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Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

One of the big questions for the Habs this off-season is how to solve the logjam down the middle. So let’s see if I have this right before we get started:

The Habs have 4 capable centermen (one being a potential) for their top 3 lines.

Yep, that’s called a logjam, kids.

And it’s normally a pretty good problem to have unless you let meatheads do the solving.

To review, the Habs have Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, and (supposedly) Alex Galchenyuk as centermen. I tag Galchenyuk with “supposedly” because although he was drafted as a centerman, and the Habs continue to say that he will be a centerman, we have yet to see him play, or even practice down the middle. Yet we’re supposed to believe that’s a change that is coming? I’ll believe it when I see it, because right now, there’s nothing *at all* to suggest that that change is imminent.

After the success of their lengthy playoff run, Habs fans are predictably getting ahead of themselves, looking to make sweeping changes for the sake of change. With guys like Desharnais and Eller having strong post-seasons, and Galchenyuk supposedly (there’s that word again) waiting in the wings, an opinion quickly gaining traction is to trade Tomas Plekanec, their best two-way center now, while he’s still relatively young and valuable.

Tomas Plekanec. uniquely capable of taking tough defensive minutes, including a critical role on the penalty kill.

Tomas Plekanec, the guy who plays in all situations.

Tomas Plekanec, the only guy you’d rely on to take a crucial defensive zone faceoff.

Sure, let’s trade him because we *think* we have able replacements.

This isn’t where the rubber meets the road. It’s where the head meets the desk. Repeatedly.

Are we excited at the idea of Desharnais – Eller – Galchenyuk down the middle? Clearly many are. Personally, I’d keep the pepto bismol close. Don’t get me wrong, each of these guys have their strengths, but it’s the weaknesses, and in the case of Galchenyuk – total inexperience – that make this proposition fraught with peril. Let’s not forget to mention that neither Eller nor Desharnais have shown anything special that indicates that Plekanec is now suddenly expendable. Small detail, I guess.

Given his wingers, many consider Desharnais the team’s top centerman. While that may be true in terms of minutes and situations given to him, we have to remember that he is not considered a top center – or else the Habs would have paid him as such. We also know that Desharnais struggles in his own zone, sometimes mightily. Heck, he struggles most everywhere without stud wingers to fetch the puck for him. This isn’t a rip-job on Desharnais, because he had a good season after a disastrous start, but rather a summary of the gaps in his game that can’t be overlooked. The “heir apparent” to Plekanec, Lars Eller, for all his size and skill, too often lacks hockey IQ, and the consistent determination needed to take on the role of second-line center. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like Eller, but he doesn’t play a strong 200-foot game often enough to simplyt be handed Plekanec’s role come the start of the 2014-15 season. Galchenyuk? Nobody questions his ability, nor his trajectory as a future star in the NHL. But the talk of moving him to center, even on the third line, when he isn’t even the second man in for faceoffs after the first guy is waved out? That’s telling. It says that the Habs aren’t ready to hand him that role (aren’t ready to even groom him) yet, or that they like him at wing permanently.

If the Canadiens do as many fans wish, and cash in on Plekanec’s value now, they leave themselves up a creek at center, definitely in the short term, and possibly in the long term. They think they’re fixing a problem by handing the torch to the kids, but in reality all their doing is tossing the kids to the wolves by putting them in roles that aren’t yet ready for. I’m not saying that the Canadiens should not, or will not ever trade Plekanec. I’m saying that they should NOT do it yet. You don’t trade away your best two-way center and cross your fingers that the kids will pick up the slack. Plekanec’s responsibilities are what allow Desharnais to shine, and what allow Eller to make many believe.

On June 13th, fans will say that they’re ok with taking a “small step back” for long term gain. That’s the drunken stupor from a successful playoff run talking. On December 21st? They’ll be singing an entirely different tune and wishing Bergevin nothing but a lump of cole for trading their best center away. Clever revisionists, Habs fans are.

Don’t trade Tomas Plekanec yet. Not without a safety net.

Thanks 2013-14 Habs

What a strange, amazing year 2013-14 was.

What started with so much promise quickly became a six-month long head-scratching festival, with the occasional dash of awesome. There were many Habs fans that didn’t understand why the Canadiens abandoned what made them so good in the lockout-shortened 2013 season in favour of a style of play that seemed to hold the team back. In the end, it all led to the what may be the ugliest 100-pt season in team history. But 100 points is 100 points. It’s not easy to reach that peak, and Michel Therrien did what he had to do to push the team there. Nitpickers, naysayers and haters would say that with different tactics, strategies, and personnel, 100 points could have easily been 110 points. Some people are very hard to please, apparently.

