Just before the 4th game of the Stanley Cup Finals in which it looks like the Los Angeles Kings are going to win their 2nd Cup in three years, it is as good a time as any to recap the 2013-14 season for Nos Glorieux – the Montreal Canadiens. Despite the fact that losing to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 6 games hurt a lot any rational Canadiens’ fan would have to admit that they exceeded all expectations this season.
Going into this NHL season some experts had Montreal finishing out of the playoffs with most predicting they would be fighting for the 7th or 8th playoff spot in the East. This was the first way they did better than most thought they would. In the rejigged NHL divisions, Montreal found themselves in the very competitive Atlantic Division with the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and Florida Panthers. Surprisingly the bleu-blanc-rouge ended up in 3rd place behind Boston and Tampa Bay amassing 100 points.
There were several reasons that Montreal did so well. The primary one was the play of their number one goaltender, Carey Price. He stole games for the team on his way to a 34-20 record with a sparkling .927 save percentage. The 26-year-old finally showed why the Habs selected him 5th overall in the 2005 draft. Price was the starting goaltender for the gold medal winning Canadian team at this year’s Olympics. He truly became the man. Another reason was left winger Max Pacioretty’s 39 goal season – 4th most in the NHL. After a slow start the American born power forward began scoring goals in bunches. The chemistry between himself and his centreman, David Desharnais, became something the team could count on when they needed goals. Finally, coming off his Norris Trophy winning season, P.K. Subban cemented the fact that he is the face of the team. The über popular defenseman, while he did have some punishment doled out on occasion by his head coach, Michel Therrien, added that offensive spark from the back for Montreal. Subban added 53 points (10 goals, 43 assists) and was a force on the team’s power play often playing the entire two minutes.
Despite their strong season many fans tempered their expectations for the team when it came to playoff time. Their 1st round opponent was the Tampa Bay Lightning. Over the course of the season the Lightning won the season series with Montreal having trouble scoring goals against them. A stroke of luck for them was when Lightning starting goalie, Ben Bishop (a Vezina Trophy nominee), went down with an injury. Back up Anders Lindback could not provide the stops needed and Montreal swept the series, 4-0.
Next up were the long-time foes and the 1st place team in the East, the Boston Bruins. Not many gave Montreal a hope, but if you had watched the games between the two sides this season you knew that Montreal matched up well against Boston and that Bruins’ starting goaltender, Tuukka Rask, had trouble against Montreal throughout his career. It was a great series going the distance – 7 games. Showing plenty of character, Montreal came back from 2-3 down in the series to win the last two games and move on to the Eastern Finals.
This time their opponent was the New York Rangers. What had worked for Montreal in the previous series – Carey Price’s stellar goaltending and their team speed – would not work against the Rangers. First off the Rangers have as much, if not more, team speed than Montreal. With players like Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello flying around alongside veterans like Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Brad Richards Montreal had a hard time controlling all that. Secondly, Montreal lost their star goalie Price in the 2nd period of game 1 when Kreider crashed into him after losing his balance on a partial breakaway. Price’s right knee took the brunt of the impact and he could not continue – in that game or any of the next five. Instead of going with the expected choice of his veteran back-up Peter Budaj, Therrien decided to go with the younger and less experienced (at the NHL level), Dustin Tokarski. While you could not blame any of the losses on Tokarski and you could definitely say that he stole a win for Montreal in game 3, it still was not like having Price between the pipes. Montreal fell to New York in 6 games.
Making it to the final four teams was quite an accomplishment for the Canadiens. But from what I can tell about their general manager Marc Bergevin he will not be satisfied with almost making it. As he demonstrated at the trade deadline this season acquiring important pieces like defenseman Mike Weaver, winger Dale Weise and 40 goal scorer Thomas Vanek, Bergevin will fill any holes he sees on the team. His offseason should be a very busy one.
Bergevin will have to work on resigning or decide whether to offer contracts to several players. First and foremost is Subban. It is almost a certainty that the team will resign to a long term contract their young star defenseman. The question is how much ($8, $8.5, $9 million?) and for how long. Once he has done that then he has to deal with other free agents like Andrei Markov, captain Brian Gionta, Thomas Vanek, Douglas Murray, Francis Bouillon, Lars Eller, Dale Weise, George Parros, Mike Weaver, and Ryan White. If I was to hazard some guesses then I would say that Bergevin will try to keep Gionta, Markov, Eller, Weise, and Weaver. Older players like Murray, Parros and Bouillon have probably played their last games for the Habs making way for younger defensemen like Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu. Vanek probably does not want to play for Montreal and after the way he played in the playoffs he is not worth the money he is going to command. White is on the fence and might be kept for depth and because he will not be expensive.
With potential free agents available like Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callaghan, Derek Roy, Matt Moulson, and Anton Stralman and potentially a bunch of room under the projected $71 million cap this is certainly going to be an interesting off season for Montreal as they retool and prepare for the 2014-15 season. Montreal is good young team who are probably a year or two away from being a perennial contender if their young talent continues to develop and Bergevin surrounds them with some good veterans.