Habs 2011-12: A Season to Forget, Part One

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(Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

Written by Steven EllisAllHabs.net

OAKVILLE, ON — On Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens 2011-2012 season ended on a high note, defeating the hated Toronto Maple Leafs at home 4-1.

There weren’t many high notes this season.

The Canadiens, who are not familiar with playing golf after game 82, finished with a brutal 31-35-16 record, placing them in 28th overall in the NHL.

To begin, I will present to you a reprint of my article entitled 2011 Habs Year In Review – Part Three.  It documents the first four months of the season we would like to forget.  Tomorrow I will look at January to April.

(Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

September – To help bolster the Hamilton Bulldogs defense core, the Bulldogs signed defenceman Zack FitzGerald to a one-year, one-way American Hockey League contract. In 2010-2011, FitzGerald played in 76 games with the Charlotte Checkers recording eight assists and leading the team in penalty minutes with 229.

As the pre-season was drawing near, the Canadiens opened up their training camp to a total of 64 players. The list of players that were  invited to training camp included six goaltenders, 23 defensemen and 35 forwards. According to Rick Stephens of All Habs, “ (Alexi) Yemelin was quick, mobile and hit everything that moved. Not the Max Lapierre type of rattle-the-boards checks but solid hits that punish and stop players in their tracks.” His performance in training camp earned him a spot on the Canadiens for the upcoming season. After impressive training camps, the Bulldogs signed forward Philip DeSimone and defenseman Olivier Dame-Malka to one-year two-way contracts (AHL/ECHL). Both players were at the Montreal Canadiens training camp on a try-out basis. The Habs also signed Chris Campoli to a one-year deal, but he would end up getting injured in the first game of the season, against Toronto.

September also saw the start of the NHL pre-season, which allowed us to see some very talented newcomers shine with the Canadiens. Peter Budaj, Nathan Lawson, Erik Cole, Jeff Woywitka, Louis Leblanc, Rafael Diaz, Alexi Emelin, Jarred Tinordi and Brendan Gallagher were among some of the new faces in bleu, blanc et rouge. Tinordi, and Gallagher were returned to junior, and Leblanc began the season in Hamilton but would end up seeing time with the Canadiens later in the year. Montreal would finish the pre-season with only two wins and six losses.

The top story of the pre-season was the return of forward Max Pacioretty. The 6’2”, 205 lb left wing was returning from a broken vertebrae as a result of the Zdeno Chara incident that happened on March 8th, 2011. The 22 year-Pacioretty had to miss the remainder of the season and the first round of the playoffs. So far, he has been one of the few high points for the Canadiens this season.

ANDRÉ PICHETTE, LA PRESSE

October – On October 6th, the Habs picked up depth center Blair Betts on waivers, but would return him to the Philadelphia Flyers, with the league ruling that he was damaged goods. Montreal would get shut out later that night against the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-0, a game where goaltending was huge for both teams, with Carey Price and James Reimer. A few days later, The Habs took on the new Winnipeg Jets in their first game back since being moved to Phoenix in 1995. Despite the support from the crowd, the Jets were unable to defeat the Canadiens, making the Jets return bittersweet. Michael Cammalleri would have his leg cut from a skate, forcing him to miss the next two weeks. Montreal would finish October an unpleasant 4-5-2. Not the start anyone was looking for.

There were reports in Montreal that the Canadiens and Coyotes were close to a big deal, and the first thing that people thought were Scott Gomez for RFA Kyle Turris. Well, this was not the case. Pierre Gauthier announced on October 23rd the acquisition of forward Petteri Nokelainen and defenseman Garrett Stafford from the Phoenix Coyotes, in return for forward Brock Trotter and a 7th-round draft pick in 2012. Nokelainen would go on to play on the fourth line with Montreal, while Stafford would report to the Hamilton Bulldogs. This deal angered fans, hoping that maybe all the talk of a big deal on the horizon would be true. Turris would get traded to Ottawa on December 17th, while Gomez is still a Canadien.

Montreal fired assistant coach Perry Pearn prior to facing the Philadelphia Flyers on October 26th. Pearn was a long-time assistant under coach Jacques Martin,and Gauthier said when he informed his coach of his decision – and it was Gauthier’s decision – Martin tried to talk his general manager out of it. But as Gauthier explained to Martin,the decision to fire Pearn was part of what he described as an organizational shift in the way they operate.

November- Montreal’s struggling season continued, with six wins and eight losses, for an overall record of 10-12-3. The two biggest losses were against the Islanders on November 17th, when New York Goalie Evgeni Nabokov got injured during the second period, resulting in oft-injured netminder Rick Dipietro to finish the game. Even on a  cold goaltender, Montreal was unable to win. But the biggest blow to the Canadiens was the loss to Pittsburgh on November 26th. Kris Letang left the game due to a Pacioretty head shot, but came back and got the game winning goal in overtime. Pacioretty would later be suspended for three games due to this incident. Yes, the Habs still got one point, but the way the Canadiens lost was the reason this game made fans angry, as Carey Price clearly covered the puck, but Letang took it out of his glove and scored. The referees left the ice as quickly as possible.

The injury bug started to really strike the Canadiens, as  Mike Cammalleri, Ryan White, Jaroslav Spacek, Lars Eller, Hal Gill, Max Pacioretty, Andreas Engqvist and Andrei Markov have all been out at various times. Markov and White have yet to see game action this season. Injuries hurt (pun intended) the Canadiens last year, and it has definitely contributed this season.

The Canadiens organization was deeply saddened to learn that former Head Equipment Manager Eddy Palchak passed away after a long illness.  His hard work and dedication earned him to join the Canadiens as assistant to veteran trainer Larry Aubut. Throughout his 31-year career with the Canadiens, Palchak etched his name on the Stanley Cup 10 times, an NHL record for a member of the support staff in NHL history. In 1998, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society (P.H.A.T.S.) for his contribution to the game. Palchak was 71.

GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS

December – Andrei Markov underwent successful arthroscopic surgery in early December to remove debris in his right knee. In case you are unaware of the whole situation, and you shouldn’t be after reading “Rookie’s” post , Markov has been out since November 13, 2010 due to a knee injury. GM Pierre Gauthier said he would be out for only a month, but in Markov’s case, this could be longer.

On December 9th, Frederic St. Denis was sent down to the AHL  prior to a game between the Bulldogs and Toronto Marlies. OK, what’s going on? To a mixed reaction, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek was traded to Carolina for former star defenseman Tomas Kaberle. This deal would have been amazing about three years ago, but it turned out to be a disaster for Montreal. Kaberle, paired with Chris Campoli, had 3 goals, 31 points, and an ugly -18 in 72 games.

On December 17th, Montreal fans were treated with a great early Christmas present, when Jacques Martin was relieved of his duties. He would finish his career in Montreal with 96 wins and 75 losses. Nothing whatsoever was working, and he made many moves that just confused people (using Mathieu Darche on the power-play). Randy Cunneyworth, an English speaking coach, would take over as interim.

The first half of the season was, well, a struggle. How did the rest of the season fare? That’s all coming in part two of the Montreal Canadiens season in review.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.