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So You’re Upset

Evidently it takes a snoozer of a game against a squad of AHL talent to bring me out of hibernation!

With home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs still up for grabs, I think we all expected a stronger effort than what the Canadiens put forth last night. Not an unreasonable expectation given the opposition. What is verging on unreasonable, however, is the mentality that a team that was 7-2-1 in its previous 10 games needs to be needs to be even better than that before letting the foot off the gas.

I’ve spoken a lot in the past about the need for home ice advantage if you want to win the Cup. Over the last 20 years, it’s been more or less a requirement, with only a couple of teams starting the playoffs on the road and going all the way. From that standpoint, you’d love to see the Habs lock up home ice and at least put themselves in the camp that have won the vast majority of Stanley Cups in the last 20+ years. We in Montreal have become used to the Habs wearing the underdog tag, and wearing it quite well, if only for a round or two (2010 excluded). A lot of fans actually want the Habs to start on the road in Tampa, the logic being that if they can steal a game there, the Lightning are screwed. I would suggest that those people are unaware of the importance of home ice, are blind optimists, have forgotten about 2011, or don’t consider the Stanley Cup a possibility for this team whether they have home ice or not.

Playing the second game of a back-to-back at home vs a “weak” opponent had trap game written all over it, and whether the Habs sprung the trap or simply didn’t care enough to avoid planting both feet directly in to it, they were booed lustily for most of the night by fans seemingly unaware that their team has 98 points and playing decent hockey. What have you done for me lately, indeed!

Here’s the rub: the Lightning have been hot on the Habs heels for home ice for a few games running, and if the Canadiens want home ice, they would have had to nearly run the table, going 9-2-1 in their final 12 (for a total of 102pts), assuming Tampa Bay wins its last two games (leaving them with 101pts). Only Habs fans get upset when their team doesn’t play .792 hockey down the final stretch…”Geez guys, if only you cared, you could have gone undefeated!”

I find it difficult to stress out too much over last night’s game. While it was a waste of an evening, that’s all it was. With a win over the Rangers on Saturday, the Habs will force Tampa to win both of their final games to grab home ice away from Montreal. But from the amount of anger thrown around last night over the loss, you’d think the Canadiens were limping in to the playoffs with a 2-5 record down the stretch.

Which they did in ’93.

Just saying.

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.

Subban’s Olympic Participation

With the news that Mike Babcock will be resuming his duties as Team Canada’s Head Coach in Sochi 2014, we can flip the egg timer on when the list of players invited to camp is announced. (UPDATE: no sooner do I publish this post that Hockey Canada has released it’s invite list)

The Habs are sure to have plenty of representation this time, with Max Pacioretty, Raphael Diaz, Tomas Plekanec sure to grab roster spots with their respective teams. Add Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Carey Price to the list of maybes.

What? No mention of Subban.

Of course he’ll be invited to camp. If the reigning Norris trophy winner doesn’t get an invite, the whole system is broken, right? The real question is whether or not he will actually make the team. Again, if the reigning Norris trophy winner doesn’t make the team, the whole system is broken, right? In Habsland, Subban has not only made the team, he is Team Canada’s go-to guy on the blue line. Is it really that simple? No, not really. Given the embarrassment of riches that Babcock has at his disposal, and given how Hockey Canada has often gone with “experience” over youth, it’s not outrageous to think that Subban gets used as a 6th-7th defenseman, or left out altogether. Of course, Subban would make my Olympic team, and would be a top-four guy in doing so. On the large European ice, I would not hesitate to use him in any situation over slower, less mobile players. Will Babcock, his staff, and Hockey Canada see things the same way? With elite defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Shea Weber, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo to choose from, who knows how the selection camp will shake out. Some people will say that with Weber, Doughty and Letang as right-handed locks, Subban’s task to make the team is already much harder. I don’t know if I believe that which side a player shoots from becomes a determining factor in making the team or not, but if the team wants to be balanced (i.e. one righty, one lefty per pair), then one of Letang, Doughty, Weber or Subban is going to be the 7th man at best, or left out at worst.

There is no great message to discern or take away from this post. Subban will be invited to camp, and I can’t see how he fails to make the team. But it is conceivable to me that the old boys club stays true to its roots and overlooks the NHL’s reigning best defenseman in the name of keeping the same group together that won in 2010. In that case, Subban simply gets two weeks of rest for the stretch run. Not a bad consolation prize for Habs fans.

Validation for Subban

If Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos is right, and Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban  is about to win the Norris trophy as the league’s best rearguard, then it’s validation on a few different levels.

Validation that Subban is not only the team’s best defenseman, but also their best player (so much for those who think Markov, capable as he is in his own right, is still the team’s leader on defense)

Validation that Marc Bergevin goofed in only awarding a two-year deal instead of opting for the long-term deal that many fans felt should have been a no-brainer.

Validation (from Bergevin’s point of view) that he provided Subban with the proper motivation to turn in an astounding season.

Validation that the silly rhetoric that the league and the surrounding media “doesn’t like Subban” due to his flamboyant, exuberant personality.

It had to be in the back of Bergevin’s mind that this could have been an outcome for Subban, and that the team would have to open up the vault in order to keep Subban happy long-term. Instead of paying Subban what most believed would have gotten him signed long-term last year (five years, 25 million dollars), he gambled that he would retain leverage in further negotiations with a short “bridge” deal. Bergevin may have used his hammer to keep the cost-controlled Subban in check, but that won’t work next time, if Bergevin is as smart as we all think and hope he is. The bridge deal was a de facto challenge to Subban: “show us what you can do and we’ll have no problem paying you”. Careful what you wish for, Marc! What became more and more obvious as the lockout-shortened season progressed is that the price to re-sign Subban was growing bigger with each passing game, to the point where “Doughty money” now seems the starting point as opposed to the end point. Subban, even as an RFA will have the luxury to name his price, and Bergevin will have little choice but to play ball.

