MONTREAL, QC — No hockey fan is happy about the NHL lockout. All hope for a miraculous speedy resolution to the CBA conflict, resulting in our favourite teams and players returning to North American rinks in the near future, rather than heading off to take the jobs of European skaters.
However, given the above, we can look on another level and identify the Montreal Canadiens as a team not particularly hurt by missing the 2012-13 season. I did not have big expectations for this season following a year where the club finished 15th in the Eastern Conference. I hoped for slightly better results, but felt counting on a playoff berth would still be a little on the optimistic side. The team has a few too many question marks among its veteran players, and the youth movement is still a little ways off from replenishing the ranks.
The good news is, a lockout addresses all of these needs. Even with a shortened season, a year ticks off the contracts of Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle. Would Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta have bounced back from injury-riddled seasons that led to poor performances? They too will have only one year of risk left on their deals after 2012-13. If this season was to be a transition year, then perhaps the Canadiens’ faithful will be spared enduring a season of struggles and let down like they sat through in 2011-12. The same could be said for Rene Bourque, whose contract runs a little longer, but for whom a lockout of a couple of months will provide sufficient time to recover from off-season surgery.
On the other hand, a lockout won’t stop Montreal’s young prospects from developing. A silent NHL doesn’t mean no hockey, and Habs fans should take advantage of it to better acquaint themselves with the club’s pipeline of upcoming talent. The American Hockey League will begin as scheduled, with training camps kicking off at month’s end, meaning the likes of Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Morgan Ellis, Michael Bournival, and Brendan Gallagher – all of whom should have been expected to spend the full season with the Hamilton Bulldogs anyway – will still be making their pro debuts.
Equally as important, players who might have been competing for NHL spots in camp – namely Louis Leblanc and Blake Geoffrion - will benefit from starting the season in the AHL, a league in which they know they can be top contributors, thus gaining confidence as they find their form. If off-season signings had dropped the two NHL ‘tweeners down the club’s depth chart, the fact that they’ll be playing competitive hockey while some veterans simply stay in shape might be the upper hand they need to earn spots with the team when action resumes. Frederic St. Denis and Aaron Palushaj could fall into this category as well should they sign AHL deals to join the Bulldogs without having to clear waivers.
Then there are the younger members of the organization, many of whom begin their regular seasons this weekend. Brady Vail will be an Assistant Captain for Windsor who play Owen Sound tonight. Charles Hudon will wear an ‘A’ for Chicoutimi, and is skating again following his preseason injury. Fellow QMJHL prospect Olivier Archambault is in his final season of junior hockey, and will look to follow up on a preseason that saw him score a goal and 9 assists in just 6 games as his Voltigeurs open their season against the defending Memorial Cup champs Shawinigan tomorrow.
Over in the West, Saskatoon defensemen Darren Dietz and Dalton Thrower (once he returns from a training camp groin injury, which should be soon as he has resumed skating) will have to adapt to new WHL fighting regulations barring “staged” bouts. The Blades take on Prince Albert tomorrow evening. Tim Bozon and the Kamloops Blazers also open tomorrow against Josh Gorges‘s former club, the Kelowna Rockets.
This leaves one final crucial future Hab in the CHL, in of course Sarnia Sting star Alex Galchenyuk. A vocal portion of the Hab fan base hoped that the third overall pick from this June’s draft could crack the big squad immediately and have a significant impact. The more cautious – myself included – believed that after missing all but two games in the OHL last season due to knee surgery, the best thing for his development would be one more season with the Sting. Not only does the lockout silence those that want him rushed to the NHL and would have been disappointed with a poor training camp showing – putting undue pressure on the 18-year old – but it’s also a big opportunity for Galchenyuk himself. While he didn’t dominate offensively in the Ontario League preseason, getting in 10-20 OHL games prior to the opening of a delayed Canadiens training camp might be the time the American-born center needs to re-find his on-ice timing and have a real shot at making the club. Would it be worth burning a year of “Restricted Free Agency” and a value season of Galchenyuk’s entry level deal on a shortened transition year for the Habs? Maybe not, but certainly a late start in Montreal betters Galchenyuk’s chances.
Certainly, all of this is only one side of the equation. A lost year would also tick away some of star veteran Erik Cole‘s remaining useful days. It wastes a year of Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais as amazing value players on cheap contracts. It sets back the adaptation process of Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz as they were adjusting to the North American game. How will a late start to training camp affect who the Canadiens bring to Montreal to prepare for the season? We’re likely to see a much smaller group than in other years, given it may not be beneficial to pluck some guys from their junior clubs’ seasons. But overall, compared to a team that expected to contend for a Stanley Cup this season, or a team with a fickle fan base, the Canadiens are in good shape to weather any missed time. As much as fans would like to talk about boycotting the game or taking a stance against the lockout, Geoff Molson need not worry; when hockey is back, the CH faithful will be back in droves. Threatening to cancel your season tickets? There are thousands of others ready to snatch them from you.
So let’s all pray that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr find some middle ground between the wants of the NHL and NHLPA in the near future, and settle their war over dollars. But if not, take the time to enjoy following some Canadiens that might have otherwise been off your radar. And if that’s not your thing, there’s always the European leagues where you’ll get to pretend the Habs signed Jaromir Jagr this summer by watching him on Tomas Plekanec‘s wing.
(Plekanec had a goal and an assist in his first game yesterday, for the record. Miss hockey yet?)