What followed the 82-game regular season was the most incredible, frustrating, and exhilarating playoff run the team has been on since their last cup win, 21 years ago. From sweeping the Lightning to vanquishing the evil Bruins in seven nail-biting games, to a hard-fought loss to the surprisingly amazing Rangers, Habs fans have a lot to cheer for and be proud about. Despite bowing out of the playoffs, it’s hard not to imagine that the best from this group is yet to come. Conjecture and opinions on how the team can get there is a topic for another day, but today is all about looking back on the season and appreciating what the team accomplished.

In Montreal, we like to say that it’s “Cup or nothing”. That’s bold, and it keeps the bar up where we all want it to be, but it’s also a point of view that ignores every incremental step on the way to victory. The Canadiens took some steps this year. I won’t pretend to know all of the steps required in order to be a Cup winner, but we saw this team battle adversity many times and come out on the other end with their identity, fighting spirit and most importantly, point totals intact. We saw elite players like Pacioretty, Subban and Price push their games to all-world levels. In the case of Subban and Price, we can’t ever quantify how a gold medal helps the quest for a Stanley Cup, but we can be sure that exposure to the game’s best and winning it all in the process is something that will certainly help. We saw guys like David Desharnais and Lars Eller raise their compete level to places we didn’t think they could, or would go. We saw late-season pick ups like Weise and Weaver make strong cases to stay with the team. We saw Rene Bourque make up for a season of futility (and making himself tradeable in the process?). We saw Alex Galchenyuk emerge as a difference maker.

We saw Dustin Tokarski.

We don’t have access to Bergevin’s road map, so we can’t know what he’s planning. He has a lot of personnel issues to resolve, the biggest of which is in signing PK Subban to a new contract. There will be plenty of time to talk about the free agent market (which is pathetic this year, best to avoid it if looking for big fish), and trades in order to improve the team, but for the first time in a long time, we can see the form of a contender taking shape. The core is young and talented. The farm is restocking with quality prospects that will be ready soon (or, immediately in the case of guys like Beaulieu, Tinordi, and Pateryn).

It’s safe to say that coming within 6 wins of the Stanley Cup pours cold water on those who were ready to run Therrien out of town. Those people were fully expecting a series loss to Tampa (oops). What they got instead was a giant helping of crow.

While we rolled out of bed this morning with the realization that the Habs won’t play another meaningful game until October, it’s nice to know that the plan that has been put in place is working and we should all be excited to see what’s around the corner.

Happy Landings, Bruins!

Don’t poke the bear? Why the hell not?

The Emperor is no more! Sauron has been defeated! Drago has been knocked out! Biff Tannen is wearing a truckload of manure!

For what feels like forever, the Bruins have been bullying and beating down the Habs with not just their size, but with goonery and cheap shots. Despite a bunch of regular season success against Boston, the 2009 sweep and 2011 seven-game heartbreak series still feels fresh. For a lot of guys, the physical beatings might feel fresher still. A little pay back was needed, not only for those playoff losses, but also for this type of dirty crap that has come to personify the Bruins more than the quality of their on-ice play:

On top of the joy of advancing to the conference finals, we got to do it at the expense of Boston. Their poor-sport fans, mopey, excuse-making media and sore loser skaters deserve to feel this loss, hard. It’s so sweet to know that the Bruins are being eaten up inside that they lost to the team that they’ve relentlessly tried to paint as weak, cowardly and dirty.

Eat it, Bruins. Eat it, and like it.

Lucic’s post-game petulance…fantastic. Iginla’s depression…love it. Marchand’s lack of words…fitting for a guy with a lack of goals.

As for our boys, it has been amazing to watch this team consistently up their game. THIS is what a championship team looks like. This is what a winner plays like. This is the what the best are willing and able to do to.

Michel Therrien has done a wonderful job in preparing his team for these playoffs. More than that, though, we’re seeing guys like Carey Price and P.K. Subban elevate to superstars right before our very eyes. We knew they had it in them, and many among us probably considered them as superstars. But now they’re doing it on National stage. The rest of the hockey world is taking note of these guys and they’re envious. On top of those two pillars, Pacioretty, Desharnais and Vanek woke up in the knick of time. Emelin has found his hard-hitting game. Beaulieu has plugged a major leak. Gallagher, Gorges, Weaver, Weise and Prust are providing the blood and guts. Brière is doing what he always does in the playoffs, same goes for Plekanec. Bourque is reborn. Eller has been a revelation. Anyone who thought the Habs were robbed in the Halak trade can crawl back under their rock.

