Isn’t chemistry a neat science? It was one of my favourite subjects in school. You can take a couple of atoms of hydrogen, throw in a molecule of oxygen and…poof!…you’ve got water. Freeze it, drink it, wash in it…it’s great stuff. But, if you add an atom of hydrogen and one of chlorine to the mix, you get corrosive, hazardous hydrochloric acid.
In hockey, as in science, different combinations of your basic ingredients will give you very different results. Some will be explosive and productive, and some will be…well…acidic. Take Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec, for instance. Those two seem to be a pretty stable combination. But you add a dash of Sergei Samsonov and the whole experiment bubbles up and floods the lab with stinky bad attitudes. Replace Samsonov with a few molecules of Andrei Kostitsyn and suddenly Guy Carbonneau looks like Francis Crick.
Chemistry’s tricky though. What works for one game, or even one season, can be impotent in the next one. It’s a delicate balance and made even more touchy by the fact that connections between individual players and linemates are complicated by the perhaps the greatest of sport’s intangibles: team chemistry. I think the role it plays in determining a team’s direction can’t be overestimated. Look at last year’s Ottawa Senators: all the talent in the world and a ripping good start, but when infighting, misbehaviour and an unproductive deadline trade disrupted the chemistry, the team fizzled. By the time the playoffs arrived, the team pundits had compared to the 1976-77 Habs in November looked like the 1974-75 Washington Capitals. As Adam Sandler said, "Chemistry can be a good and bad thing. It’s good when you make love with it. It’s bad when you make crack with it." Last year’s Sens were definitely making metaphorical crack in April.
The question for us is what the Canadiens are making with it. Right now, things are looking pretty good, at least from the outside. Teammates appear to be enjoying each other’s company off the ice, supporting and defending each other on it. It helps that most of the team that proved to be a model of consistency last year and pulled together so well as a group is back again this season. It also helps that the team’s dedication to developing talent from within means the young players waiting for roster spots have been indoctrinated with the same ideals of team play, hard work and competitiveness that are expected of NHL players.
In a team sport in which chemistry is a pretty big deal, the Canadiens have been very lucky to have weathered the off-season changes so smoothly too. The departures of good guys Mark Streit, Cristobal Huet, Bryan Smolinski and Michael Ryder haven’t disrupted the formula too much, as equally good guys Georges Laraque, Robert Lang, Jaroslav Halak and Alex Tanguay have slipped easily into the mix.
But the Habs’ chemistry will probably face two big tests this year.
First of all, last year’s team led a charmed existence in terms of good health and good attitudes from scratched players, and hardly lost more than a couple of games in a row as a result. This year is already starting out on less-than-ideal footing on the injury front, with Christopher Higgins yet to play, and Andrei Kostitsyn out indefinitely. But when they’re back, there will be five players jockeying for jobs on the fourth line, and no guarantee that they’ll all be satisfied to sit when their turns come. Even if injuries mean there’s playing time for all, the shifting of players between lines and in and out of positions on the ice is disruptive. If injuries translate to a real slump, we’ll see how strong the bonds holding the team together really are.
The second test will be tougher for such a tight group. I think Bob Gainey isn’t done with this team. He wants to win a Cup in the Centennial year, and I believe he will do his best to land another, difference-making player before the season ends…be it another top-four defenceman or a tough, talented forward. The addition of a player like that has the potential to shift the balance of personalities in the room, and the chemistry of the lines on the ice. If Gainey’s able to add a big star, will it be someone who’s content to bow to Saku Koivu’s leadership? Will the new guy have an ego, or will he have similar team values to the rest of the Canadiens? Will he threaten to overshadow Kovalev’s star or fail to find individual chemistry with the linemates he’s given? Will the new guy have time to blend in if he doesn’t join the team until the trade deadline? Who will go if the new player comes via trade, or who will sit to make room for him if he’s a free agent? I’m sure Gainey will think about the question of chemistry when he looks at bringing in someone new. He’s proven that character is an important consideration for him. But it does make it tougher to find just the right fit for the team when you add those kind of requirements.
It’ll be interesting to see how the team deals with the tests it will undoubtedly face this season. If the chemistry stays strong, it could be an important factor in determining how the Habs deal with adversity in the post-season and how far they’re able to go. One thing’s sure, though, they’re not going very deep without it.
If Bob Gainey proves to be a master chemist, I’m sure he’ll accept the Stanley Cup in lieu of the Nobel Prize.