Montreal - June 24, 2014 - It was a very good year. Especially after the miraculous March comeback win on Bell Centre ice against their nemesis from a season ago.
It was a thrill of a season. At least until Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. It can be argued that Montreal is a year - maybe even two years - ahead of schedule.
The base is solid. Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin are distant memories. So is this team poised to move into elite status or does it have to take one step back before moving forward for good? Who is set to join Marc Bergevin's first ever #1 draft choice and become a homegrown impact forward? Who bridges the gap in the meantime? Which popular veteran(s) says au revoir? How do the Habs return to a power play power house? Who becomes the next whipping boy for the analytics crowd? Is it really possible there won't be regional games on TSN?
So many questions to be answered over the next two months.
But first let's look back.
• Carey Price. Career year. Best NHL goalie I saw all season. Outplayed likely Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask in 7 game series win over Boston. A rotten shame his season ended the way it did. His career playoff record of 9-17 improved to 17-21. I suspect by the time he's 28 (he'll turn 27 in August) that record will be well over .500. One of hockey's best moments of the year was Price sharing an Olympic Gold medal moment with his dad Jerry. His Olympic numbers set a new standard: 6-0 1.14 .961. Assertion that "anybody could have played goal for Canada" is laughable. In 2007 a 19 year old Price carried the Hamilton Bulldogs to the Calder Cup. The leading scorers on that team were Duncan Milroy and Corey Locke. Good things happen with Price in goal - at every level. As Habs decide whether to turn leadership over to its young core it seems to me they already have a young leader - a de facto captain - even though he'll never get a single letter on his jersey. It's Price.
• P.K. Subban. Followed up strong but bumpy regular season with spectacular playoff. In 43 career playoff games Subban has 10 goals and 30 points. Imagine Subban and Ryan McDonagh....oh never mind. But it is time for Subban to play with a more gifted partner. There is still one area where Subban needs to improve - discipline. He needs to take less penalties. But he took an important step in that direction this year averaging less than a minute per game for the first time in his career (81 PIM). Of the top 30 (scoring) defensemen in the NHL only Subban and Dustin Byfuglien (86 PIM) had more than 66 penalty minutes. A made-for-Montreal superstar. Give him the money.
• Max Pacioretty. Just missed out on becoming first member of the Canadiens to score 40 goals in 20 years (Vincent Damphousse 1994). First home grown Hab to score over 30 in a season since Michael Ryder. Took on added role of penalty killer this season with good results. Finally broke through on playoff scoresheet with key late series goals against Tampa Bay (series winner in OT) and Boston. Two bad games in Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers - in front of family and friends at Madison Square Garden - should sting for the summer. When GM Marc Bergevin says his team is not yet "mature" he could be referring to his top left winger. Next time Montreal reaches the Conference Final, Pacioretty will have to make better use of his 6'2" frame. And spend less time worrying about what people say about him. Got it, Max?
• Andrei Markov. Strong bounce back for the 35 year old defenseman. Bob Gainey must be wondering where this late career Markov "edge" came from. Better late than never. Imagine the added playoff grit before his knee issues. Logged more ice time than any other Hab. That has to change. Mobility remains an issue. Nearly half of his point total was generated on the power play. I would not give him 3 years at 18 million dollars. Ray Ferraro made a good point on the radio this week (as he often does). Ferraro's last good year in the NHL was 2000-01 when he scored 29 goals and 76 points for Atlanta at the age of 37. But the next season was his last. What happened? "I got to training camp and had no legs" said Ferraro. His productive NHL career was over at age 38.
• David Desharnais. Can everybody now agree that he can be a productive NHL player - even at 5'6" or whatever he actually is? This "Habs can't win with Desharnais as their #1 centre" talk is pointless. Isn't that why they drafted Alex Galchenyuk? Desharnais ranked 26th among NHL centres in assists, no small feat considering his one-point-in-19-games start. If anything he should shoot more often (16.7% - nearly 16% for his career). While mayor Denis Coderre should shoot a lot less.
