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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?

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.


Playoff game #4

Through 40 minutes, the Habs had done everything right, resulting in a 2-0 lead. Then they took a page out of the Jacques Martin playbook and sat back to defend that lead through the third period. Predictably, it did not work out for them. Without going through the painful exercise yet again, here’s why I think the Habs lost:

We can complain about the officiating all we want. By the letter of the law, the Sens’ first goal was legit. The tying goal was rife with officiating blunders from the icing call, to not calling Turris’ interference with Price.

In the end none of this matters.

The Canadiens were their own worst enemy last night when they had been their own best ally for two full periods. Now with Eller, Gionta, Prust, Pacioretty, and Price (that we know of) either playing hurt or outright injured, the Habs face a huge uphill climb.

After being the better team in three of four games in this series so far, the Canadiens certainly deserve better, but the hockey gods don’t work that way. Those of us who remember 2010 know this all too well.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Just Like They Drew it Up

Regular season game #24

Believe it or not, but the season is officially halfway over. Believe it or not, the Habs are first in the Eastern Conference. They could have fell from that perch tonight with the Bruins beating the Maple Leafs, but for at least one more night, the Canadiens are tops in the East by virtue of points (Boston still has the highest win percentage).

15-5-4 at the halfway mark.

8-3-2 at home.

7-2-2 away from home.

Let that sink in for a moment. At every crossroad, we found a reason to deny the Habs “for real status”. Whether injuries, slumps, or a soft, home-heavy schedule to start, the Habs passed each test with flying colors. The last test, so we said, was a five-game road trip that will at worst finish at 2-3, and could be as good as 4-1.  They may not be cup contenders yet, but the Habs are for real. They could have folded after the second period tonight, but didn’t. On Sunday night, they rebounded against their most hated rival in their barn 24 hours after a topsy-turvy affair at home versus the Penguins. This team has resiliency and a steely resolve, and there’s no longer any doubt about that. The Habs, barring injuries to key players, are not going away.

Follwing Tuesday night’s messy affair on Long Island, the Habs looked to have found the regroup switch tonight by storming out to a 2-0 lead on goals by offensive dynamos Brandon Prust and Josh Gorges. What followed in the second period was flat out ugly as the Hurricanes spent virtually all 20 minutes in the Habs zone, firing 21 shots at Carey Price and tying the game in the process. No harpoons for Price tonight, for without him the Canes would have locked up the game after 40 minutes. It was almost as if the Habs were letting him get back in to a groove by letting him see more rubber than a metropolitain highway at rush hour. Nobody had their hopes up for the third, but lo and behold the Habs netted two goals in less than two minutes early in the third and coasted to a win without incident.

That was the plan all along, right?

Aside from Carey Price’s heroics, the Habs saw best-of-season performances from Brandon Prust (1 goal, 2 assists, +3, 3 hits, 1 takeaway), Josh Gorges (1 goal, 1 assist, +2, 2 hits, 2 blocked shots) and PK Subban (1 goal, 1assist, 26:27 minutes played), who is clearly the team’s best defenseman. Coach Therrien has finally realized the benefits of playing him more. Another gold star for the Coach, who continues to make all the right moves.

Let us pause for a moment to mourn Yannick Weber’s first game in ages. He came in cold and the result was not pretty. To add insult to injury, he left with an injury. That may be all she wrote for him.

The Habs now head to Florida for the weekend to face the Lightning and Panthers before heading home to face the fading Senators on Wednesday.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Buffer Zone

Regular season game #14

Sitting at 9-4-1, the Habs are in rarefied air near the top of the division and conference, but since the rotten Bruins have two games in-hand, we’ll stow the parade plans for now.

There was a less than buoyant feeling that swept through Habs nation when it was made known that Peter Budaj would start over Carey Price, who was sick with the flu. Budaj is iffy at the best of times, but there’s no doubt that his teammates have played jelly-legged in front of him, and they’re the first to admit it.

