Thursday, September 30, 2010

My 12 Habs Forwards

In response to the challenge levelled on Twitter among Habs fans, I have decided to compile my own list of the 12 forwards I'd like to see on opening night for the Canadiens.

First line: Michael Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn

Cammalleri: Why? Something to do with being the best player on the team to likely score 40 goals or so on the season I'd say. Cammalleri has excellent offensive zone instincts, he knows when to set up for the one-timer while his wrist shot is deadly accurate with time and space and his backhand can also deliver on occasion. He is very familiar with Tomas Plekanec after playing through a season and a playoff campaign together so they'll not be strangers. His a part of the leadership core and once he scores one goal, he's likely to have 5-8 goals in the next 10 games or so. Once he gets going on a streak, he's hard to stop from scoring and importantly, he is a 'team killer', he's got a knack for lighting up Pittsburgh's Marc Andre Fleury and the Ranger's Henrik Lundqvist. Sometimes, a guy in the lineup with a knack to score against a team is worth more than any 2-3 forwards on your team.

Plekanec: I'm quite convinced Plekanec can only improve on last season, especially with players like Boyd and Halpern added to the PK, with a possible return of Max Lapierre to PK duties and defensive forward shifts. Plekanec will see his defensive workload lightened so he can focus on offensive situations, he has great hockey sense, speed and a good shot he uses at very surprising times to beat the opposition. His creativity gives him a fantastic surprise element, he tends to set up a play or score a goal that is out of his style and utterly beats those defending againstt him because he doesn't see it coming. He's off to a running start in the pre-season, I expect at least 80 points this season from Tommy Jagr.

Kostitsyn: Oh, the man 0f the 10th overall pick in 2003, you have taken a giant amount of abuse for your selection ahead of players like Jeff Carter, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry. However he has shown elements that most of these players can't offer in a full package. Andrei hits like a bull, few guys can withstand his strength in the corners or open ice, not the biggest player at 6' but incredibly strong for his size. He has one of the best wrist shots in the league, he releases it and it's a goal when he's on, he can dangle and shock a goalie with a quick backhand shelf when he goes in 1-on-1 with the netminders. The issue is between the ears, Andrei had his breakout year in 07-08, with 26G and 27A along with Plekanec and Kovalev, Plekanec enjoying his own career year and Kovalev at his 2nd-best career output. Around the same time though, Sergei Kostitsyn arrived wth the Canadiens and the next two seasons, his antics weighed heavily on Andrei's mind. Choosing between your brother and your team is a nigh-impossible avenue for someone to walk and be able to keep his mind seated so he can play at the highest level of hockey. I think with Sergei exiled and Andrei free to focus on his game, he'll rebound with a line that he has shown a capacity to produce with at a high rate, 30 goals is not out of reach for him, if not 35.

2nd Line: Benoit Pouliot - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta

Pouliot: Some considered Benny the best player in the 2005 draft after Sidney Crosby and he's shown flashes of great talent in his time. He endured a difficult junior hockey career where he dealt with the unimaginable tragedy of his father passing away while trying to become a professional hockey player. His development, generally mishandled by the Minnesota Wild organization, which has a bad history with preparing prospects for the NHL. Pouliot came over to Montreal and produced at a great pace, reading at times like a possible 40-goal scorer for Montreal with maybe a 50-goal season in the works going by the numbers. Than he was injured and the bottom fell out, he bcame soft and detached from the play and his lack of conditioning showed, for a man who stands 6'3", he didn't even weigh 200 pounds and that was costing him to battle in the NHL. I still think Pouliot can achieve things, he gained 12 pounds over the summer and he has the hands for his position and the skating, albeit his skating skills need work as he tends to fall over by himself far too often with no contact. He can deliver a hit as well when necessary, with his size he can bring the bulk to the Gio-Gomez line that would make them effective. Much like Andrei, Pouliot is considered a between-the-ears case but again, with the upside to be a much better player than what he's shown. With a sustainable two-way effort and a front of net prescence that delivers 25 goals or more, he could really help the Canadiens to some wins this season.

