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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.

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.

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.

Of Pixie Dust and Dandruff

The last week has seen a fine particulate matter fall over a large swatch of Quebec, and not all of it is from raging forest fires. What Marc Bergevin may consider as his magic pixie dust, is in fact merely a ton of dandruff caused by the incessant head scratching that Habs fans have been doing over the last week.

Whether confused over the “reach” of drafting Michael McCarron in the first round, or the brand new signing of the freshly bought-out Daniel Briere, Habs fans have had much to talk about in an offseason that is already producing more questions than answers.

By the time news broke late in the afternoon that the Habs had officially signed Daniel Briere to a two-year, eight million dollar deal, Habsland was already ablaze with opinion, most of leaning to the negative side. And who can blame the naysayers? While I jumped for joy when Bergevin dumped Erik Cole for Michael Ryder, I did so thinking that the cap savings would be put to better use. It’s not time to jump to conclusions yet, especially since Briere has not played a game for the Canadiens yet, but the signs on the surface are not encouraging. He’s become injury prone, is in decline and is limited in terms of what he brings to the table. All this on top of being yet another diminutive player on a roster stacked with small players.

There are many, many reasons to be disappointed in this move. There is a distinct sense that the “Habs need Quebecois stars” crowd has penetrated Bergevin’s thought process and struck a chord, especially on the heels of missing out on Lecavalier. I’m not so sure I buy that, but it’s always loomed like a large shadow over in Montreal whenever a French player is brought in. Age, slipping production, health, and size are all additional reasons to be concerned about Bergevin’s judgement in this move. When you consider that Briere will occupy the right wing along with Brian Gionta and Brendan Gallagher, you can’t help but shudder at how this will be a glaring weakness on the road and in the playoffs.

The contract itself isn’t suicidal. Two years at eight million isn’t absurd, but Bergevin is going to have to do more than cite “character and experience” as reasons as to why this move is a smart one for the Canadiens.

Briere’s best days are surely behind him, but the outrage is over the top. There’s a large contingent of Habsland that prefers being right than to see the Canadiens succeed, so these people will not issue any credit even if Briere does make his mark on the powerplay, in shootouts or anywhere else for that matter. Many of these same fans are also holding fast to their six-year-old-grudge when Briere rejected the Canadiens as a free agent. Many still are masking their fear with anger that Bergevin added a French player “as a PR stunt”.

However this plays out, it is not a move that will cripple the Canadiens. It’s no better than a sideways move, and it paves the way for the trade of other small players like David Desharnais, or Brian Gionta at some point. To think of the Canadiens carrying Briere, Desharnais, Plekanec, Gallagher, and Gionta at the same time is stupefying. To have five of nine forwards measuring less than six feet tall is a disconcerting thought to say the least, but let’s give Bergevin more credit than this. He has to know by now that this is untenable and maybe bringing in Briere is the first domino that will trigger a series of moves that sees the Habs kicking off the 2013-14 campaign as a better team.

We’ve long believed that Quebec-born players that return to Montreal to play with the Habs always seem to struggle under the weight of expectations. If we keep our expectations in check, and be honest with ourselves that a 50-point year from Briere would be a success, then this isn’t the end of the world. While Briere and Desharnais (while he’s here) will surely get tons of sheltered minutes, protection, offensive zone starts and more powerplay time than they probably deserve, we can hope that fulfilling a dream, as Briere put it, will help him find a late-career second wind that makes his addition a positive one, and not something that will be a constant, unerring source of frustration for the next two seasons.

It’s all we’ve got, right?

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.

Sabotage

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


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