Tonight, the Habs played a much tighter game in front of a floundering Flyers squad, giving up just 19 shots. Combined with a 57% success rate on faceoffs, the Flyers had no real chance in this one. The Habs also did things like scoring goals at even strength, staying disciplined and pouncing on the Flyers, a tired squad playing their second game in two nights. All things that had big empty check boxes next to them at the start of the season. The Habs definitely need to make habits of these things rather than having them exist as Halley Comet-like occurrences.

Not a lot of this will register with Habs Nation as we sit on pins and needles waiting for updates on the health of Max Pacioretty, Brandon Gallagher and Alexei Emelin. With a ton of hockey to be played next week, I think everyone would be wise to enjoy the early season success now before the injuries and compressed schedule come home to roost. A 9-4-1 record is certainly beyond anyone’s expectations, but it can all come crashing down quickly and if we’re being honest with ourselves, the Habs are probably not as good as their record indicates, though they deserve all of the credit in the world for being where they are. Despite some curious line up decisions, Michel Therrien is pushing the right buttons while his top line from last year continues to look for its scoring touch, and he also deserves a good dollop of praise.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Burning Clutch

Regular season game #12

If you ride your clutch too hard, you no doubt know the smell and feel the slippage when it’s on its last legs. Right now the Habs are like a car driven by someone who hasn’t quite figured out what they’re doing behind the wheel. Nothing is smooth, the car stutters and you can barely get out of the driveway without stalling.

Now that we’re done squeegeeing our brows, we can ask ourselves when this team going to learn to drive stick? Twice in the past week, a comfy lead evaporated in the final minute to grant a conference opponent an extra point, and in the case of the Sabres game last week, two points. Not cool.

The Habs held a 3-0 cushion in this one, and had no business blowing the lead in the first place. The overall impression of the game should leave us feeling fairly positive about the team after the Leafs debacle, as many players had good nights, including PK Subban, Lars Eller, Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges, and Colby Armstrong, among others. Why this team seemingly cannot milk a three goal lead with six minutes to go is going to be hotly debated over the next couple of days, but in part the reasons are quite simple:

  • the DNA is largely the same as last year’s mentally mushy team,
  • undisciplined play exacerbates emotional frailty

We could blame the refs for calling so-called chintzy penalties on the Canadiens late in the game, but we refuse to do that. Teams learn from mistakes, and this team so far refuses to learn the lessons presented to them. If they can’t protect leads late in the game without getting silly en route to the sin bin, then wins will be harder to come across than they need to be.

This team still has a lot of growing to do, and they need to find killer instinct  It was totally absent under the last regime, and it has not been seen often during the 12 games of this era. In times like this, you rely on your best player. Thankfully Carey Price was up to the task in the needless shootout. He appears ready to take on a prime leadership role, and be the sorely needed backbone.

All this being said, the Habs are 7-4-1 at the quarter pole of the season. Each and every fan of the team will gladly take that stat and sprint to the nearest bank.

Now if only Michel Therrien will acknowledge that PK Subban and Lars Eller are in serious need of more ice time. Subban was the team’s best defenseman, and Eller was the best forward. Subban deserves more ice time and his old partner, Josh Gorges back, while Eller deserves more ice time and skilled linemates.

By the way, did anyone catch Galchenyuk’s failed shootout move? Kid’s slipping in his old age.

Striking Back

Regular season game #3

After splitting their first two home games, the Habs ducked the intense cold of Montreal for the warmer climes of Washington to play the Capitals, who thoroughly dominated Montreal last season. The Habs went 0-4 against Washington and were outscored 13-3 in the four games. Given that the Habs were a dismal team, how would they fare against a Capitals team desperate for their first win?

Well, to put it mildly: the Caps stink this season. What a mess they’ve become. Not to dwell on the opposition, but their coaching carousel has not panned out the way they had hoped. Exploding for four goals in the second period (which is one more goal than they scored all year against the Caps last season), the Habs played a perfect road game, right up until, and including Prust’s bout with the game well in-hand. Another message sent.

Montreal weathered the early storm, avoided getting burned ny penalties, and Markov’s brilliance staked the Habs to a lead that the inept Caps could not hope to overcome. A late goal by Gorges effectively sealed the deal as the home town fans darted for the exits.