Remember those people who said that Subban wasn’t worth Doughty money? They’ve likely changed their tune now. Those holdovers that still insist that 42 games shouldn’t grant Subban the right to back up the truck in order to collect his pay, but those people are harder to find these days and will soon be extinct.

There is a full 82-game season coming this fall, followed by what we hope will be a lengthy playoff run, and there’s no telling what may happen. Subban could continue his excellent play (smart money is on this option). He could suffer a dip in production and overall quality of play (hard to imagine), or he could get hurt and miss a large chunk of time. Bergevin can soon choose to re-open negotiations with Subban about a long-term deal that will keep him here for many years to come. Is that the smart play, financially speaking given that Subban will have a fresh trophy in his case? Or should he gamble yet again that he can gain the upper hand by waiting?

Either way, the Canadiens have a defenseman that is finally worthy of being called the league’s best. Not a top-five, or top-ten defenseman. The best defenseman. At just 23 years old, it’s a staggering thought to think that he has already risen to such a high level when most of his peers only peak in their late-20’s or even early 30’s.

If Subban is still only scratching the surface of his potential, then he will not only add more hardware to his mantle, but he will validate what he told Bob Gainey on the day he was drafted: that he would help this team win a Stanley Cup.

It’s Good To Have Options

With 6 picks in the first 90 overall selections at this month’s entry draft in New Jersey (pick #25 in the first round, picks #34, 36 and 57 in the second round, and picks #71 and 88 in the third round), Director of Scouting Trevor Timmins and his team (overseen by General Manager Marc Bergevin) have a lot of flexibility, should they decide to do something other than simply go buck-wild at the draft board.

It should be noted up front that Bergevin is an extremely strong proponent of building through the draft, and it’s more than likely that the Canadiens brass will let Timmins do what he does best and continue to stock the cupboards with young players with strong NHL potential.

For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that Bergevin and Timmins are considering their options. Would he bundle one or more of his picks in order to move up in the draft? Would he relish the opportunity to trade down and garner even more picks? Would they leverage some of their picks in a package with current roster players to land NHL-ready talent?

As vocal as he has been about using the draft to build the Habs, it’s likely that they are open-minded enough to consider what’s behind doors A, B, or C, should the opportunities present themselves.

Door Number 1 – Movin’ on Up

Let’s forget moving up in to the top ten. Despite rumors that Colorado and Edmonton are fielding offers for the first and seventh overall picks respectively, this sort of thing is to be expected. Both are teams that have been drafting high for years now with no real results to show for it and are simply fishing for a sucker GM who will give them the moon and stars for their pick. No doubt it would take the Habs first rounder, a second rounder, a strong prospect and a young roster player to even begin the discussion with either team. Pass. Timmins could decide to pick on Columbus, who currently hold the 14th and 19th picks in the first round. They too are rumored to be shopping their picks, no doubt in an attempt to help them be a sure-bet playoff team in 2013-14. It should also be noted that all three teams have recently had major shakeups in the front office. What GM doesn’t want to make a name for himself by being a mover and shaker at the draft?

While moving up may be a difficult task, The Canadiens do have the ammo needed to make a jump to anywhere from three to ten picks ahead of where they currently sit. They would only do this if they felt that there was a player that they absolutely HAD to have. In return, they’d have to give up their first rounder, and one of their early second round picks. I have all kinds of faith in the work of Trevor Timmins, so I’d be ok with this.

Door Number 2 – Quantity over Quality

It’s no longer a secret that you need a high volume of high-round draft picks if you want to be able to build a strong feeder system (see here for the painstaking details Part one | Part two). Given how the chances of finding an NHL player drop steeply after the first top-ten selections, they fall off the face off the earth in round two. This being the case, it would not make sense to trade down to scoop up more picks. If there’s a ‘but’ to this option, it’s that the Canadiens have one of the few guys able to find treasure outside of the first round. Want proof? P.K. Subban, Brendan Gallagher, Alexei Emelin, (the departed) Michael Ryder, Gabriel Dumont, (the soon to likely be departed) Yanick Weber and Ryan White were all drafted by the Habs outside of the first round. A mixed bag to be sure, but even if the list ended with Subban, Timmins has done a spectacular job of finding big talent outside of the agreed upon “elite”.

Do I like the “trade down” option? Not really, despite Timmins’ strong record. The only thing better than Timmins with a pocket full of draft picks is Timmins with a pocket full of early round draft picks.

Door Number 3 – Horse Trading

Ah, the draft day deal, otherwise known as the armchair GM’s favorite move. I remember being at the 2009 draft in Montreal. The only time the crowd was louder than when the Habs selected Louis Leblanc that night was when Bettman stepped up to the podium to announce the consummation of a trade (it was the Pronger-to-Philly deal).

Would the Canadiens consider moving their picks to bring in NHL-ready players (by this I mean established players of any age)? I think it’s all but certain that the Canadiens will never, under this administration, trade top picks for aging players. In a year where the salary cap is about to drop, there’s virtually no chance that the Canadiens will take on salary in exchange for cost-controlled assets. I find it doubtful that they’d trade picks for players of any calibre who are even approaching UFA status. What may be plausible is trading picks for young talent on entry-level deals who are either in need of a change, or their team badly covets a player from this year’s draft.

This option still runs counter to everything that Bergevin has said and counter to everything that today’s NHL is about: cheap, talented youth. The only option among the three above that makes any sense is that moving up in the draft without costing the organization any extra assets.

What say you?

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.


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