Daily Hab-it: Panic!
Published Thursday, September 15, 2011 10:54AM EDT
The Canadiens annual golf tournament is a day for kids, as in those who benefit from the charitable work of the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation.
It is also a day for renewal and new beginnings, with a fresh season on the horizon and hope springing eternal.
But every year – without fail – it is also a day for target practice, as in targeting players who have been lightning rods for criticism for one reason or another and dissecting every little thing they say.
Who can forget Saku Koivu arriving at the golf tournament and being forced to explain his audacity for saying the Canadiens were not favourites to win the Stanley Cup? Or last summer, when Carey Price had to apologize for not being Jaroslav Halak?
Except this year, it's what wasn't said that loomed largest Wednesday, as Andrei Markov was shielded from the media amid reports he had suffered a setback in his rehabilitation from his second ACL surgery on his right knee.
There was also Scott Gomez, who faced a series of questions about last season when all he wanted to do was talk about the upcoming one.
And finally there was Andrei Kostitsyn, who had to explain quotes attributed to him by a Belarusian news outlet that he had a poor relationship with coach Jacques Martin.
Important to have Markov in April
On the first source of scuttlebutt, Pierre Gauthier came out and said Markov would not be able to play if the season began immediately. Red flag.
He also said he "hopes" Markov will be ready in time for the Canadiens regular season opener Oct. 6 in Toronto. Red flag number two.
That date will fall two days short of the 11-month anniversary of Markov's ACL surgery by Dr. James Andrews, a timeframe most would likely consider ample for a full recovery, but which is perfectly within reason for a procedure of this kind being performed for the second time in seven months on the same knee.
Gauthier's decision to give Markov a three-year, $17.25 million contract made a good deal of the fan base anxious over his health, and with good reason. But the contract is now signed, and no degree of I-told-you-so debate over the wisdom of that move will change that fact.
"It's always a risk when you sign older players, first, and it's a bigger risk when you sign older players who have had injuries," Gauthier said. "But you evaluate that as a calculated risk, and you also evaluate what your options are. In the case of Mr. Markov, he's such a professional, such a hard working person. One of the things that was interesting about his knee is he had absolutely no collateral damage. The ACL was torn a second time, but in a lot of cases with knee injuries there's something else that's gone wrong, like an MCL or some cartilage. In his case it was strictly one band that was ruptured. So we feel pretty good about his prognosis."
That last part was pretty telling, because once you've torn your ACL it's gone forever. It's most often replaced with some tissue from another part of your body (on occasion, tissue from a cadaver will be used). So tearing it again, in theory, is not that much different than when you tore it the first time, even though there's anecdotal evidence saying a second procedure is less likely to succeed than the first one.
Markov is supposed to speak to reporters Friday as the team conducts its medicals and fitness tests, so perhaps he will shed some light on the Team 990's Tony Marinaro reporting he had to have his knee drained because it gathered fluid due to overtraining.
Or perhaps he won't.
Either way, I would say it would be better if Markov takes his time coming back if it means he is fully healthy. If it's an additional week, a month or even two months of the season missed, so be it. Because Markov's absence used to be a death knell to this team, but that is no longer the case.
It's reached the point where his presence is almost like an enormous bonus, one that takes the Canadiens from mediocre status to the cusp of elite. The last two seasons have shown that the team can at least tread water without Markov, and at best can eliminate an elite squad like the Pittsburgh Penguins from the playoffs without the services of their best defenceman.
Markov overshadowing good health news
Markov's status and his absence from the little podiums where players spoke with the media Wednesday did overshadow the glut of good injury news that emerged.
Josh Gorges proclaimed himself 100 per cent recovered from his own ACL reconstruction, also performed by Andrews, whom he visited with last week.
"He was more than impressed with how it's come along," Gorges said, beaming. "So I'm 100 per cent ready to go."
Gorges admitted that he essentially had to "start from scratch" to rebuild a skating stride which had developed some bad habits compensating for the torn ACL he played with since his junior days in Kelowna.
