The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season was a time of renewed hope and enthusiasm for the Montreal Canadiens’ faithful, as they saw their team rise from the cannon fodder of the Eastern Conference in 2011-12 to the champions of the Northeast division in 2013. Yet this being the Montreal Canadiens, where the rafters of the Bell Center are crowded with Stanley Cup banners, such an upshot also brought the club back to championship expectations come playoff time. While the team had certainly improved, it became painstakingly clear once the Ottawa Senators bullied the Habs through a five-game series that this was still very much a work in progress. The naysayers had a field day, claiming that Michel Therrien’s squad was simply not big, tough, or even good enough to win playoff games. General manager Marc Bergevin, in a telling comment, stated that, “Some teams are built to get to the playoffs, and other teams are built to get through the playoffs” (THN). When taking account how banged up the team actually was though, with names such as Brandon Prust, Alexei Emelin, and Carey Price either playing hurt, sidelined, or under performing, it was clear that the team fans saw in the playoffs was not the same team that had secured home ice advantage weeks before the end of the regular season. Bergevin stayed active throughout the off-season, notably drafting the imposing winger Michael McCarron in the first round while signing Daniel Briere in free agency, assuring that the club will continue to be competitive for years to come.
The group that skated off the ice at the end of Game 5 in last season’s playoffs remains largely unchanged. After having failed to land Vincent Lecavalier during free agency, Bergevin opted to go for another French-Canadian center that had been bought out by his former club: Daniel Briere. Many fans questioned the GM in letting go of Michael Ryder in favor of Briere, the former being younger, cheaper, and equally if not more productive. Although Ryder trumps the Gatineau native in categories that can be quantified, Briere’s playoff experience, leadership, and panache for scoring big goals will ultimately provide a greater impact than Ryder. The biggest concern at this point in time for the aging Briere though is whether or not he will be able to reverse his decreasing production of recent years. With quality linemates and many other weapons at Michel Therrien’s disposal, expect him to finish in the 20-25 goal range in a secondary scoring role, excellent numbers given his other intangibles.
While Briere may have all the fanfare at this point in time due to being a French-Canadian player returning to his roots, the growth and development of Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher, and Max Pacioretty will eventually claim the spotlight throughout the season. Glachenyuk showed flashes of brilliance and NHL poise as a rookie coming out of major junior, with a combination of skill and offensive prowess that Montreal fans have not seen in a rookie in decades. Gallagher made the team out of training camp and quickly proved that he could not only play, but give opposing goalies nightmares on a nightly basis. Eller took a step in the right direction, showing that he could potentially be a top-six forward in the near future. Pacioretty continued to assert himself as an elite power forward, posting one of the best Corsi ratings in the entire league.
Although it lacks size, Montreal’s offense provides coach Therrien with three lines that can all dominate on any given night. Tomas Plekanec remains a two-way threat at center, while the pressure is now on David Desharnais to defend his second-line spot, as both Eller and Briere could easily supplant him should he falter, especially after a disappointing second half. Brandon Prust can hit and intimidate with the best of them, but the addition of George Parros will take some pressure off of his shoulders from having to drop the mitts. Montreal possesses enough skill and speed on offense to be a playoff team, but their ability to match up with bigger teams will determine their playoff success. At this point in time they do not have enough grit to win two or three playoff series, but they are more than capable of beating a Boston or New York in a first round on their speed alone. If Bergevin can add grit throughout the season, look for his team to be a serious playoff threat, as the combination of speed, skill, and physicality could certainly overwhelm more than a few teams in the East.
