Habs: Prefecting the transition game

With a new GM, the Canadiens are in for another year of changes.

Updated: September 10, 2003, 4:54 PM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

The Montreal Canadiens are like a once magnificent battleship. They once ruled the NHL waters like no other, but the years have taken their toll and no number of coats of paint can disguise the fact that deep beneath the decks there has been a pervasive rot eating away at the structure.

TRAINING CAMP
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Opens:Sept. 11 at Sportplexe Pierrefonds (Pierrefonds, Quebec)

PRESEASON SCHEDULE
S. 18 Boston, 7:30 p.m. S. 20 Ottawa, 7 p.m. S. 23 Toronto, 7:30 p.m. S. 26 Boston, 7:30 p.m. S. 27 Buffalo, 7 p.m. S. 29 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. S. 30 at Minnesota, 8 p.m. O. 3 Minnesota, 7:30 p.m. O. 4 at Ottawa, 7 p.m.
There is another new man in charge this year -- former Habs great Bob Gainey -- and once again a new direction for a franchise that has been less than mediocre for the better part of a decade. Once again, this looks to be a year of transition for a once great Canadian institution.

Here are the questions that need to be answered as the club prepares to open camp:

  • Jose, can you be as good as you were two years ago? The Canadiens season will come down to one thing: can goaltender Jose Theodore play as well as he did two years ago when he won the Vezina and Hart Trophies and led the Habs to a stunning first-round upset of the Boston Bruins in the playoffs?

    Theodore got a new contract out of that wonderful season, but fell several rungs last season, getting off to a slow start and never fully recovering. His performance slipped and the Habs went right along with him, missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. He allowed himself to be distracted by the attention and publicity during the offseason and never got into top shape.

    While Theodore has reportedly renewed his commitment to conditioning -- goaltending coach Rollie Melanson said Theodore is in the best shape of his career -- another distraction looms. According to media reports in Montreal, Theodore's father and four step brothers were arrested for allegedly being part of a loansharking ring, though police have stated Theodore is not involved and is not under investigation. The controversy wasn't eased when a French-language paper ran photos of Theodore partying with members of the Hells Angels.

    Can Theodore put all the controversy aside? Or will Gainey be faced with his first difficult decision early in his tenure: stick with Theodore or trade him?

  • Who will light the lamp? Gainey has done little to improve the Canadiens up front where they remain small, though quick and skilled. The Canadiens were 11th in the Eastern Conference in goals scored and counted only three players in the top 150 scorers in the league (captain Saku Koivu was 27th, winger Richard Zednik was 94th and center Yanic Perreault was 110th). The question entering training camp is who can step up to provide some secondary scoring for this club?

    Youngsters Jason Ward and Marcel Hossa will surely make the team this year and they give the Habs some size and some skill, but it remains to be seen what kind of impact they can have. Ward was leading the American Hockey League in scoring when he was called up late last year. Hossa, who had six goals in 36 games with the Habs last year, could wind up playing with Koivu and Zednik on the Habs' top line. All concerned will have to try and boost a power play that was 28th in the league last year with just 44 goals or only one every second game.

  • Has the door behind the bench stopped revolving? Claude Julien is the Canadiens third coach in four years and there is no guarantee he will be around much longer than the man he replaced, Michel Therrien. Julien was the choice of Andre Savard, who has since been replaced by Gainey as Habs' GM. Julien will be out to prove to Gainey he is the man to oversee the rebuilding of the Canadiens. Julien's reputation as an excellent teacher will help him, especially if the Habs do go younger and prospects like Ward and Hossa -- who both played for Julien and excelled for him in Hamilton last year -- are around. Julien had a 12-16-3-5 record after replaced Therrien last season, but had little time to put his imprint on the team. Julien will be under the microscope in training camp and in the early part of the season.

    Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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