NEW PLAYERS 5
NEW RULES NO FACTOR
BETTER THAN '03-04? YES
In the otherwise glorious history of the Canadiens, Sept. 16, 2005, will go down as an orange-letter day. The franchise that for decades had striven to be better and classier than all others hired a furry carrot-and-raisin salad of a mascot named Youppi!, late of the Expos, to cavort in arena aisles. Yes, mascot-boastin', T-shirt-shootin' Montreal seems happy to turn into an expansion Sun Belt outfit. The Habs may not win the Cup, but clearly they are zeroing in on the eight-year-old demographic.
Naturally Montreal's most significant investment is in one of the NHL's most playful players, forward Alex Kovalev, who re-signed for $18 million over four years. Like a kid who ignores his mother's cries of dinner!, Kovalev sometimes gets so caught up in what he's doing that it's impossible to drag him off the ice after his 45-second shift. Dawdling aside, the 32-year-old Kovalev, whose hands are unrivaled, is the most dangerous scorer the team has had in more than a decade. He had only one goal, an empty-netter, in 12 regular-season games after G.M. Bob Gainey ostensibly rented him for the 2004 run, but he rebounded in the playoffs with six goals and four assists in 11 games--numbers that almost excused his gaffe in Game 4 of the first round, when he bumped into his own defenseman and coughed up the puck, allowing the Bruins to score the game-winner in double overtime.
The Canadiens' most solid player, Sheldon Souray, is an old-school, stick-and-pin physical defenseman who must learn to play new-school hockey. Goalie José Théodore won't exactly be left alone at the back, but with a middling defense he will have to return to his Hart Trophy form of 2001--02 if Montreal is going to challenge for a record 25th Cup. "Over the last couple of years the core has stayed and grown together," Souray says. "Whether or not we're the best team on paper, it helps that we've played together and know what to expect from each other." To which we can only add, Youppi! --M.F.
Team lacks a defenseman forceful enough to alter a game.... José Théodore could make 70 starts.
• ALL CAPS denotes new player