good NHLer though. The 21 year old Dane was drafted 13th overall by the Blues in 2007, scoring 57 points in 70 games in Peoria of the AHL. Those are good numbers for a young player, but the real test for Lars will come when he is called upon at some point during the season to fill into the top 6. At 6’1 200 he has the size to be effective. Still, for a guy who has played 7 NHL games, the Habs are asking a lot which will add a whole lot of pressure to his 2010-11 season.
Maxime Lapierre will never be confused with the upper-echelon of NHL goal scorers, but as a 25 year old with ample size, he does have a place on this team if he can play more like the Max from the playoffs and less like the Max from the regular season. His underwhelming 14 points in 76 games were not blown away by his 4 points in 19 playoff games, but Max re-found his abilities as a super-pest who will doggedly eat up minutes with an aggressive forcheck, win faceoffs when called upon and provide puck possession with his ability on the cycle game. I would never put Max in the top 6, but from a “this guy needs to step up” perspective – Lapierre fits the bill. He’s no longer a young guy. I love him when he’s playing big but the Habs have simply too many guys coming up to have passengers this year.
There is no doubt in my mind that PK Subban will be the biggest addition to the team this season. And while the spark he gives us should produce points, he will need one of his young brethren to make a similar jump in production. No doubt there are other guys who could potentially see time in the top 6: Alexander Avtsin, Max Pacioretti, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Matt Darche and Ben Maxwell could all get a look. Who is going to be the one to do it? Or are we doomed to another year of watching the “big 4” create every single offensive chance?