Off-Season Analysis: The Top Six Forwards

While we wait for Carey Price and the Canadiens to hammer out a contract, there really isn't much news to discuss. Other than maybe a depth player or two, and of course Price, Pierre Gauthier's summer is pretty much complete, until the Canadiens enter training camp next month.

To pass the time until the InterWebs begins to fill up with hockey news, blogs and discussions, I thought it would be interesting to do a position-by-position analysis of the Canadiens roster. We'll be splitting it into several categories:

- The top six forwards, which we shall look at today.
- The depth forwards, including the 3rd-4th lines as well as any potential call-ups for this season.
- The top 4 defensemen.
- The depth defensemen, again including any potential call-ups from Hamilton.
- And finally, hoping that Carey Price will have signed a contract by the time we get to this final category, the goaltenders.

Each article will contain a short analysis of each player's 2009-10 season and stats, a letter grade for their performance this part season, and expectations for the 2010-11 season.

Now that we have all this administrative stuff out of the way, time to jump into the Top Six Forwards for the Montreal Canadiens heading into the 2010-11 season, organized from best to ''worst'' performance of the year.

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1. MICHAEL CAMMALLERI
2009-10: 65GP - 26G - 24A - 50PTS - +7
Playoffs: 19GP - 13G - 9A - 19PTS - -6

2009-10 Season: While several players may have met or exceeded the fans' expectations this past season, I don't think there is anyone who can argue that Mike Cammalleri was the player who impressed us the most, both through the regular season and the Cinderella run of the Canadiens through the playoffs. Despite missing 17 games with a fairly severe MCL injury, Cammalleri managed to score 26 goals in 65 games, 2nd on the team behind Brian Gionta. Considering that Cammalleri struggled even after returning from his injury, not scoring a single goal in the 9 final season games he played for the Canadiens, adding only 2 assists, you really have to wonder what kind of numbers he would have been able to put up had he not suffered that knee injury. When you think about it, Cammalleri really scored 26 goals in 39 games, a pace that would have at least put him very close to his best career season of 39 goals with the Flames, and the top tier of the league in goals scored.

But these are of course all hypothetical thoughts. The reality is that Cammalleri scored 26 goals in 65 goals, and proved to be one of the Habs first real goalscorers since Stephane Richer nearly 2 decades ago (I know, sad). On top of this, Cammalleri further proved his worth and his ability to be a clutch player in the playoffs, where he scored 13 goals in 19 games, the most of any player this post-season. Adding 6 assists, Cammalleri was a point-per-game player and a playoff hero for the Habs.

The stat that really puts him over the top, in my opinion, is his 5-on-5 scoring. Only 4 of his season goals were on the powerplay, and only 3 of 13 in the playoffs, making him a huge threat 5-on-5, despite his smaller size and skill-oriented style of play. Considering the Canadiens major struggles to score even strength goals over the past few years, you have to consider Cammalleri as a strong candidate for Canadiens' MVP of this past season.

2009-10 Grade: A-.
He loses some points for his injury late in the season, his struggles upon his return and the fact that Brian Gionta beat him out for the team lead in goals scored, but thanks to a courageous performance during the season and a really incredible performance during the playoffs, an A- may even be a modest grade for the Canadiens' top sniper.

2010-11 Expectations: If he can play a full 82 game season, without injuries, 40 goals and 80 points should be the expectation for Michael Cammalleri. He has chemistry with the 2 players he'll probably start the season with (Plekanec and Kostitsyn), and can definitely play with Gomez and Gionta if needed. With great passers like Gomez and Plekanec feeding him during the season, 40 goals shouldn't me much of a stretch. The only thing he really needs to work on is burying the puck on the powerplay. If he can do that, his stats will definitely be nicely padded this upcoming season.

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2. BRIAN GIONTA
2009-10: 61GP - 28G - 18A - 46PTS - +3
Playoffs: 19GP - 9G - 6A - 15PTS - -6

2009-10 Season: Mike Cammalleri was the talk of the town throughout the season. His exciting style of play, his passion and his kindness to the fans and the media made him a fan favorite that really got people excited in Montreal. But standing in his shadows, maybe both figuratively and literally, was Brian Gionta.

Despite breaking his foot in November, and despite his diminutive stature in a league getting bigger and tougher with each passing game, Gionta managed to come back swinging in the new year, stepping up his game, especially when Cammalleri was out with an injury of his own and helping the Canadiens squeeze into the playoffs. Gionta finished the regular season with the team lead in goals, with an impressive 28 goals in only 61 goals, the second best totals of his career, and his best since 2005-06, when he scored 48 goals with the Devils. Of course, we cannot forget that Gionta also netted 9 goals in 19 games in the playoffs, second in both goals scored and points to Mike Cammalleri.