Gomez: The way people talk about his cap hit and his goals per dollar, you'd think he got his salary through a Ponzi scheme that robbed the Montreal Children's Hospital in the process. Gomez is not a scorer and has never been advertised as a goal scorer, he's a passer and one of the best in the game. Watch how he passes and how he sets players up, he is not just assisting, he is creating goals that would not exist otherwise. With Gionta for a full season and a choice of either Eller or Pouliot on his wing, it's not crazy to imagine Gomez tops the 55 assist mark for the 5th time in his career along with 15 goals or so to go with them. Yes he won't score as much as Plekanec but Gomez offers what few players in the NHL do, the ability to go coast-to-coast at maximum speed and carry the puck over the opposition blue line while he does it, head up. Dump and chase can be beaten especially if you don't have the bodies to dig for the puck along the boards, Gomez can transition and have the puck inside the blue line without the need for a messy chase every time. That's a valuable asset for any team to use in carrying offence. He'll have to dial back from some ill-timed penalties he took last season but generally, a solid player in all situations.

Gionta: The 28th captain of the Montreal Canadiens has a daunting task ahead of him. Success in Montreal is measured by Stanley Cup Parades and not much else. Saku Koivu knew full well the stresses of trying to a non-contending team to Contender status on his shoulders and as valiant as he was in his efforts, he never reached the ultimate prize. Gionta is of a similar stripe to Koivu, they are both players who leave it all on the ice and are rarely seen taking a shift off, let alone a game. They have a tendency to score in the big moments as well, Gionta likes to score the important goals for his team above all else off of fantastic efforts to make them happen. He has top-end speed and is not afraid of going to the net for his goals, with 28 goals in just over 60 games last season, 30+ is not out of reach for the crafty speedster considering the quality of his linemates. Gionta was my pick for captain right around the time we found out he'd spent over a week playing on a broken foot and kept scoring goals before he had to pull himself from action. Anyone who will go that for the team is a guy you want wearing a C.

Third Line: Dustin Boyd - Lars Eller - Maxim Lapierre

Boyd: Habs fans are not sure what to make of him yet. He hasn't been a big standout in camp like Ryan White, but he does bring some NHL experience and impressive junior stats with him. At 6' with speed and over 80 hits last season, he doesn't shy from the physical nature of the game and is a prototypical Bottom-6 checking forward. If his hands are indeed underrated (and he's had some quality NHL goals) than playing him with Lars Eller may be useful as Eller is more playmaker than shooter. I don't expect much, but 12 goals from Boyd would be handy along with PK shifts to take the weight off of Top-6 players serving a lot of PK minutes.

Eller: The key piece in the Halak deal, Eller has so far, shown a fluid skating ability, soft hands, he has no trouble getting into the dirty areas and doesn't shy from contact. He has not shown trouble transitioning to the North American ice from his time in the Swedish Elite League after leading his AHL team in scoring last season and being named to the AHL All-Rookie Team. The team's current best choice to flip into a Top-6 role should Pouliot or Kostitsyn falter, Eller could be the basis for a strong 1-2-3 punch at center for the team especially with Boyd and a resurgent Lapierre on his wings providing physical impact and at times, opportunistic scoring.

Lapierre: I have to admit, I was pretty ashamed for most of last season to wear my #40 Lapierre T-shirt until the playoffs and Lapierre wonder of wonders, remembered how to play his game again. Lapierre, while being notably weak on remembering to pass, has pretty good hands for a checking forward which resulted in his 15 goals in 08-09 and his two excellent goals against the Penguins in the playoffs that pushed the Habs to victory in Games 4 and 6. He can check, skate with the best of them while raising the blood pressure of any player he works against because of his tenacity and his mouth. A pest, but an effective one with hands that can score goals at the right times, Lapierre's a utility player that can go big in the right moments. If he has in fact returned to old form for the 10-11 season, the Habs will have a highly effective 3rd-liner in "Mad Max".

