If the folks who care about the Montreal Canadiens are being honest, there can only be one question on their minds.
It doesn’t have to do with sending Scott Gomez home, or P.K. Subban’s contract negotiations, or Alex Galchenyuk’s wrist shot (it’s world class).
Nope, the question is more basic: can the Habs possibly suck as badly as they did last year?
Probably not. But there are no guarantees. Unlike last season’s fiasco, which began on the ice and spread to the front office, the Eastern Conference bottom-dwellers in 2011-12 can at least claim to be healthy and focused.
Asked what is required to avoid a repeat of last year’s catastrophe, defenceman Josh Gorges cited just one, deceptively simple factor.
“I think the number one thing is our attitude. I think we have to bring back the mentality of what it means to be a Montreal Canadien. There’s a winning tradition in this team and this organization, and that has to be re-instilled in everyone,” he said. “To understand that it’s not okay to be average, that it’s not acceptable. If we have that mentality from top to bottom, all the way through, we’ll be fine.”
In the coming days and weeks there will be lots of talk, much of it in granular detail, about line combinations, how best to set up the special teams, and whether this or that defensive pair provides enough sandpaper to keep other teams honest.
There will be much dissection of the system – incoming head coach Michel Therrien summarizes it with the deliciously vague phrase “playing on our toes.”
A lot of that is secondary, a subplot, as forward Travis Moen said when asked about whether six days is enough to implement a new system: “It’s still hockey, we’ve all been playing since we were little kids.”
If the first day of camp is any indication, the focus is on the mindset above all else – presumably the new carpet in the practice facility dressing room, which features a large crest that must not be trod upon, is a further bid to boost pride in the shirt.
In more practical terms, the Habs are bolstered by a healthy Andrei Markov on the blue line, a healthy Brian Gionta up front, added grit in the form of free agents Colby Armstrong, Brandon Prust and Francis Bouillon, and a rejuvenated Carey Price in net.
But there are outstanding personnel matters.
Chief among them, the status of the dynamic, 23-year-old Subban, who chewed up more minutes than any other Habs defenceman last year.
There’s no sense yet that Subban’s absence from camp is a distraction yet – captain Brian Gionta even ventured that “the guys in the room are content with what’s here and we’ll move on.”
General manager Marc Bergevin said contract talks are ongoing with Subban’s agent, Don Meehan.
Bergevin will have another decision to make regarding Galchenyuk, who spent the first sessions on a line with Gionta and Lars Eller (Gionta’s regular centre, Tomas Plekanec, is nursing a rib injury).
But the main talking point Sunday was the decision regarding Gomez, acquired at great expense from the Rangers in 2009.
The team will continue to pay Gomez the pro-rated portion of the $5.5-million (all currency U.S.) he is to earn this season, although sending him to the minors – on paper at least – will save the team about $900,000 of Gomez’s $7.3-million annual cap hit.
Next summer, the team will buy out the final year of his contract with no cap penalty.
Bergevin said, “I have nothing against Scott Gomez, it was the best thing for the future of the team.”
Shedding Gomez’s contract will help the team financially, but it was evidently decided he didn’t bring enough on the ice or in the dressing room to keep him around.
Bergevin and Therrien will hope it’s a case of addition by subtraction – Gomez stands as a casualty both of the economics of the new CBA and the Habs’ culture shift – a short training camp means it should soon become apparent if it was the right move.