Gionta proved to have immediate chemistry with his former Devils teammate Scott Gomez, and both embraced their roles as leaders on the Canadiens, with Gionta donning an "A" on his jersey for most of th eseason. In fact, for most, Gionta was and is the front-runner for captaincy on the team. His stats, enthusiasm towards the team and the city, and of course his general never quit and hard working attitude would definitely justify it.

2009-10 Grade: A-
Picking the top forward for the Canadiens this season was a difficult task. Both Cammalleri and Gionta had nearly identical seasons, suffering serious lower body injuries and missing a considerable portion of the season. In fact, for a fair amount of games, they shared the team lead in goals, with each matching the other nearly every time a goal was scored. Two goals in the final 3 games of the season is what finally gave the edge to Gionta.

But if you had to compare the two players, you'd have to categorize Cammalleri as a skilled player, and Gionta as a hard worker that never gives up, that works and pays the price for each goal that he scores. Add to this his leadership qualities and the examples he sets, and you can't help but be impressed with this player.Maybe Cammalleri gains the slight edge here based on potential, and the "benefit of the doubt" he earned with his injury. But in terms of letter grades, these two surprise players for the Canadiens get an identical A-.

2010-11 Expectations: Setting expectations for Gionta in 2010-11 is kind of difficult. On one hand, you'd expect him to easily match his totals from last season. On the other hand, you have to wonder if his performance this season was slightly anomalous. Don't get me wrong, he should easily score 20 goals next season, he's proven that. But can he hit 30 with a full, healthy season? Or was last season a peak from which he will have to level off? In any case, if Gionta can continue to be an effective, hard working and consistent player, most fans should be satisfied with a 25-30 goal season from Gionta, for a total of about 50 points.

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3. TOMAS PLEKANEC
2009-10: 82GP - 25G - 45A - 70PTS - +5
Playoffs: 19GP - 4G - 7A - 11PTS - -5

2009-10 Season: There was a long period of time during this season where Tomas Plekanec would have handily taken the #1 spot on this list. On pace for a career year and the lead in points on the team for pretty much the entire season, and obviously finishing with those very accolades when the season was in the books, Plekanec was one of the main reasons this team even stood a chance at making the playoffs this year. Finding instand chemistry with Cammalleri and keeping Andrei Kostitsyn afloat during the season, Plekanec was invaluable to the Canadiens.

When the playoffs came around, however, the so-called "Tomas Jagr" somewhat receded back into his shell. His numbers were average and he was nearly invisible as the playoffs progressed, despite Cammalleri producing at a high rate. Does this mean that Pleks is a regular-season performer? That he's not clutch enough to be a major factor for the Canadiens in the playoffs? I don't think we could really make a final decision on this until we see him in another playoffs, but for this season, his playoff performance drops him down to 3rd place on this list.

2009-10 Grade: B+
You can't take much away from Tomas Plekanec. His regular season, a career season, was incredible, and frankly, as close to an A+ as you're going to get. Plekanec was there the entire season. He didn't miss a game, and it seemed like he was putting up points in all those games. But frankly, you can't help but be worried after seeing his disappearance late in the playoffs. Will this carry forward into next season? Hopefully not. But the thought has to remain in the back of the heads of some Habs fans. Plekanec's playoffs drop him an entire grade point to a B+ for his overall performance in 2009-10.

2010-11 Expectations: Plekanec's career year led to him cashing out on a 6 year, $30 million contract. The way these things usually go means that Plekanec probably won't have another career year this season. If he can however match his numbers from last season, putting up his seemingly yearly minimum of 20 goals, and at least 40 (preferably 50) assists, alongside a Mike Cammalleri who will score a little more often, a 60-70 point season for the Canadiens' second line center should be more than satisfactory.

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4. SCOTT GOMEZ
2009-10: 78GP - 12G - 47A - 59PTS - +1
Playoffs: 19GP - 2G - 12A - 14PTS - -6

2009-10 Season: Ya, I know, 12 goals during the season (2 during the playoffs) might not look so great for a play who makes upwards of $7 million a season. A lot of fans have quoted this exact stat as a complaint against the Canadiens' first major acquisition in the summer of 2009. But you know what doesn't really look so bad? 47 assists during the season, and another 12 during the playoffs.

Scott Gomez is a playmaker and a premiere puck-carrying forward in this league. When he is on the ice for the Canadiens, he commands the play. He has incredible vision on the ice, he is a hard worker and a reliable player. He won't score very many goals, and he'll need to put up more than 60 points to justify his contract, but his first season with the Canadiens really wasn't that bad. We all knew what kind of player Gomez was, and what he brought to the table, and frankly, I think he delivered on what truly should have been expected of him.

2009-10 Grade: B-
I don't want more goals from Gomez. I want more assists. And regardless of his contract situation, the performance of Scott Gomez in the 2009-10 season was more than satisfactory.

