If you’ve been any kind of hockey fan for the past 30 years, or so, you’ll know that number 99 is synonymous with one of the greats in this game: Wayne Gretzky.
It’s also the number Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier has in his sights as his team prepares to hit the ice for the start of training camp.
In fact, what appeared to give Gauthier the greatest pleasure as he addressed the media today, in the hours leading up to day one of a four-day rookie camp, was the fact that many of the team’s veterans were taking advantage of the ice time available to them. So, while Gauthier talked about expectations for 2010-2011, players like Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, newcomer Jeff Halpern and about a dozen other veterans were taking part in an informal scrimmage.
“I just came out of the dressing room, and a lot of the veterans are in and there’s really a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm around the team,” said Gauthier. “I think we left the spring with a better knowledge of our team, who we are, and what we can accomplish. It’s in that spirit, that we’re back.”
Despite Montreal’s impressive playoff run this spring that saw them go three rounds deep before being eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers, the Canadiens go into this season without the player who, you can argue, single handedly took them there: goalie Jaroslav Halak, now a member of the St. Louis Blues. So, while Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, the two players who came over from St. Louis in the Halak deal, were busy introducing themselves to the rest of the veterans in the dressing room at Brossard, Gauthier found himself again fielding more questions about the biggest move he’s made since taking over as G.M. of this hockey team.
“This was a difficult decision, I’ll be honest with you,” said Gauthier. “It was the best for both these goalies. They both deserve to be the lead person. Never at any time was it going to be a matter of contract. It was a matter of who was the person we wanted to go forward with.”
That person, was Carey Price, a player Gauthier believes is ready to step into a leadership role with this club, and one of the 17 players returning from last season, not including defenceman P.K. Subban, who is a rookie in title only. Subban is a lock to make the Canadiens on the strength of a terrific playoff performance when called up from the Hamilton Bulldogs.
You’ll recall that, at this time last year, the Canadiens’ marketing department was busy introducing a raft of new faces to their fans following an off-season of upheavel. Gauthier is clearly taking great comfort in the fact that “a lot” of players are returning from last season, which offers this team both stability, and an identity.
“I think we know who we are a lot more than we did early in the season last year, and certainly before the season last year, when there were a lot of changes made.”
And just exactly what kind of team does Pierre Gauthier have on his hands? What is the identity of the 2010-2011 edition of the Montreal Canadiens.
“We’re quick and smart and I think it’s the right way to go.”
This is also a team that will have a Captain by the time the puck drops on the regular season. And it’s clear, from Gauthier, that the mix of players with the potential to wear the “C” grew during the playoffs, as a result of strong individual performances in the post-season: the “leadership core” that Gauthier alluded to a number of times during his question-and-answer session with reporters. One of those leaders? Veteran defenceman Andrei Markov, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery.
“Andrei saw the doctor last week and is moving along. We are confident he’ll make a full recovery.”
Gauthier did not rule out the possibility of continuing to talk contract with Markov during the season, a process that began last season, as opposed to waiting until the end of the campaign, when Markov stands to become an unrestricted free agent.
“There are no rules when it comes to talking contract.”
Which brings us to the number 99, and the point of the exercise held during the off-season: which saw the Canadiens dump Halak in favour of Price; which saw the Canadiens let unrestricted free agents like Dominik Moore and Glen Metropolit walk; and which saw the Canadiens shore up the forward ranks by signing someone they’ve eyed as a dance partner for quite some time, in Jeff Halpern.
“It’s our objective to position ourselves in the top tier of the league,” said Gauthier. “If you look over the last five years, since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the top tier of the league is represented by 99 points or more. Our average is about 93.4 over the last five years. We’re not quite there.”
No they’re not. Only time will tell whether the Canadiens will be good enough to carve out a successful and winning niche for themselves as a smart and speedy hockey team, or whether they will write a script filled with frustration and disappointment that has become all-too-familiar to Habs fans over the years.