He feels the new stride will improve his balance and make more efficient use of his energy, though he conceded it will take a bit more time before it becomes second nature for him.
"It's not something I'll be thinking about during games," he said, "but it's something I'll need to focus on during practice."
The return of a healthy Gorges has a huge impact on the Canadiens fortunes this season, more than I feel most people realize.
It gives the team a second go-to defender who can focus solely on that role, one that had to be filled by P.K. Subban in the absence of Gorges while also concentrating on his significant importance to the power play, as a rookie no less.
David Desharnais and Lars Eller also proclaimed that they are fully recovered from their respective knee and shoulder injuries, though Eller is awaiting official clearance for contact from doctors.
The continued development of these two forwards from their strong finishes to last season is crucial to the Canadiens ability to build three dangerous lines that can attack with a certain degree of legitimacy.
For Desharnais, his recovery at this stage was expected. But Eller's separated shoulder was given a recovery window that stretched as late as November, so his confidence in being ready for opening night is very good news for the club.
"I'm counting on being ready for the start of the season. Right now I just need that last clearance from the doctor to go full contact, that's what I'm waiting for. That's still a little bit up in the air, but right now I'm feeling really good," Eller said. "I didn't want to be too far behind when the season started, so I always had a goal in my mind to be ready for the season. I saw it as a realistic goal to reach and I'm right on track for that."
Finally on the injury front, Max Pacioretty confirmed he's had more than enough time to recover from his devastating injury last season, and says he just has one last hurdle to clear before that process is complete.
"I haven't really taken a big check yet and I'm looking forward to getting that out of the way," he said. "Maybe I'll ask one of my teammates to help me out with that the first day of camp."
As for Gomez and Kostitsyn, they both handled what were practically unwinnable situations as well as could be expected.
Gomez briefly addressed his horrid season before insisting on moving forward and talking about the season to come. He spoke of how he worked harder in the offseason to get in shape, how he spent less time relaxing in Alaska than usual, and how he's "going to have a great year and I'm ready to deliver."
There really wasn't much else he could say.
His reluctance to discuss the worst season of his career was understandable because he did so at length a day after the Canadiens were eliminated last spring, and because his mental preparation for training camp surely included trying to erase that from his mind after using his failure to fuel his offseason training.
"I just focused more on what I enjoyed most, and sat back and thought about that more," Gomez said of his summer. "That was the biggest part, realizing what I do and what I love."
Kostitsyn, meanwhile, downplayed the quotes about Martin attributed to him as yet another case of an Eastern European player being misquoted in his native country – a security blanket often used by players who make news in the summer for all the wrong reasons.
''I see him tomorrow and I talk to him about what this Russian newspaper say and I think we're good for the season," he said. "Jacques is a good coach."
I have no idea if Kostitsyn was misquoted, or if he was at least taken out of context, but I do know that he remains an important player to this team.
Along with Pacioretty and Erik Cole, Kostitsyn is a physical presence with the talent to score goals. On a team rife with a lack of size among its skilled players, that's a valuable asset.
If Kostitsyn winds up being pushed down the depth chart onto a third line, something I've already said may be the best thing for him, he will be the catalyst for what Gauthier expressed as his primary goal for the summer.
"We wanted to have balance on all of our lines, we talked about it at the end of the year," Gauthier said. "Against Boston, it was their third line that really made a big difference. So we wanted to balance things out in terms of our forwards, especially at five on five."
Wait and see
The overriding sentiment for all of the issues addressed to varying degrees Wednesday and discussed here is that the Canadiens are, and have been for several months, a team of ifs. There are a lot of unknowns that need to work out positively for the Canadiens to succeed this season, starting with health, moving on to players fulfilling their potential, and finishing with a goalie who will need to at least come close to repeating a magical season pulled off under trying circumstances.
No one knows how many of those question marks will turn out in the Canadiens favour, and it will likely be weeks or even months before we do.
So, to quote a certain goalie who uttered these words nearly a year ago, it may be best for the time being to just chill out on all fronts.