There are no passengers. They’re all in.

Who knows what else this team has left to give. You’d think that given the recent history between the Rangers and Habs, that a trip to the Cup Finals is a lock. But these are the playoffs, and the Rangers are looking good. Better than good. But for today, we get to revel in a great victory against a hated rival that is going to have a long off-season of regret.

Bizarro Habs

Going in to last night’s game in Washington, the first of a back-to-back set, it’s safe to say that nobody was sure what to expect. Memories of the stunning playoff upset from 2010 is probably still the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the Capitals. But that was what feels like a lifetime ago, and in the fast-paced NHL, it is a lifetime ago. Roster, coaching, and management turnover has rendered those halcyon days (hey, that’s all Habs fans have to hang their hats on for the last 20 years) buried in the past. The reality is that the Canadiens have struggled mightily against the Caps recently, going 1-5-1 since the start of the 2011-12 season. In those seven games, the Habs had been outscored 22-10, including being shutout twice. Four of their 10 goals came in their lone win, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Habs have been curb-stomped by the Caps lately.

The Canadiens are best described as an up-and-down team this season, and with backup Peter Budaj starting last night’s tilt against a Caps team featuring a renewed Alex Ovechkin, the initial knee-jerk reaction may have been to write off the game entirely and look forward to a traditional Saturday night game. Even the most off-beat uk betting sites couldn’t have predicted how last night’s game would have unfolded.

The Habs got even-strength goals from noted non-sniper Travis Moen, as well as goals from the stone-cold duo of David Desharnais and Daniel Briere, the latter’s coming on the powerplay. Taking in to account the entire roster, guessing that Josh Gorges would be the guy to pick up two assists to lead the team would have been somewhere between a longshot and a miracle. Wait, there’s more weirdness on this Freaky Friday. Despite having Ryan White and Brandon Prust in the lineup, it was PK Subban who dropped his mitts and sat for five minutes.

If you’ve watched any sport for long enough, you probably think you’ve seen it all, but as is clear from last night’s game, there’s always room for more odd-ball occurrences. What the hockey gods have planned for tonight’s game vs the Penguins is anybody’s guess, but it’s safe to say that expecting ham-fisted checking wingers and 4th line grinders to bail out the Habs against Crosby and his traveling death squad is a fool’s bet.

Then again, we do remember those 2010 playoffs, right?

Desharnais Tests Therrien’s Patience

When David Desharnais was awarded his long-term extension last season, it seemed hurried, sudden and most importantly – inexplicable. With their stalwart at center in Tomas Plekanec, an on-the-rise Lars Eller and the team’s best prospect, Alex Galchenyuk all laying claim to future center spots (unless you believe Galchenyuk’s future is on the wing), the move to lock up Desharnais made many fans – myself included – fearful that either Plekanec or Eller would be moved. Let’s be blunt – any move that sees Plekanec or Eller moved to accommodate Desharnais would be a disaster, and we wouldn’t even have to wait to see the return to make that call.

But things are never only about hockey with the Canadiens, and such was the driving force to keep Desharnais. Fully sensitive to the criticism of not having enough Francophone talent on the roster, the Canadiens made a public relations and marketing decision to re-sign Desharnais. Bergevin was certainly aware of the abundance of centermen at his disposal, so he had to know that he’d eventually have a problem on his hand. He just hoped it would be a good problem, with four productive centers. Instead he has the type of problem that keeps the codeine in the coat pocket. Just how bad is it? We don’t need to delve deep in to fancy stats to see the answer. In this case, the basic hockey card stats will do just fine: In 36 regular season games since signing his extension, Desharnais has two goals and 11 assists for 13 points. Last year’s brief playoff run doesn’t help his cause, with just one assist in five games. In the “what have you done for me lately” world of armchair GM’s, the tale gets even sadder. Through 15 games of the 2013-14 season, wee Davey has one lone assist, and has often looked lost, which is never a good look for a player thatis knocked off the puck with a light breeze.