4th Line: Travis Moen - Jeff Halpern - Tom Pyatt

Moen: Okay, so he wasn't the super-tough grinder we expected last season, but who can forget his SH goal in Game 7 against the Penguins? Moen is an effective checker who can play and if necessary, drop the gloves, he might not win but sometimes the team gets raised up more by the guy willing to fight than who wins it, they certainly don't care when the 4th-line 3-minutes-a-game heavyweights have their prestaged bouts. Moen doesn't have a scoring touch, but again, every once in a while he will score that important goal. With a more effective line, Moen will have more freedom to play physically and follow through on his checks because his linemates will be minding their play. It won't be a big year for Moen, but it will be a quietly effective one.

Halpern: Cheapest 4th-line forward the Habs can get that doesn't involve a rookie call-up, Halpern was a bargain signing thanks to the cap crunch in the NHL. He's a right-handed shot, a faceoff specialist and a PK player, something the Habs need to take weight off of Tomas Plekanec and his heavy PK load last season. His RH shot may also earn him PP time much like Glen Metropolit's shot did last season, which would again give the Canadiens an offensive option when rotating PP personnel. If he can take a regular PK shift, win the defensive zone faceoffs while contributing 7-10 minutes a game, he's value signed and I'll take it.

Pyatt: Tom Pyatt is maybe the quickest forward the Habs have and blessed with an incredible instinct for reading the plays in front of him. If he had Andrei Kostitsyn's strength and hands, he'd likely battle for a Top 15 forward in the league position. Pyatt is still capable of a surprise play and goal now and then but the Habs are best served by how he plays, smart defensive hockey with fantastic speed that allows him to play PK time and keep up with just about anyone on the ice. Others may add more physical impact but I doubt there are many 4th-liners out there who can read and handle game situations like Tommy can. The team needs to win with smart, skilled hockey and Pyatt is definitely an element you want in that game plan.

It was hard to cut White out of this lineup, but because of the one-way deals and Pyatt's proven playoff performances, he's on the outside looking in here, as much as I love him for his season in Hamilton and hearty performances.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My 10 Habs prospects to watch

The Habs have a number of interesting prospects this season, from the much-hyped Louis Leblanc to the hopeful sleeper pick of the 2010 draft Brendan Gallagher, here's a few names to keep in mind this coming season. Useful resource for tracking the season stats, the inexhaustible efforts of the Habs Prospects Blog.

1. C Louis Leblanc, Montreal Juniors, QMJHL.

If you follow the news in Montreal, I'm betting you've heard of Louis before. Long story short, he played a year at Harvard winning Ivy League Rookie of the Year with 12 goals and 11 assists in 31 games, on a pretty bad Harvard team he led in scoring (Harvard won 9 of 31 games last season). He signed a pro contract with the Canadiens this summer and came home to Montreal to play for the Montreal Juniors. He is expected to headline a very strong Juniors team that is favoured to contend for the Memorial Cup and to push his development forward by playing a full season in the Q, while also likely suiting up for the 2011 World Junior Championship, after narrowly missing the 2010 team. At 6' and now 185 pounds, Leblanc has good size, great acceleration and is known to battle for his ice. If Leblanc performs to reasonable expectations, one would expect him to join the Hamilton Bulldogs for the 2011-12 season.

2. RW Danny Kristo, University of North Dakota, NCAA.

Danny Kristo is a Gold Medalist from the 2010 World Junior Championships, playing a key role on the American team, scoring 5 goals and 3 assists over 7 games. He would also score 15 goals, 21 assists in 41 games in his rookie season for North Dakota, good enough for 3rd overall on his team in scoring (the two to beat him were senior classmen) and winning Rookie of the Year in his division. Kristo has affirmed his interest to play another season at North Dakota, but likely following this year he'll sign his first pro contract and begin playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL to prepare for his hopeful ascension to the NHL ranks. Standing 6' and about 185 pounds himself, Kristo is known for great speed and very quick hands and is an old teammate of Louis Leblanc when they played together in 2008-09 in the USHL. Potentially, the Bulldogs will have two-thirds of an impact line in their 11-12 season with two potential NHL-bound forwards. It won't be easy to get video footage of his NCAA exploits, but it would be time well spent to keep track of his scoring totals, also useful, he is one of several new prospects to shoot right-handed.

