Game Day: Habs at a Crossroads As They Travel to Long Island
Last Sunday on the CBC broadcast of the Habs' win over the Jets, the network aired a sit down interview between Elliotte Friedman and Carey Price. The Canadiens' goaltender proceeded to describe this season for his team in one (and a half) words: "rollercoaster."
Well, that's an understatement. The Canadiens have had so many highs and lows this season that you'd think they were a malfunctioning hot air balloon. It really is the perfect way to describe them. On one hand, you have a team that's essentially one Hurricanes' win away (don't worry, those aren't coming any easier either) from being the worst team in the league. They've had coaching, GMing, and player controversies since the very beginning in September, and they've just plain stunk on the ice on most nights.
On the other hand, You've had several players who have been revelations this season, starting with the line of Pacioretty, Cole and Desharnais. The former two are currently tied with the lead in goals for the team at 19 a piece, and could finish with 30 each by the time the season is in the books. They also lead the team in points. Desharnais has been a rock between them at the center position, despite his small stature, putting up 36 points and a +6 rating. Andrei Kostitsyn has been decent as well with 12 goals, and could finish with his fourth 20 goal season if they don't trade him. Josh Gorges has been steady on the back end, along with rookies Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin, and Lars Eller and Louis Leblanc have given this team hope for the future. And let's not forget Carey Price, who has been this team's all-star (literally) despite somewhat average numbers.
When you tally things up, there really is a lot of good left on this team. Going forward, the theme for the Canadiens is going to be whether they can stave off terrible general managing and make it to the summer with all these good elements intact, as well as the ones that will surely rebound next season, like Tomas Plekanec, PK Subban, and the injured Brian Gionta. I'm not concerned with the team on the ice, regardless of how they've been playing, I'm concerned about what management is going to do with them to save their own asses.
And that's why the next few games for the Canadiens are crucial. The team will play eight games before February 27th trade deadline, against a medley of teams both well ahead of them as well as some that may be just as bad. If trends continue, they should remain just under .500, and that will surely mean that Pierre Gauthier will have no choice but to pack it in and move some spare parts for picks. Where the line gets a little blurry here is when you consider whether or not he's going to pull another Cammalleri and start trading bigger contracts or key members of the team.
That raises an interesting question. When you think about it, the Canadiens' most valuable piece is Hal Gill, who'll get a 3rd round pick and maybe a low-grade prospect at best. Andrei Kostitsyn could be right there with him, but otherwise, you're looking at really low-level deals. If Gauthier decides to make a splash, we could be looking at a gutting of this team. So, do we want this team to bomb and face the potential wrath of a GM who finds himself on the outside looking in, or do we want them to have a mini-surge and just wait to deal with things in the summer when he's potentially gone? It's a tricky situation.
All the players can really think about is winning games on the ice, though, and that's not going to change no matter what the GM does. With their season over, no matter what anyone would still like to believe, the Canadiens will begin to play spoiler against their rivals. It starts tonight against the Islanders, a point ahead of the Habs with two games in hand, and at a similar crossroads as Montreal. With their recent signing of Frans Nielsen, it's hard to tell where the Isles stand heading to that same deadline.
Interestingly, the Isles have actually been playing better as of late. They haven't lost in regulation in five games, and they are 9-5-2 in 2012. John Tavares is finally earning his #1 overall pick moniker with 22 goals and 53 points in 52 games (although he is pointless in his last three), and guys like PA Parenteau (47 points) and Matt Moulson (team leading 23 goals) are having excellent seasons. Former Hab and captain Mark Streit has also been their best defenseman after missing most of the 2010-11 season. Much like the Canadiens, the Isles have a lot of good pieces in place, but just not those final elements to bring it all together. And the result has been nearly identical seasons, albeit for two very different teams.
All of this begs the question... what are we watching tonight, when the Canadiens roll into Long Island for a 7PM affair with the Islanders? Are we watching a game between two losers, both clinging on to a playoff seed that will certainly never come? Are we looking at two teams that need to lose without knowing it? Or two teams that are better off clinging on to that dream in order to keep their team from being gutted at another trade deadline?