At the time of signing his four-year, 14-million dollar extension, a lot of Habs fans (mostly Anglo) were enraged, feeling that he was overpaid, that the contract was too long, and that he only got it because of his birthplace. He was being overpaid, but not egregiously so given what he had done the season before. At 3.5 million per season, we are not even talking second line center money, so the cries of overpayment were a bit over-the-top. If a reasonable expectation of 45 points was what motivated the extension, then Bergevin could almost be excused. Knowing what we know now, Desharnais is stealing money for his level of production. I don’t think you’ll find many people who will say that his effort hasn’t been there, but 14 million dollars aren’t doled out because a guy tries hard. As one of the only offensive-minded Francophones on the team, Desharnais enjoys a special status; one that grants him a certain amount of immunity from criticism, and one that buys him bought him a boat load of patience. Or at least it did. With his awful production, Coach Michel Therrien can no longer justify Desharnais’ spot in the lineup, nor can fantasy hockey owners for that matter. With the need for balanced offense, there’s nowhere left to hide the small center. With his trade value basically reduced to ash (if he ever had any), Desharnais has put the Habs in a very tough spot. While Therrien is having a hard time protecting and justifying Desharnais’ once-safe roster spot, it’s harder for Bergevin to justify 3.5 million dollars tied up in one 4th-line player, and it’s nearly impossible to justify those dollars eating hot dogs. In short, Desharnais’ poor play has twisted the Habs up like a stale Bell Center pretzel.

Certainly Desharnais has pride and has tasted a modest level of success, so this has to embarrass and burn him in the worst way. I don’t for one second believe that he doesn’t care now that he has the protection of a contract that sets him up for the rest of his life. At this point the likely diagnosis is that Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty made him look better than he is, and without two bruising wingers, he is simply incapable of consistent offensive production.

I doubt the Habs are primed to cut ties with Desharnais permanently, both because of the “backlash” it would still produce (though any backlash now would be nothing more than disingenuous hot air from bloated gas bags) and because they are dealing from a position of absolute weakness. The solution, if one is to be found, has to come from Desharnais himself. There has to be a level of responsibility in signing a long-term contract, and coaching staff has coddled him with quality ice time and line mates. Before he’s cast away, the Canadiens will systematically take away Desharnais’ cheese – his ice time and roster spot – as a last ditch motivator before calling it quits for good. Remember the “NO Excuses” team motto? If Desharnais has any ability to control his own fate, now’s the time for him to get off the treadmill to oblivion.

There’s a lot of “I told you so” going on now about Desharnais, although there’s not much point to it considering everyone has been parroting the same line for well over a year. While the media focuses on Subban vs Therrien, the subplot is even juicier, for it tears at everything the Canadiens build themselves on nowadays. How long will the Canadiens cling to one of their marketing linchpins is anyone’s guess, but we know now for sure that the egg timer has been flipped, and Desharnais has only himself to blame.

The Story to Here

Sometimes you need a good calling out, and thanks to a few loyal readers (who I’m very grateful for), I’m back posting my blatherings on the Habs, at least for today. With a life that has become uncomfortably busy in a short time, blogging has had to take a back seat while other priorities play themselves out. In my own defense, I have not been totally absent from the interwebs. For a couple of years now I’ve been posting my thoughts with the good folks at The Montreal Bias. Today’s topic was our thoughts on Daniel Briere, if you’re interested. While I cannot commit to post-game reviews as I did last year, I will try to post a little more regularly. Thanks for your patience and readership. It would be awfully dull ’round here without you.

So, where were we? Ah yes, enjoying the Habs sneakily solid 4-2 start. The stink from the opening night bust to the Leafs is long behind us, and the Habs have only lost once since, in a place where they haven’t won since the early 2000’s. A loss in Calgary was pretty much expected, so really it’s almost as if they’ve gone undefeated, right? They’ve weathered their Western Canadian swing in grand fashion, exceeding everyone’s expectations (and maybe even their own) with 3 wins in four games after tonight’s dusting of the Jets 2.0.

Pending the results of Max Pacioretty’s injury, the season has yielded more pleasant surprises than letdowns:

Galchenyuk, Eller and Gallagher: Simply brilliant. While they haven’t played every game together, they have each picked up from last year and are to-date the Habs most potent offensive weapons up front. They are dynamic, determined, skilled and most importantly, still getting better. Gallagher is still a Calder-runner up gem, Galchenyuk has risen to the top of the 2012 draft prospects list, and Eller is making Pierre McGuire duck for cover.

Other assorted Habs thoughts through 6 games:

P.K. Subban: Just nuts. Not much else can be said about the current Norris trophy holder. He’s been utterly dominant in all facets of the game, and currently leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 8 points in 6 games. He is still prone to the poor judgement penalty from time-to-time, but at this point, he’s going to force Hockey Canada brass to not only include him on the team but give him a starring role, which Habs fans know he’ll embrace. The only question, which media that follows the team seems reluctant to ask is why he doesn’t get more time on the penalty kill. It’s as mystifying as trying to figure out the people that don’t like Subban. Seriously, what’s wrong with you people?

