Analyzing the Canadiens' Changes and Chances
The Montreal Canadiens have historically been the flagship franchise of the National Hockey League. Over the years the Canadiens have amassed a record 24 Stanley Cups, and those responsible for all those Championships have been rightfully honoured - you can find the names of 61 people associated with the club in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Despite all of that success over the years, somewhere along the line that tradition of winning went away. While the prospect of adding number 25 excited many of the Habs faithful in 2010, the fact remains that “Les Glorieux” haven't been able to win it all in two decades. In an attempt to change that, the Canadiens have canned the likes of Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin, and hope that the team's struggles go with them.
The off-season was certainly a busy one for hockey's most historic team. New faces, both on the ice and in the office, have given Habs fans a reason to be excited. It started with the hiring of new General Manager Marc Bergevin, whose playing style was best described as a “blood-and-guts defenseman”, who made no shortage of connections in his playing career as he dawned the sweater of 8 different teams. The front office revamp didn't end there, as Bergevin went on to appoint Rick Dudley as his assistant GM, Martin Lapointe as Director of Player Development, Scott Mellanby as Director of Player Personnel, and former Habs' blue-liner Patrice Brisebois as Player Development Coach. Speaking of coaches, the Habs have a new bench boss as well, depending on how you look at it. Michel Therrien returns to the club as Head Coach after being fired in the 2002-03 season. Joining Therrien behind the bench are J.J. Daigneault, Clement Jodoin, and Gerard Gallant, who coached the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup Championship in 2011.
More interesting, perhaps, are the changes to the team's roster. It's clear that Bergevin has a vision for the team, and it's not to continue building with small skaters. After adding the likes of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstong to solidify Montreal's bottom six, it seems likely that the new management is well aware of the importance of having size in the lineup. The Canadiens also signed Francis Bouillon, who played in parts of nine different seasons with Montreal before leaving the club to join the Nashville Predators. Despite his small stature, Bouillon has a reputation as one of the most willing and effective hitters in the league.
So what can we expect from the Habs this season? It's hard to say, and it entirely depends on which version of this team shows up to play. Were the Habs bad last season? Of course, you don't finish dead last in your Conference because of some bad luck, but at the same time it's easy to see that they could have been better. Ultimately, the top players have to be just that, the top players, and in order to do that, they have to play. In a shortened season, injuries will be inevitable, but for players like Andrei Markov who have missed extended periods of time over multiple seasons already, staying healthy will be of utmost importance. The same is true for Captain Brian Gionta, whose veteran presence was sorely missed in the 51 games he missed last season.
Of course, when you talk about playoff chances in Montreal these days, you're looking at one man to be the difference maker, and that's Carey Price. The Habs' goaltender is going to have to have a career year if the Canadiens hope to compete, but he seems focused on doing just that. With multiple reports saying Price has slimmed down over the break in order to be more agile, it may not be unreasonable to think Carey Price could be a Vezina finalist at season's end. If he's not? Well, chances are Habs fans will get a nice look at how the new Draft Lottery is going to work. It's unfair, though, to say that Carey Price is the be-all and end-all of the Habs' post-season hopes, as much as we may think he is. There are, after all, a lot of components to a team, and all the cogs are going to have to be in motion for any success to come.
The biggest question mark comes in the defensive zone, as the Habs hope all of their defensemen can stay healthy and perform at a top tier level all season long. While Josh Gorges has been incredibly reliable for a long time in Montreal, the same can not be said for the five (or more) blue-liners joining him. Andrei Markov's time as an elite puck-moving defenseman may well be long gone, the problem is that we have no way of knowing if it is or not, he hasn't played enough games for us to find out. If he can somehow get back to that elite level of play, then maybe we can get excited. If not, we may be in for some tough times ahead. Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz return after performing admirably in their rookie seasons, but may not yet be ready for the tough minutes they'll be forced to play in the event of injury. Tomas Kaberle also returns, and should be able to help out with the offensive production if Markov can't, but if last season proved anything... we shouldn't count on it. Francis Bouillon, Yannick Weber, and Frederic St. Denis will also likely see time with the Habs this season.
Oh, and PK Subban still isn't under contract.
Then we have another issue... scoring. While Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais will return one year older and hope to rekindle their chemistry with Erik Cole, it's the rest of the forward core that is worrisome. Tomas Plekanec has been used in nearly every situation for the Canadiens over the past number of years, with stellar two way play, but it's hard to do it all on his own when he's given wingers that just can't keep up. The options there include Brian Gionta, Rene Bourque, and Lars Eller, but no combination seemed to work for Plekanec last season. Barring Alex Galchenyuk cracking the roster and finding some chemistry with Plekanec, it looks like we're in for more of the same. Simply put, the Habs will need more than one line to produce this time around. There is some reason to be excited about the bottom six, with Prust and Armstrong joining the likes of Travis Moen and Ryan White, giving the Canadiens a bit more grit, but with no real offensive talents being added to the team, the forwards may continue to struggle.
When all is said and done, nobody really knows where the Canadiens will finish this season. If you ask me, the playoffs seem unlikely, but possible. With another year of experience for the young players, some new additions, and a new face behind the bench, the team should at least be able to improve on last season's performance. Though, when you finish last in the Conference, there's no where to go but up.
- David Collins
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