Going from last (15th place) in the East in the 2011-12 season to 1st in their division (Northeast) in the strike shortened 2013 season was a great accomplishment for the Montreal Canadiens. But this kind of success brings with it elevated expectations from the Canadiens mad fans in this city. Maybe too high.
Last season saw a lot of things go right for the team. First of all, the season being shortened helped and the proof is in the fact that the team faded towards the end and fell completely flat in the playoffs. Montreal was a small skilled team which did not have enough robustness for a long season and especially for the playoffs. Coach Michel Therrien did a fine job. On his second go around with the Habs, it seemed like every decision he made turned out correct. Whether it was starting back up Peter Budaj in a couple of important games or keeping his young guys, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, at between 10-15 minutes of playing time, the coach’s instinct proved right. Young defenseman PK Subban also continued his progression towards becoming one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL. His strong play was rewarded at the end of the season with the Norris Trophy for best defenseman. The signing of Brendon Prust during the summer by new General Manager Marc Bergevin proved to be a great move. Prust added some size and toughness to a team that desperately needed those two qualities.
Now with the NHL season being on the near horizon (Montreal has already begun its preseason games and their first game is October 1 against Toronto) it seems like Montreal fans want more of what happened last season with a better performance in the playoffs. I think the team is more likely going to take a step backward before it takes the two steps forward.
One of the reasons for that was the signing of Daniel Briere. This signing comes about 5 years too late. I know the city craves a francophone player they can cheer on, but he is not what the team needs. He is another aging, on the smaller side and frequently injured player who is a little past his prime. Here’s to hoping he can find his game once again (at least for this season) or he will lose favour with the crowd at the Bell Centre very quickly.
While Bergevin did draft some bigger players and signed forward George Parros in the off season I don’t think enough was done to bring some help Prust in the size and toughness departments. Parros is a fringe player at best who is not going to be on the ice enough to “protect” other smaller players and over the past season Travis Moen demonstrated he is not interested in dropping the gloves to take the heat off Prust, who wore down as the season went on. Plus, the team will be missing the heavy hitting Alexei Emelin until at least December due to a knee injury. Only he and Subban caused opposition forwards to think twice about crossing the Habs’ blue line. Veteran big guy Douglas Murray was recently signed, but his lack of mobility is a little worrisome to me. Here’s to hoping that the rather large rookie Jarred Tinordi will make the team as his size and willingness to fight will help.
A lot of attention and pressure will be placed on the shoulders of number one goaltender, Carey Price. Despite the team’s success last season he had a very ordinary one. He needs to step up and show that he is an elite goaltender in the NHL. It is an Olympics years and Price is one of the frontrunners to make the team and if he has a great beginning of the NHL season maybe even be the starting goalie for Canada. Here is to hoping that this carrot will prompt him to consistently be the goalie that management believes him to be. The hiring of goaltending coach Stephen Waite away from the Chicago Black Hawks might be just what the doctor ordered for Price.
Finally the team needs the young guys like Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Lars Eller, and Max Pacioretty to continue improving. Their maturing as players and fulfilling expectations are how this team is going to be better in the future.
With all these questions surrounding the team it also has to be mentioned that the league has undergone a rejigging of the conferences/divisions. Montreal is now in the Atlantic Division with the Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightening, Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs. The top 3 teams from each division will make the playoffs along with the two other teams in the East with the best records. In other words, it is going to be tough. With the addition of Detroit they have to battle against the perennially strong team (in addition to the usual suspects) to make the playoffs.
Despite all the question marks I have about the team I think they will make the playoffs, but will definitely not end up as high up in the standings as last season. We shall see…