Carey Price: It’s been feast or famine so far. He was pretty weak in his two losses, but rock solid in his wins. If he’s actively looking to make his case for starting goalie for Canada in Sochi, he’s going about it the right way. He looks efficient, and economical in his movements, which is exactly the way he needs to play in order to have success. He has a lot to make up for after last season’s collapse, but with a new goalie coach and a new approach, Price looks to be up to the task.

The Quota: Desharnais and Briere. Just terrible. Not an ounce of production from Desharnais, literally, and just two measly assists plus an empty netter from Bergevin / Molson’s “prized off-season acquisition”. Sure it’s still early, and it’s tough to complain when the team is off to another solid start. But when the EGG (hate that nickname) kids come back to earth (and they will), the veterans who are useless unless they are offensively productive had better start doing something. When Desharnais and Briere are sharing real estate with Ryan White, Brandon Prust, Michaël Bournival and the injured George Parros on the team scoring list, you know things have not gone according to plan. Even the most cynical of Habs fans didn’t think they’d be this ineffective. Yes, Briere may have had himself a two-point night tonight, but let’s be for real here, shall we?

Tomas Plekanec: Still under appreciated. While his offensive numbers aren’t staggering and although he’s won less than half of his faceoffs, he remains the team’s undisputed, unchallenged go-to guy in tough situations. Until and unless Lars Eller can unseat Plekanec as far as tough defensive assignments and minutes go, Plekanec will continue to be an indispensable piece of the Habs puzzle.

Team scoring: It’s a drum that I’ve been beating for a couple of years now, and this season will be no different until fans come to realize it: Dominance at even strength is king, while the importance of the powerplay is vastly and grossly overstated. The Canadiens are once again showing signs of being a team that will thrive at even strength, scoring 2 goals per game at 5-on-5. That they are well over 25% on the powerplay is nothing but a cherry on the sundae.

As a group: the Habs are still in a period of transition. Last season’s 2nd place finish was not a total mirage, but the late-season malaise was a strong clue that the team isn’t quite deep enough to compete at the highest level yet. Bergevin addressed this by adding some toughness, size and depth on the defensive end. Up front, hopes will be pinned on development of youth and veterans staying healthy. Nobody knows how this will pan out, so it’s hard to make a determination on where they will finish out the season. They could just finish 5th or 6th in the conference, they could be a bubble team and they may fail to make the playoffs entirely.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the Habs win, despite the apparent serious injury to Pacioretty (keep your fingers crossed that it isn’t as bad as it looked). A shutout for Price, and another two points in the bank.

Lecavalier to Montreal, part 4692

No sooner did the news break that the Lightning announce the buyout of the former face of their franchise, Vincent Lecavalier, that media and fans alike exploded with speculation as to whether or not the Habs should snap up the former Art Ross trophy winner at a reduced rate.

For me this is a very simple proposition that only works on once condition: Dump the freshly-signed Desharnais, and sign Lecavalier to no more than 3 years at 4 million per season. With the log jam at center, somebody would have to go and suggestions of moving Plekanec to open up a spot for Vinny is about as pleasant as lemon juice in my chocolate milk. Moving Eller or Galchenyuk is a non-starter, and the reasons for this should be obvious. I also wouldn’t explore the option of having him around for one year just so that he can return to Tampa, where his heart appears to be. What clearer way to tell everyone that you’re just here as a tourist than to sign for just one year at a time when you may have one last chance at signing a long term contract? When bringing in a guy of his stature and birthplace to Montreal, you’ve got to make sure that he’s in the plans for a while because the circus surrounding his arrival will only just calm down before he’s out the door again. The Gainey/Gauthier/Martin era is over. The circus has left town.

If I’m Bergevin, I certainly reach out to Lecavalier’s camp and do more than just kick tires…but I cut and run at the first hint that he’s using Montreal as a way to bump up the asking price around the league. Either Lecavalier wants to come “home”, (as he has had the chance to do in the past and declined) or he doesn’t. He’s not the player he once was, and the Habs no longer need to beg aging, injury prone veterans on the downside of their career to join the team.
At the end of the day, General Managers are still intent on spending themselves silly and doing stupid things, so no doubt somebody will offer him the long, multi-year deal that he’s asking for. Let’s hope that person is not Marc Bergevin.
Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Sink or Swim

