Jacques Martin did his best to calm the stormy conditions that surround his Eastern Conference basement-dwelling Montreal Canadiens after a dismal 1-4-2 start.
The button-down Martin pointed out that his team had only four points after seven games two years ago and rallied to make the playoffs and advance all the way to the East final. In 2009-10, the Habs won their first two games, lost their next five and then recovered with four more victories in a row to get themselves back in the hunt for a playoff spot.
The Canadiens have a chance to take a few strides on the road to respectability with a win over the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre on Monday. But it won't be easy. The Canadiens still have injury problems to overcome and mistakes made by general manager Pierre Gauthier.
Gauthier gambled and lost when he failed to put a backup plan in place last summer in case veteran defenceman Andrei Markov did not recover in time from his knee troubles to start the season.
Gauthier had so much confidence that Markov would rebound from his second surgery on his right knee surgery in time for the start of the season that he re-signed the 32-year-old Russian to a three-year, $5.75-million U.S. a season contract last June. Then the Canadiens allowed veteran defencemen James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik and Brent Sopel to walk via free agency.
When Markov, who has been limited to 56 regular season and playoff games over the past two seasons because of injuries, wasn't ready to start the season Gauthier signed free-agent Chris Campoli. But Campoli injured his left leg in the season opener and now will miss months.
Meanwhile, Markov has not played since last Nov. 13 and was sent to Florida to further rehab his knee under the watchful eye of Dr. James Andrews. He is expected to return to action sometime next month.
What has made the sparse blue-line situation even more difficult was the upper-body injury to veteran Jaroslav Spacek, who will return on Monday after a five-game absence. That left Canadiens with a blue line consisting of Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber, Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin.
Weber has 56 games of NHL experience, but many of those matches have been as a seldom-used fourth-liner. Diaz and Emelin are NHL rookies with seven and six games of NHL experience, respectively.
The loss of both Markov and Wisniewski hurts the Canadiens power play. If there has been one area the Habs have been able to count on in the past few seasons, it has been their power play. But that has not been the case this season without one of those two quarterbacking. Montreal only has two power-play goals in 29 chances, which is 29th in the league.
The free-agent Gauthier signed instead of retaining Wisniewski was forward Erik Cole. But the speedy left wing has been unable to get on track in Montreal. He has one assist in seven games.
There are other theories out there regarding the Canadiens horrible start. Some have reasoned that they miss assistant coach Kirk Muller, who was a buffer between Martin and the players. But we're not buying that. Muller, who is now the head coach for the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL, was replaced by a very capable Randy Cunneyworth.
Some of the Canadiens faithful also have directed their displeasure with the play of netminder Carey Price. He was so good a season ago. But this fall his save percentage (.878) and goals against average (3.13) have him 30th in the league in both categories.
Is this a product of the way the players in front of him have performed or has Price struggled this season? Probably a bit of both. That's why backup Peter Budaj will see his first action of the season against the Panthers on Monday.
Injuries to Mike Cammalleri and Scott Gomez also have not helped the cause. Gauthier's acquisition of centre Petteri Nokelainen and minor-leaguer Garrett Stafford in exchange for Brock Trotter and a seventh-round pick will help the fourth line, but not the offence. Nokelainen only has 17 career goals in 194 games.
In the meantime, however, Gauthier better hope Martin is right: that they can swiftly overcome a poor start like they did two years ago. Otherwise, the Montreal GM should feel the heat for his summer-time moves.
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