Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kovy's Kids Need to Step Up

No, I’m not talking about the sick and underprivileged children that Alex Kovalev helps with his remarkable volunteer initiatives. The underachieving kids in the dressing room are the ones fans should be worried about.

Watching the Canadiens handle another Western Conference foe last night got me to thinking about what's changed about this team since the same time last year. It's easy to forget that the Habs remarkable 2007-08 regular season run really got underway during their annual and traditionally disastrous Christmas road trip and Ryan O'Byrne's antics following the team's rookie dinner.

Prior to that trip, people talked about the Habs home record and the fact that it wasn't as good as their road record. Some people were worried about Tomas Plekanec's production. Others complained about Cristobal Huet, still others about unproven youngster Carey Price.

No one was worried about the power play. Such fears were allayed in the first game of the season, when Mark Streit one-timed a power play goal on a blast from the point in Carolina that began to erase the memory of Sheldon Souray, who was all but forgotten by this time.

This year, it's the power play. It's Alex Kovalev's goalless streak. It's a concern for some, myself included, that teams will take liberties with the Canadiens because there is very little fear of the once-mighty Montreal power play making them pay for their transgressions. Kovalev has not found the stride or lethal shot that carried the team last year. The issues on the power play are largely tied to the Artist. Teams have keyed on Kovalev and kept the Habs to the perimeter, forcing them to take ill-advised shots that are frequently blocked or miss the net completely.

Kovalev is the lightning rod for the Canadiens. His point production has been consistent (5g- 16a)but his goal-scoring has not been remotely close to the pace that saw him light the lamp 35 times last year. He's on pace for just 15 goals. Meanwhile Matt D’Agostini has emerged as the smart player with a nose for the net that many Habs prospects have never become. His four goals in five games since being called up put him on pace for 50 goals this year in only 61 games. We all know that’s not going to happen but his production makes for interesting comparisons with other young Habs.

Fans and journalists pick on Kovalev's lack of production but let's have a look up and down the lineup and see who else is disappointing.

Chris Higgins: The 25-year-old has been in and out of the lineup all year. He's got 5 goals (3 in one game against Ottawa) in 21 games after scoring 27 last year. Higgins is on pace for the lowest total of his career (15 goals) although his season may be cut short by injury.

Andrei Kostitsyn: I expected a monster year out of AK46 and his production has increased of late but his 6 goals put him on pace for 18 one year after bagging 29 in what looked like the prelude to a superstar-making season this year.

Tomas Plekanec: Pleks admitted in the playoffs last year that he was "playing like a little girl". His play this season has indicated that he may not have put away his dollhouse just yet although he's another forward whose play has improved recently. Plekanec was second on the Habs with 69 points (29g-40a) last year. This year his 6 goals and 7 assists put him on pace for an 18 goal, 39 point season which is probably the most disturbing regression of the bunch.

Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn have both struggled this year but they are both just 21 years old. Growing pains are expected at that stage of a career. Neither can be sent to Hamilton without first clearing waivers so GLT and SK74 are likely in it for the long haul and in the case of GLT, patience will be crucial.

One might argue that the addition of veterans like Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang, who have both been outstanding, took the pressure of these younger guys to perform but the Habs were expected to have three scoring lines this year and cause matchup nightmares for opposing coaches

The point of all this number crunching is that for Alex Kovalev to be blamed for the Habs inconsistencies on offence is ridiculous. He is slightly below his production of last year but he's 35 years old! Were you expecting him to break the 100-point barrier for the first time in his career?

The distressing part of the Habs power outage is that younger players who should be even better this year than last have been worse. The problem is not that Kovalev isn't producing at last year's pace. The play of the younger guys should complement guys like Kovalev, Lang, Tanguay and Saku Koivu but that hasn’t been happening this year. The geezers are carrying the load.

With seven pending UFAs and three RFAs the Canadiens will be a different team a year from now. This years’ crop has a chance to learn and enjoy the mentoring of the Artist, who may have lost a step but continues to be a leader on and off the ice. They have 56 games to turn it around and if they do, a lengthy playoff run isn’t out of the question.

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