And what of young messers Galchenyuk and Gallagher? Credit Coach Therrien for having his finger on the pulse of the game and giving more ice time to the rookies as the lead grew larger and safer, including over a minute of power play time to close out the game.

All told, it was as solid a road win as you can ask for at any point during the season. If there’s anything to nitpick, it would be another poor night at the faceoff circle. The Habs went 25 for 55 for a 45% success rate. They also had twice as many giveaways than takeaways (8 vs 4 respectively). Being on the wrong side of those stats while winning can’t go on forever, especially when the competition gets tougher than it has been through three games.

Two players that need to up their game are Ryan White and David Desharnais. While White was mostly applauded for jumping Tomas Fleischmann on Tuesday, he seemed to cross the fine line that Michel Therrien later alluded to. Lars Eller may have found himself an opening to the roster on Sunday evening. As for Desharnais, it seems teams are no longer surprised by him. He has made some good things happen, but a top line center needs to bring more to the table than he has.

These were two points that I don’t think many were counting on. For all the Caps’ struggles, the Habs had become the tonic for what ailed slumping teams. With Therrien’s new system and culture, playing tougher seems to be giving the team the backbone that it has so badly lacked since 2009. Three games don’t make a season, but it sure looks like the Canadiens aren’t going to be the flaccid team that skulked around the ice under Jacques Martin. That in itself is a giant step forward.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Lars Who?

Regular season game #2

I kid, I kid. No matter the result, or how you slice it, the decision to make Lars Eller a healthy scratch is a baffling one. Coaches get let off the hook if their choices lead to a win, so we won’t dwell on this but let’s pray that young Eller finds his way back in to the lineup right away. After all, Therrien himself said that young players have to play.

Following Saturday’s loss to the Leafs, the top two lines were deemed to be AWOL for the most part, from top-to-bottom. Not so tonight. Plekanec opened the scoring on a sweet feed from Brian Gionta and David Desharnais reported for duty with a great bit of pocket-picking along the boards to start the play that led to Markov’s power play goal…his first goal with the Habs in a long, long time. We could choose to mention the lazy penalty that Desharnais took to start the second period which led to Florida’s first goal, but we’re trying to enjoy the season’s first win, right?

Suffice it to say that that was the start that Habsland was expecting for the season opener. Better late than never, especially in a season where falling behind the pack early is more or less a death knell. The second period started the way you thought it would given the Habs inconsistencies. They took an early penalty, gave up a goal and surrendered some momentum…that is until Markov put the Habs back up by two, followed by a beauty of a tip by newcomer Alex Galchenyuk for his first NHL goal (also of note was Brendan Gallagher’s NHL point on the goal).

The third period unfolded the way you thought it would. The Habs sat back on a 4-1 lead and in doing so took some penalties, but none as severe as the five-minute major taken by Ryan White when he jumped Tomas Fleischmann for running Gorges in to the boards. If one of Michel Therrien’s intentions is to make the Bell Center an inhospitable place to play for the opposition, then sometimes what White did is a necessary evil. Price (who was again spectacular) and friends made the rest look easy en route to their first win.

If This is the game template that Michel Therrien wants to move forward with then we may see some nice things this season. Though with one dodgy game and one strong game in books, we still have no idea who the real Habs are. In the quest for 8th place, the Habs took the first step forward, and it was a mandatory one. With 6 of their next 9 games at the friendly confines of the Bell Center, they absolutely must rack up wins before going out on the road where recent history shows they suffer badly. They were able to impose their will on the Panthers and their season rides on their being able to do the same on the road.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Looking Elsewhere

With six months of misery is now behind us, we can look forward to much brighter days. But Canadiens fans and especially the Canadiens organization itself can never be allowed to forget the embarrassment and damage that this season has inflicted. The old adage that those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it very much applies. Time to start getting things right.

The bookends to the last 4 seasons have been absolute gong shows (the pathetically meek centennial sweep, and this year’s 6-month clown show). It doesn’t take long to sully the name of a once respected brand – just ask Jim Balsillie and RIM. We Habs fans may not see it, or may not want to admit and acknowledge it, but the rest of the world certainly sees it, which is why so many fans bristle when we hear “outsiders” giving the team anything short of a verbal tongue bath.