3. RW Alexander Avtsin, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL.

I'm guessing Avtsin will play for the Bulldogs, since he will likely need a season to adapt to the North American ice surface after growing up and learning the game on the big ice surface in his home country of Russia and he is still a bit light at 190 pounds. Avtsin is an intriguing prospect, at 6'3", he has attractive size for the game and is a right-handed shot, something the Montreal Canadiens are short on right now. Russians are often criticized for playing soft or being simply enigmatic players, so it will be important for Avtsin to silence his critics early with a strong AHL campaign. However, there are the other attractive qualities of the Russian players. Simply speaking, they make the puck dance like almost no one trained in North America or anywhere else can do. Avtsin has shown that ability, while also being noted to possess impressive speed, another important quality in the "New NHL". Some would balk at his 9 points in 30 KHL games from last season, but as a rookie, Avtsin was playing about five minutes a night as an 18-year old in what could be considered the 2nd-best professional hockey league in the world. Keep an eye out, chances are he may join the Habs for the 'cup of coffee' during the 10-11 season if he does well in Hamilton.

4. LW Max Pacioretty, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL.

Max Pacioretty, he's been bounced like a basketball since 07-08. Pacioretty had an impressive rookie campaign in NCAA Hockey that season, than signed his first professional contract and joined the Hamilton Bulldogs for the 09-10 season. Now well very talented with good size at 6'2", Pacioretty was still in need of skills development and adding bulk to his frame. Unfortunately, the fates conspired against his interests when a mess of injuries for the Habs in 08-09 resulted in his being called up to the Montreal Canadiens. Initially impressive with a pretty goal scored against the New Jersey Devils in his debut, Pacioretty soon found he was not in the same weight class as much of the NHL. An enthusiastic checker, he was constantly outmuscled and he always seemed to be just missing on scoring chances that fell right to his stick. The season ended rather unremarkably for Pacioretty, he trained harder for the 09-10 campaign and after another disappointing season, was finally returned to Hamilton so he could get back to proper development at the level he should have been playing at over the last two years. Pacioretty has since improved on his size, bulking up to 210 pounds and had a notable, if short impression on the Bulldogs before he was sidelined by injury for the remainder of the 09-10 season in Hamilton. Pacioretty would likely have to have an overwhelming training camp to displace a veteran NHLer and stay with the team, but his staying a full season in Hamilton and fully adapting to a long schedule while working on skills development might be just what he really needed. His development has been rocky, but his enthusiastic efforts and display of talent in the past does seem to indicate he has flashs of what it takes to stay in the NHL.

5. RW Brendan Gallagher, Vancouver Giants, WHL.

Gallagher is not your typical 5'8" forward who weighs 160 pounds. He certainly showed a deft scoring touch with 41 goals and 40 assists in his 2nd WHL season, he also racked up 111 penalty minutes. He is the son of the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Giants and according to reports, takes great advantage of that. A tough player who seems to be without fear on the ice, Gallagher's main critique is he will have to become a better skater to excel at higher levels, but with at least two more seasons to go in the WHL, he has plenty of time to work on that task, his scoring totals are notably similar to that of noted Team Canada WJC hero Jordan Eberle in his 2nd WHL season. Noting Gallagher's ability to survive in the WHL at his size and excel at scoring, he may be a long shot as a 5th round pick but he definitely has the heart of a Hab in him.