One of the pillars of success in the salary cap era has been the reliance on young stars on entry level, or “bridge” contracts. Teams with Stanley Cup aspirations use their elite young talent to produce at seasoned-veteran levels to achieve their goals:

  • 2005-06 Hurricanes had Eric Staal and Cam Ward
  • 2006-07 Ducks had Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
  • 2007-08 Red Wings yeah, well….
  • 2008-09 Penguins had Malkin, Staal and Letang on entry deals
  • 2009-10 Blackhawks had Toews, Kane, Byfuglien, Keith, Niemi and Ladd,
  • 2010-11 Bruins had Marchand, Krejci and Seguin
  • 2011-12 Kings had Quick

Ok, so the Wings and Kings didn’t have many raw rookies as key contributors but we know that Detroit has been an exception to the rule for 20 years now. The Kings, however, had Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. You could probably insert other names and you could probably test the seaworthiness of the above claim, but by and large recent Cup winners have won by leveraging a burgeoning contingent of cheap, young, high-end talent. A core of highly paid veterans do (or should do) the real heavy lifting, while complimentary pieces round out the mix.

This year the Habs got massive contributions from their growing youth core. Down the stretch, and in to a brief playoff series, the Habs best players were the blossoming Lars Eller, the as-advertised Alex Galchenyuk, Calder candidate Brendan Gallagher and Norris candidate PK Subban (the Habs real season MVP). All four players are being paid a mere pittance of what their contributions indicate they ought to be paid.

There are those Habs fans who believe that considering the 28th place overall finish from just one year ago, that simply making the playoffs this season was more than enough of a step forward and olive branch to make up for last year’s gong show. That the team managed to finish second in the conference, and first in the Northeast division was at extra hot fudge sauce with five cherries on top. All told, the playoffs were a bonus, and win or lose, whatever happened, happened. When you lump in the widely-assumed belief that the Canadiens ‘Stanley Cup window’ is not quite yet open, then this season was just a five-month glimpse in to a very bright future. The glass half-empty view is that you need to strike when opportunity presents itself, and as a second-ranked home seed, they failed. Assuming that they will be a contending team in the future is a mug’s game, despite the widely held assumption that the Habs are a team on the rise. If you’re glass-half-empty, the Canadiens overachieved, caught teams off-guard and need to treat this year’s success as an aberration more than a new benchmark. Would taking a step back make more sense for the team’s long-term future. There are those who believe that to be the case.

Whatever side of the fence you live on, you had to be pleasantly surprised by the emergence of Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, who is up for the rookie of the year. You had to be blown away at how P.K. Subban took his game to yet another level, earning himself a Norris nomination. You had to be impressed with Therrien’s rebirth as a coach, and how Bergevin brought respect, credibility and fun back to the Habs in such a short time. We also saw that the defensive pipeline in Hamilton is preparing talent for the NHL, and the fruits of those labors will show themselves in Montreal sooner rather than later.

In Montreal, the goal is always the Stanley Cup. Even if we take in to account the last 15 years where marketing led us all to believe that 8th place was good enough, fans with long enough memories remember the one true goal. If the Habs want to take advantage of what’s left of the “cheap” end of their elite youth to reach that promised land, the veterans that get paid the big bucks need to produce to expectations not only through the regular season, but in to the playoffs as well. That means that Tomas Plekanec no longer gets the “defensive responsibility” free pass. Andrei Markov has to find a way to elevate his game in the post season at least once in his career. Carey Price has to elevate his game several notches. David Desharnais has to bring more than the nothing that he brought this season. Max Pacioretty has to play like the power forward that he used to be.

If this doesn’t happen, then we’ll be right back in this same spot next year wondering what went wrong with the team.

The bar has been set

So what really happened in the 2013 post-season for the Habs?

From Pacioretty, Plekanec and Price to Desharnais, Markov, Gorges and Ryder, the veterans on this team did not accomplish enough good things collectively in order to have a deep playoff run. Simple as that. No player bashing, no nailing to the cross. A lot of guys were hurt, or playing hurt and as much as they refuse to use that as an excuse, the fact is no team can sustain the losses and injuries that the Habs did to key players and hum along like nothing happened…except for the Senators. The Habs veterans were average-to-below average and that doesn’t get it done in playoff time.

Here’s what you really need to know:

  • Senators goaltending outplayed Habs goaltending, to the tune of a .950 save percentage for Ottawa versus .870 for Montreal.
  • Ottawa scored an average of four goals per game, while the Habs chimed in with less than half of that total, at 1.8.
  • The Senators scored 13 third period goals to the Canadiens’ grand total of zero.
  • The Canadiens centermen scored a grand total of zero goals.
  • The officials stymied the Habs at least once in a very costly way.