What does it take to build (in the case of the Canadiens, rebuild) a lasting legacy of excellence, respect and prestige? The Habs once had these elements in spades, but through feckless management, and constant distraction, have totally lost their way. Where once upon a time anything but the Cup was seen as failure, now 8th place is viewed as an accomplishment. As a fan fed up with hapless mediocrity, it felt like winning was treated as something that was great if it happened, as long if politics and profits were taken care of first and foremost. Over the past few seasons, the performance of the team has not matched the presentation and marketing. During the press conference in which the firing of Pierre Gauthier was announced, Molson alluded to raising the organizational standards. No longer would 8th place be the measuring stick, or the goal to shoot for. Who can blame him, when the last 15 consecutive Cup winners started the playoffs with home ice advantage.

How long does it take to rebuild a legacy? One season of being back in the playoffs in 2012-13 won’t restore the Canadiens’ name. It will merely be one more step in the up-and-down pattern that this team has succumbed to. Even if the Canadiens somehow win the Cup next season, it will be an aberration until they cement many years of concrete results to make the Habs relevant and powerful again. This is why hiring the best people for the vacant GM job, and the quasi-vacant Head Coaching job is so important. You want to be the best? Go and hire the best.

The common template for success today is the Detroit Red Wings. They are in a class far above that of the Canadiens today (don’t try to tell me that the Canadiens beating the Wings 7-2 in a meaningless regular season game means they are actually pretty close to each other). The Red Wings have missed the playoffs twice since 1986, the year that the Habs won their 23rd Stanley Cup. The year Patrick Roy, who is now long retired, was a lanky rookie. The Wings often enter the playoffs as a favourites, as evidenced by 16 first place division finishes since 1986, and resulting in four Stanley Cup parades since 1997. They have just reeled off their 12th consecutive 100-point season (by contrast, the Habs have had two 100-point seasons since 1986). The Wings scout well. They draft well – without the benefit of selecting from the cream of the crop. They develop their youth well. They are well run – Habs fans are salivating at the idea of the Canadiens merely talking to their assistant General Manager Jim Nill! They transitioned from the free spending era to the salary cap era seamlessly and have never wavered. They are well coached, as virtually no Coach in the league is as respected as Mike Babcock is. They hire the best personnel, without exceptions, and surround them with even more top-notch talent. They make the thought of not being a Detroit Red Wing unbearable by being the embodiment of the environment that every other team wants for their organization, but to which most fall way short of.

In summary, the Wings are what the Habs used to be.

The Canadiens 2012-13 season went off the rails right from the very beginning. A poor preseason and a glacially cool start saw the Canadiens with one foot in the grave before Halloween. Injuries kicked the legs out from the other still-standing, but wonky limb, an ill-suited coach was replaced by an unprepared Coach who was immediately undermined, and the coffin was closed. The rest was just waiting for the oxygen to run out. Various players on the roster played their hearts out as if there was hope – Josh Gorges, Carey Price, Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban to name a few. But tidal wave after tidal wave of distraction washed over this group, and the frustrating part is that most of it was self-inflicted. Clearly, the Canadiens were not reading the Detroit Red Wings manual on how to run a team.

This off-season will be a particularly long one for Habs fans, but in typical Montreal fashion, this summer is going to be not only eventful and controversial, but also critical to the team’s future success. Geoff Molson has to put his money where his mouth is and set this team back on the right path. This is his biggest chance to get it right. The team will be going in to it’s 20th season without a Cup parade, and it won’t be long until Habs fans start becoming the butt of the same jokes that Leafs fans have been for 45 years running.

We look forward to the draft lottery, the draft itself, free agency, and finally the golf tournament that officially launches the pre-season. But if Molson doesn’t find a way to change the culture of the organization by hiring great hockey minds, then we can look forward to another year of the same old, same old, and find yet more convenient excuses to explain the team’s misfortunes.