6. D Jarred Tinordi, London Knights, OHL

A little unfair to put 2010 top pick Jarred Tinordi at No. 6 behind a sleeper pick? Sort of but honestly, I don't expect to see any great scoring totals from him and game highlights are going to focused on scoring, not solid defensive play like Tinordi is shaping up to be. However, he is still worth tracking for that +/- indicator and his team's win/loss record with him being a part of their defence. He was cut from the WJC camp for the 2011 US team, but they will be holding a second one and provided Tinordi has a solid showing with London, the two-time captain of the US Under-18 team may soon join his country's top junior squad.

7. C Gabriel Dumont, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL

Dumont was a bit of a surprise in what he delivered when he was taken in the 5th round of the 2009 draft. He set the QMJHL on fire in a scoring campaign that had him lead the league in goals with 51 and had him in contention for the league MVP title, while winning the Guy Carbonneau trophy for Top Defensive Forward. Dumont would then score another 11 goals and 10 assists in the playoffs in a mere 14 games. Dumont is not a big man which is partly why he fell to the 5th round, at 5'10", he will not be a dominant power forward but he does seem to have that scoring touch that is elusive and can't be learned, just born with. Dumont will be suiting up for his first crack in professional hockey in Hamilton this season, while nothing too big should be expected, Dumont is credited with being a bit of a scrappy forward like Gallagher (127 PIMs in his final QMJHL season) and if he can adapt his game to the professional level, Dumont may have a future in professional hockey.

8. C Andreas Engqvist, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL

Engqvist was a signing out of the 2009 development camp, previously undrafted, the 6'4", right-handed shot Swedish forward has now completed 4th season in the Swedish Elite League, he had his best season yet with 14G, 12A in 55 games and then excelled in the post season with 5G and 8A in 16 playoff games. He is credited with being a net presence player, but his average skating is felt to be an area of game that will need to be improved. He had originally indicated he would only leave Sweden to play for the Montreal Canadiens, but he seems to be ready to join the Hamilton Bulldogs to get his foot in the door. With so many center prospects joining the organization since July of 2009, it is not difficult for the big center to see the writing on the wall about being more visible to the organization. Engqvist like Avtsin will have to adjust to the North American ice surface and add some bulk himself, at 6'3" he doesn't currently even hit 200 on the scales. Potentially a lighter version of Franzen or Holmstrom for Montreal, Engqvist again offers an attractive RH shot option for the team and the size the team could use in the future.

9. D Alexei Yemelin, Ak Bars Kazan, KHL.

Yemelin is one of those Russian players Montreal can never quite seem to tempt to come over the pond. Yemelin is perhaps not the biggest blue liner, but he has bulk, at 6'1", he weighs 220 pounds and is reported to have a physical game. An older player at 24, Yemelin is still yet to see any action on North American ice but his talent is still of good interest. He was named the Best Defencemen of the 2010 KHL playoffs as his club won the championship there. Yemelin is currently serving out the final year of his contract with his KHL club and provided the Canadiens can tempt him to join his countryman Andrei Markov, the Canadiens could add a strong punishing body to their lineup with plenty of room to grow in his game. I hope to see him try his hand in the NHL following the end of the 10-11 season, his talents could be put to good use on a team that is somewhat lacking for physical defencemen.

10. D Mac Bennett, University of Michigan, NCAA.

Another potential sleeper, selected in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft, the 6' Bennett has impeccable hockey bloodlines, his grandfather played in the NHL and his father and uncles were all hockey players. Bennett is a skating defencemen with notable offensive ability that could be shaped into a good NHL blue liner with proper development. A member of the All-Rookie team of the USHL, Bennett will be attending Mike Cammalleri's Alma mater and playing for one of the top NCAA hockey programs in the United States. Bennett is likely at least two seasons in the NCAA and another in Hamilton from seeing NHL action, but a few scouts seem certain he has that element to him that makes him a special prospect and potential future NHL blue liner.

This list is not a defining one for who I think is more talented than anyone else, but more ranked on who I think will be more interesting to keep an eye on this season and which are of most interest to me because I believe they fit into the team's long-term plans.