Game, series, and season…over.

What may come as a relief is that the Canadiens missing ingredients are painfully obvious and I think we can expect Marc Bergevin to remove some of the redundancies on the Habs current roster and fill the voids with what he, and the rest of us believe to be the missing pieces.

With the team set up with talented youth and a General Manager who seems to have a firm grasp on the realities of the league in 2013, there’s very little doubt that Marc Bergevin has a cogent plan to continue to remake his team. Even the most passive fan has been able to identify areas where the Habs need lots of help:

Size with toughness and scoring ability on the wings: The top nine forwards include the following names from the under-six foot clan: Plekanec, Desharnais, Gallagher, and Gionta. It’s hard to imagine the Habs charging in to 2013-14 with that many smaller bodies despite “how big they play”. 5’8” does not have the reach or power and dominance of 6’3”. To ignore this is to think yourself above the laws of physics, or that they don’t apply to the Habs. Dredge up any stat you like, but when everyone has long since come to the realization that small bodies wear out faster and more often than big bodies, the road map becomes clear. Even if the impact of physical dimensions of any given player is a point of debate, what the Canadiens do need both up front and on the back end is aggression and that typically that comes in larger packages. I’m not here to say that the Habs are criminally small and weak and fragile. While the Habs loss to the Senators is not specifically due solely to size, if you take a moment to scan the defense corps of the Habs division foes for next year, it isn’t a stretch to think that adding some beef and snarl up front is unreasonable. Of course, one-dimensional thugs need not apply, and Bergevin strongly hinted at this in his post-mortem press conference. Although we can be fairly sure that Michel Therrien would love to have one of those guys in his back pocket, it appears unlikely that Bergevin will waste a roster spot on a goon.

Universally respected as he rightfully is by his teammates, coaches, opponents, the media and fans, With Gionta’s contract going in to its final year, it’s not impossible that Bergevin could move the captain at some point once he has proven to be healthy and productive again. It would be an unpopular move to trade him but forward-thinking GMs do unpopular and bold things on the road to success. Fact is, they could use a right-handed, large body to compliment Pacioretty and Rene Bourque on the wings. Gionta may be an interesting acquisition to somebody out there who needs leadership, and scoring ability.

Clarity at Center: There’s a jigsaw puzzle down the middle. Tomas Plekanec is the Habs most complete forward, and until he can be adequately replaced on the fly, and not under an assumption or hope that Eller or Galchenyuk can replace him, there’s little sense in talking about trading him. That said, Plekanec is currently the Habs best centerman and would fetch the most return on the trade market. At 31 years old, he’s not getting any younger, and Bergevin appears to be in to moving “aging assets” before they’re worthless, but trading Plekanec now is premature, lest the Habs GM invoke the “unpopular, but bold” clause. Lars Eller was on the verge of breaking out in this shortened season. 2013-14 will be labeled as, and expected to be his full coming out party, but he is not yet ready to take on all of the duties currently held by Plekanec. We know Desharnais is both one dimensional, yet secure with his new deal, so the Habs will have to work around his, umm, shortcomings. Alex Galchenyuk remains the wild card. Drafted as the team’s future frachise #1 centerman, the 19-year-old spent nearly all of his rookie season on the wing, and with good reason. Though he led the team in +/-, that is the single most misleading stat in hockey. Rely on that number at your own peril. However, he cannot be counted on defensively just yet, especially when it comes to defensive zone faceoffs. Between his and Eller’s inability to take draws reliably, the Habs have much work to do, and until they get one, or both of them both up to speed, it makes Plekanec’s presence on the team a must.

Another top-four defenseman: This is a tricky one, but needs to be addressed. Andrei Markov’s play collapsed at even-strength in 2013; anyone with a pair of eyeballs could see this. He is no longer the team’s best defenseman, but is heavily relied upon nonetheless. He was very often caught behind the play after a bad pinch, and with ravaged knees, he no longer has the speed to recover, and once he gets back in to position, he is not physical enough to knock opposing forwards off the puck. Bergevin can get on his hands and knees and pray that Markov spends the summer strengthening his knee, and that Jarred Tinordi’s imminent arrival as a regular will be enough to save him from shopping for a pricey free agent, or trading assets to shore up the defense, but that’s a risky gamble. The blueline for next season is already crowded what with Subban, Gorges, Emelin (who may not be ready until November or later), Markov, Bouillon, and Diaz all but assured spots in the top seven (Weber and Drewiske won’t be back), which means that only one place remains for a kid like Tinordi. No upgrades have been made yet aside from the natural progression that young players demonstrate, and that’s no guarantee, either. For Habs fans who treat free agent frenzy like a free-for-all, this is sobering, disappointing news. If Bergevin decides to look outside the organization to make his defense better on the top two pairings, he’ll have a tough choice to make in terms of moving Markov or Gorges. Moving Bouillon is the easy call, but doesn’t create the hole needed to upgrade the top-four.

