Amateur hour is over. The Canadiens are still a mid-level team,
but at least they are a mid-level team with a clue.

After Montreal's bumbling eighth-place finish in the Eastern
Conference and quick playoff exit last season, general manager
Rejean Houle replaced the dilettantish Mario Tremblay--Tremblay
didn't want to be a hockey coach as much as he wanted to be a
celebrity--with Alain Vigneault. Vigneault, most recently a
coach with the Junior A Beauport Harfangs, might not have a
dazzling resume, but he is dedicated enough that he could be in
Montreal for a long time, provided he develops a thick enough
hide to survive in this city of two million Canadiens coaches.
Fortunately, in an inspired move, Houle also hired the
extraordinarily well organized Dave King, the former Canadian
national team and Flames coach, to assist Vigneault. King will
help lend structure to the chaos left from last season, and he
has Houle's ear, making him de facto assistant general manager
as well as Vigneault's top aide.

Houle also wisely signed free-agent goaltender Andy Moog. Moog,
37, won't be as stellar as he was last season with
defensive-minded Dallas, and he doesn't handle the puck
particularly well, but he will end the psychodramas that
accompanied practically every save made by 22-year-old Jocelyn

Poor Thibault. He arrived in Montreal in the trade that sent
Patrick Roy to the Avalanche two years ago, and he never has
been up to replacing the irreplaceable Roy. He alienated
teammates by complaining of a lack of support and didn't stop
enough pucks to win over the fans. Thibault probably will be
Moog's backup, although it would be better for him if he started
over somewhere else.

But even a real game plan from Vigneault--breakout schemes, the
occasional trap--isn't going to save the Canadiens if they can't
win battles along the boards, don't kill penalties better, don't
cut down on their goals-against and are again chased out of the
rink by bigger teams. There are, however, enough fire-wagon
forwards to make the action interesting. Center Saku Koivu, who
has bounced back from a knee injury last season, and right wing
Mark Recchi form one of the NHL's most dynamic pairings. If left
wing Vincent Damphousse can rebound from a poor season, the
Canadiens will have two good scoring lines. "We have the
ingredients up front," King says. "We're just not sure how they
all go together yet."





1. Jaromir Jagr, Penguins
2. Teemu Selanne, Mighty Ducks
3. Zigmund Palffy, Islanders


1. Brian Leetch, Rangers
2. Chris Chelios, Blackhawks
3. Scott Stevens, Devils