2010-11 Expectations: As I mentioned earlier in this analysis, Gomez needs to find a way to put up more assists. A full season of PK Subban on the point, of Gionta and Cammalleri healthy on the wings, and maybe of Plekanec letting off slightly from his performance last year should allow Gomez to put up a few more points. Not asking for the world here, we all know Gomez's cap is pretty much at 55 assists, so lets see him try and strive for that. Expectations for next season will be 10 goals and 55 assists for 65 points, and to continue doing what he's doing in terms of puck carrying and on-ice vision.

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5. ANDREI KOSTITSYN
2009-10: 59GP - 15G - 18A - 33PTS - +1
Playoffs: 19GP - 3G - 5A - 8PTS - -1

2009-10 Season: To say that Andrei Kostitsyn had a less than spectacular season might be the understatement of the year. His 15 goals was the lowest of his young career. He barely recovered from the knee injury (starting to see a trend here) that kept him off the ice for 23 games. Frankly, the only reason he even made it to 15 goals is probably because of his chemistry with Plekanec, a player who makes those around him better. Kostitsyn came into this league with loads of potential, and he could still end up being an offensive powerhouse. Whether that will happen in Montreal, or anywhere at all, for that matter, is a definite question mark.

2009-10 Grade: C-
Everyone knows that Kostitsyn has trouble getting into the groove of things early in seasons and coming off of injuries, so frankly, the fact that he even made it to 15 goals is somewhat impressive, and keeps him above a D. But there isn't much to say about the rest. Kostitsyn ends up with a generous C-.

2010-11 Expectations: Andrei Kostitsyn has no more excuses. No more distractions. His brother has been traded to the western conference. He gets another chance with the Habs in the last year of his contract, and will likely start the season with his usual linemates - Cammalleri and Plekanec. If he starts off slow, he likely won't be sticking around for too long. This is his last chance, and he needs to deliver, or it's over. Assuming he ends up staying the entire season, 20 goals is a bare minimum for Andrei Kostitsyn.

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6. BENOIT POULIOT
2009-10: 53GP - 17G - 11A - 28PTS - +8
Playoffs: 18GP - 0G - 2A - 2PTS - -5

2009-10 Season: Throughout my musings and travels around the internet since the season ended, I've heard many excuses made by fans for Benoit Pouliot. His wrist injury, his personal problems, adjusting to a new team. Frankly, it's quite amazing that he even ended up with 17 goals this season (15 in 39 games with the Canadiens), considering all this, and his nagging injury which kept him out of two line-ups for 29 games this season. But the way Benoit Pouliot ended his season, scoring only a single goal since March 9th (regular season and playoffs included) and really dropping completely off the radar on the Canadiens. No matter how many goals he ended up with, Benoit Pouliot was supposed to be the answer for size and goalscoring ability that was left vacant but the under-performance and eventual trading of Guillaume Latendresse. In the end, he didn't deliver, and proved to be nothing more than a coaster.

2009-10 Grade: D
In what seems to be the norm in these grades, Benoit Pouliot gets saved from a failing grade thanks to an injury. A wrist injury can really put a damper on a player's performance. Holding a stick isn't comfortable anymore, and it's hard to make any movement that a skilled player is used to. Add to this a new team, new teammates and new pressures to overcome, and Pouliot earns a second chance. In any case, a D is as high as I can go with this player, for his performance this season.

2010-11 Expectations: Just like Andrei Kostitsyn, Pouliot will be on a tight, short leash come this fall and the upcoming season. No more excuses, no more wrist injuries. We can all assume he gets a shot with Gomez and Gionta, the two players he seemed to click with the most. And if he starts slow, if he can't get it going, he's out. It's really not a matter of goalscoring with Pouliot. It's a matter of using the body, hitting, forechecking, and playing consistently. 15-20 goals will be more than enough, but he needs to be CONSISTENT. Otherwise, just like Kostitsyn, it will be out the door for Pouliot.

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It wouldn't be a stretch to say that, as a whole, the top six forwards for the Canadiens reached most expectations this past season. Plekanec had a career year, Cammalleri and Gionta battled hard out of injuries and led the team in scoring, and Scott Gomez did a lot of little things that really impressed a lot of people, regardless of his salary. Clearly, these four forwards are a good, hard-working core for the Canadiens as the next season approaching. But just as clear is the lack of two good forwards to round out this top six. Are Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn the answer? Can they rebound from injury-ridden, disappointing seasons? Maybe, maybe not. We will definitely find out this fall. But as it stands right now, there really doesn't seem to be anyone else to fill their roles as big, hard-hitting forwards who can support the big names offensively.

If the top 4 can stay healthy and carry the load, a 150 goal production from these two lines really wouldn't be too far out of the question.

Whether they can deliver, under the pressures of living up to last year's standards and Cinderella playoff run, that definitely remains to be seen.

Soak it in, leave your responses and your own grades and expectations for these 6 players, and I'll be back in a few days with the best of the rest when it comes to the forwards.

Don't forget to comment!

Prax
TheCheckingLine.com
Twitter.com/GeorgePrax