There are certainly reasons to be “all in” for the Canadiens future, but until Molson takes charge and starts doing things the right way, I’ll only be cautiously optimistic.

Time for a Long Nap

It’s nearly time to separate the wheat from the chaff. The NHL playoffs are around the corner and in what is normally a hopeful time for Habs fans, this season, there’s nothing. Nada. Zippo. Nothing to do but root against the Bruins, laugh at the Leafs as they cruise past 3000 days since their last playoff game, and take a long summertime nap. But around here, hockey never sleeps and we’re already asking if it’s October yet; the assumption being that there is confidence in this team’s ability to regroup, reload and reorient itself in hopes of a playoff appearance…or better next year.

Is it foolish to think that this team can rebound so quickly? The Flyers did it a couple years ago, and the Senators did it this year, after being terrible last season. The pieces are already in place for the Canadiens to be a competitive team on the ice, so why can’t the bleu-blanc-rouge rebound next year? Well, look up….look waaaaay up! It’s behind the bench and in the front office where the deep, dark questions lie. What becomes of Randy Cunneyworth? How long will it take for Geoff Molson to punt Pierre Gauthier to the curb once game 82 ends? In my view, before any changes on the roster take place, the coaching and management group needs to be rectified, and they need to be rectified without the restraints of politics and sociology attached to them. If the focus is on anything other than hiring the best people for the job, then the Canadiens are in for more mediocrity. And fans, who have become adept at telling themselves whatever they have to in order to maintain sanity (to no avail!) will be left hoping for things that never come true.

It will be up to Geoff Molson, his next General Manager, and his next coach to ensure that this team breaks free from the shackles of mediocrity that have rendered the Canadiens an afterthought in the NHL. The Habs used to be a model franchise, and used to have clout among the ranks of players and league executives. Those days are long gone, and if they are to be restored, it has to come from years of excellence on the ice, not from winning the “league’s most profitable team” award (though the Habs aren’t tops in this regard, either).

If you’re like me, you’re hoping that Geoff Molson has already begun targeting potential candidates for the soon-to-be vacant General Manager position. You’re also hoping that names like Patrick Roy and Bob Hartley are kept far away from the team. While many would be doing cartwheels to have an ex-legend behind the bench, we should be cautious. Certainly a boost of emotion after the sleep-inducing ways of Jacques Martin would be welcome behind the bench, and Patrick Roy could deliver that. But his greatest asset is also his weakest link. His volatile nature would consume the team and he would be the leading story every day. That’s not what “team” is about. In a city like Montreal, it’s a match set to a pool of kerosene.

Before we cast our collective gaze to the prospect pool, and to the list of free agents, we need to acknowledge that it is all for naught if the right suit-wearing men are not in place to steer the ship. Period.

The Habs will finally (hopefully?) be selecting in the top 3 at the amateur draft in June, so fans can hope that Trevor Timmins will wave his magic wand and pick the large, skilled centerman that the team has so desperately needed for so many years. Many have already zeroed in on Quebec Remparts standout Mikhail Grigorenko as the best bet, but even a teen fresh out of junior should not be parachuted in to the Canadiens’ franchise-saviour role so quickly. That’s a recipe for failure and the Canadiens cannot afford to see this draft pick go to waste.

We can hope that Markov remains healthy throughout the summer, and that he returns to form next fall. Together with P.K. Subban, the Canadiens will have 2 healthy, legitimate top-flight defensemen capable of playing 22 or more minutes per night. Buffered with the likes of future captain Josh Gorges, Alexei Yemelin, and hopefully a free agent addition such as Brad Stuart, the back end should be solid, if not spectacular.

It will be interesting to see what any given sportsbook review will think of the cellar-dwelling Canadiens when the preseason bets start rolling in. Will they give the Canadiens’ talented roster a pass for this abysmal season, or will they come down hard on them for this disaster and cast them as long underdogs yet again? It shouldn’t matter, as in past years the Canadiens have thrived as underdogs while choking like dogs when expected to succeed. That’s a cultural thing that must change, and usually takes time to accomplish. But with the right “win at all costs” attitude, at least you’ve given yourself a shot.

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