Iron in the bottom-six forwards: As a simple one-year band aid solution, Colby Armstrong won’t be back. Travis Moen disappointed many in 2013 on the heels of signing a four-year extension and may be moved as a result. But both players brought something to the table in terms of penalty killing and character. Bergevin will need to replace those traits, to the chagrin of the fancystat propeller heads.. Michel Therrien’s (and most fans, too) face turned unhealthy shades of greenish-purple when the Leafs and Sens (among others) took turns slapping the Habs silly in lopsided losses. In that respect it is the expectation of most fans that Bergevin fetch a player or two who can throw his fists. Therrien may be a changed man in front of the cameras and microphones, but I’d bet my last dime that he, too wishes he had at least one player with the ability to bust heads on a nightly basis. The rub is that players who can carry a regular shift (i.e. actually play hockey), yet acquit themselves well when the rough stuff starts don’t grow on trees, and Bergevin will need to decide how much this is truly a priority before investing time and energy in bringing in this sort of player.

The debate will rage all summer as to whether or not the real Canadiens were the team that streaked to a 26-9 record or the team that gave up 3.9 goals per game after clinching a playoff spot. That said, and whether it’s fair or not, expectations for the 2013-14 season are going to be sky-high for the Canadiens. Bergeron and friends will have no other mandate – both internally and externally from fans to build upon what was statistically speaking the best season from the bleu-blanc-rouge in 20 years. I hope you enjoyed drafting Galchenyuk at third overall last season because it will be the last time that they select that high based on merit for quite some time – at least that’s going to be the plan. Bergevin may not be able to make ALL of this changes required THIS summer, and no doubt this will piss off Habs fans who want it all right away. This year was like a honeymoon that ended with a nightmarish trip home. Fans will no longer be so willing to accept future first round exits if they are preceded by strong regular seasons, that much is plain and simple.

You Can Cry if you Want To

Regular season game #46

If you’re a results-oriented fan, then this game was just another in the recent string of games in which the Canadiens walked away empty-handed. If you’re a glass half-full kind of person, then you’ll say that the Habs took a positive step forward by not being blown out for a change by showing some fight in not imploding when they fell behind 3-0. The only real tangible bit of good news tonight is that the Bruins lost, meaning the Canadiens still have an outside shot at actually winning the division.

But back to the Habs, and that pesky issue of falling behind 3-0 early in the game. Most blamed the refs, but the refs don’t kill penalties. Nor do the Habs for that matter. They need to stop this habit of playing themselves out of games so early. It’s killing them.

The fact is that the Devils were 1-7-6 against the Northeast division this season, and were playing their first game since being eliminated from playoff contention. That didn’t stop them from bottling up the Canadiens and holding them to just 21 shots in a game that the Habs really needed to win. The Canadiens now face a tough road if they want to clinch home ice advantage in the first round; they will need to reel off three out of a possible four points against a desperate Jets team, and the Maple Leafs, who have slapped the Canadiens silly for the most part.

For whatever reason the Canadiens are a heavy-legged bunch, save for  some young players, and on that note, it’s time for Coach Michel Therrien to consistently give Lars Eller more ice time over the sputtering David Desharnais, who has done next to nothing since signing his big contract. Tonight, both Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller had more ice time than Desharnais, and we can only hope that it’s a trend that continues long in to the future. Staying on the ice time beat, somebody needs to explain to me why Andrei Markov was the Habs top minute man tonight, topping even P.K. Subban? Anyone? No? Ok, moving on.

To this point, I’ve been only mildly concerned about their recent slide. While the optics of the last six games are horrid, it is this game that truly has me concerned. After two days of practice, the Habs said all the right things and presented a united front that they were going to be a refocused and tighter group. If tonight’s effort was what they were talking about, then they can feel free to go back to the drawing board any time now.

During this slide, I’ve encouraged fans to remain patient and let the Coaching staff pull the team out of their first real slide of the year, and I’ll continue to do so. With that being said, I’ll no longer hold it against the fan who wants to hit the panic button, for they have been given no reason not to.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

 


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