The weaknesses of the Canadiens’ blueline were in the opinion of this humble writer the most glaring in the defeat against the Senators. A missing Alexei Emelin and an aging Andrei Markov placed a tremendous amount of responsibility on players such as Josh Gorges, Francis Bouillon, and Jarred Tinordi. While Gorges is a quality defenseman in his own right, the weight added on his shoulders with a Markov that has lost a step and the glaring absence of Emelin was just too much at times for the veteran. Bouillon is a workhorse, but expecting him to help fill the void left by Emelin was a tall order considering his smaller frame. Jarred Tinordi showed signs that he could eventually become a gritty minute-munching blueliner, the task was again too tall for a rookie defenseman. With Emelin out further into the regular season, Bergevin brought in the physical Douglas Murray. If this was the Douglas Murray of three years ago in San Jose, there would be reason for excitement. However with Pittsburgh in the playoffs, Murray’s lack of foot speed was painful to watch. Should he regain some of his earlier form, Murray could prove to be a great addition to the lineup. Realistically though, it’s hard to imagine we’ll see the Murray of old. The real source of optimism in what concerns size and physicality is the continued improvement of Tinordi. As a rookie he was able to make a solid first pass out of the zone while being a physical presence along the wall and in front of his own net. Look for him to improve on that and eventually settle into the lineup permanently. Raphael Diaz was solid offensively and made few mistakes in his own zone, one of the nicer signings the Habs have made in recent years. Although Markov was clearly slower than in previous years, him being healthy for a full season had was crucial to the success of the team, as his ability to anchor the power play provided a huge boost. Should he get injured, expect to see some minutes from Nathan Beaulieu, a slick offensive defenseman who showed he could potentially be a powerplay quarterback down the line.
Oh, and then there is the reigning Norris Trophy winner, Pernell Karl Subban. An electrifying force defensively and offensively, Subban’s game matured in 2013, making more high percentage plays while also preserving the flashiness that endeared him to the Montreal faithful. Besides Carey Price, he is easily the most important player in the Canadiens’ lineup. Although it is hard to imagine that he will maintain his point per game pace of the lockout season, he is a sure lock for 50 to 6o points. An athletic specimen, Subban matches his physical abilities with a drive and tenacity seen in elite players. Another excellent year for him will keep Montreal in the running throughout the season.
For better or for worse, the greatest amount of pressure to perform of any player on the team or in the league rests squarely on the shoulders of Carey Price. Stellar through three fourths of a season, then barely mediocre in the playoffs, Price once again was the center of attention and blame for Montreal’s woes. There is no debating that Price indeed did have a drop in performance through the latter part of the season, it must be noted that the rest of the team did as well. The absence of the hulking Alexei Emelin allowed opposing forwards to get in Price’s kitchen with greater ease, a byproduct of Montreal’s lack of size on defense. No one can fault Francis Bouillion or Josh Gorges for not bringing every night, but they simply cannot replace what Emelin provides. Yet regardless of these defensive struggles, Price’s ability to carry the team or even provide that one big save seemed to have vanished. In the playoffs, those kind of saves are the difference between winning and losing a series, and the outcome reflected that. There was nothing glaringly off about Price’s game or demeanor, especially compared to previous seasons in which he struggled, but he simply could not steal a game or be a major factor in a win. With the experience that he has accumulated over the years, the talent that he possesses, and the level-headedness that he exudes, it would be hard to imagine that this downward trend will continue for the former first round pick. Expect him to bounce back and post stellar numbers, which will be absolutely crucial to the success of the team down the stretch. If he gets back to stealing games and making game breaking saves, Montreal can go deep into the playoffs on the strength of his play alone. As was seen last year though, the Habs will not make it very far without their goaltender playing to the highest of his ability. Peter Budaj should continue to be a reliable backup, and should Price get injured, expect Budaj to be put into a starting role, as he proved that he can win in big games as he did against Boston.
As presently constituted, this Montreal Canadiens team should make the playoffs. Few teams in the league can boast a true stud at forward (Galchenyuk), defense (Subban), and in net (Price). Led by a capable coach in Michel Therrien and an excellent general manager in Marc Bergevin, the franchise is in good hands and will continue to improve. The expectation should not be Cup-or-bust quite yet, but with quality young players such as Gallagher and veterans such as Briere to show them the ropes, observers are witnessing the groundwork being laid for what will be a contender in a few seasons. Until then, it’ll be another quality regular season followed by a first or second round exit. If Bergevin can address the team’s lack of size and grit up front during the season, then a deeper post-season could be in the works. Seeing how he has handled the franchise with a patient approach throughout his young tenure, it is difficult to imagine that Bergevin will make any type of “go-for-it” moves quite yet. The road to becoming a contender could be shortened if young players such as Alex Galchenyuk blossom sooner than expected, and if Price delivers a Vezina-type year. Solid seasons from Brian Gionta, Rene Bourque, and a healthy Andrei Markov could also go a long way. While this might not be their time quite yet, it is clear that the Canadiens are once again headed in a winning direction, something that should have any fan excited.