• Tomas Plekanec. Another strong two way season but this notion of Plekanec as a possible Selke winner is ridiculous. He's not in Patrice Bergeron's league. Regressed on face offs (48%). If the NHL really gets serious about attacking embellishers it will be at least in part due to Plekanec using a bit of the the Eastern Conference Final to imitate a soccer player. One goal, two points in 6 game series loss to the Rangers has a similar feel to his playoff performance a year ago vs Ottawa. Plekanec played hard minutes all season without a break. He was durable. He might be the next Habs player to wear a 'C'. If he's not traded.
• Brendan Gallagher. Symbolic passing of the torch as Gallagher took on a lot of what used to be Brian Gionta's ice time on the power play. The future is now. How long that future lasts depends on how well the Canadiens will be able to protect Gallagher and, eventually, Galchenyuk. While Gallagher is in relentless pursuit of the puck - and the opposition net - he pays a heavy price. His hit differential was a startling -109 (38 hits for; 147 hits against).
• Brian Gionta. The captain can still play. But he's starting to hang on. Still valuable in shut down/penalty killing role. Still draws penalties. But he struggled with the puck big time once the playoffs started. Scored in Habs first playoff game in Tampa Bay but then went 16 straight games without scoring. His leadership is "off the charts" said GM Marc Bergevin. If Louis Leblanc had progressed the way the Habs had hoped he would it might have been an easier decision to cut ties with Gionta. Tough call here without knowing how Habs would plan to fill two significant holes on right wing.
• Thomas Vanek. It was (mostly) fun while it lasted. Transformed the Habs into a dangerous 5 on 5 team. At least until the Conference Final. Very smart offensive player. But even his smarts couldn't overcome complete lack of chemistry with Tomas Plekanec. Not nearly as bad as his harshest critics suggest. I was not among those who had already backed up a Brinks truck to his door but it's not easy to find players who produce offense the way that Vanek can.
• Alex Galchenyuk. This is where some of that missing Vanek offense figures to come from. His NHL career is off to a fine start considering he has already scored 25 goals by the age of 20. There is going to be a steep learning curve for Galchenyuk as an NHL centre. Do the Habs make that move now (yes!) or wait another year for Daniel Briere's contract to expire?
• Josh Gorges. Classic heart and soul player. Elite penalty killer and shot blocker. Strong shutdown defenseman. Among the most emotionally distraught Habs following their playoff loss to the Rangers. He can read tea leaves. Habs have three young defenseman who are ready to play in the NHL. Gorges is a much sought after commodity for teams that need a stabilizing veteran on the blue line (Colorado). Difficult to imagine both Gorges and Markov returning. Even more difficult to believe they'd both be gone.
• Alexei Emelin. A lot of bumps in his season returning from knee surgery but had pretty much smoothed things out by spring time. Hit differential of +89 to lead Habs by a considerable margin. You know who was second. Barring another knee injury Emelin will be a much stronger and more consistent player in 2014-15.
• Brandon Prust. Not as effective as his first season in Montreal but then again his first season began when he played between Gallagher and Galchenyuk. Perfect fourth line player with occasional gusts up to the third line. Can he stay healthy as a Hab?
• Mike Weaver. Who knew - other than Ray Ferraro? A revelation for most of us. His +9 in 17 regular season games after being rescued from Florida was no fluke. Led the team in the playoffs at +8. His overall numbers with Montreal: 34 GP 2-9-11 +17. Blocks shots, hits, a right handed shot. What's not to like? He's 36 and likely looking at a two year deal.
• Dale Weise. And there were a number of people bemoaning the loss of Raphael Diaz. Earned a new two year contract. A big, strong winger who can skate and has already shown a penchant for scoring important goals. A keeper.
• Peter Budaj. Was having his usual solid back up season to Carey Price. Until Price got hurt. Then Budaj lost his job. Bruins should grab him.
• Dustin Tokarski. Great story. Habs won't risk waivers by sending him back to the American Hockey League. On the other hand, they're not going to keep three goalies around.
• Francis Bouillon. Anybody else think his career was over? Deserves credit for going nearly a month between games and then settling in as if he had never been scratched. Nothing wrong with having Bouillon around as a 7th or 8th defenseman. Unless you'd rather go with Davis Drewiske.
• Daniel Briere. Apparently his season starts in April.
• Michael Bournival. Solid rookie season. Established himself as useful NHL player. Strong skater. Good forechecker. Won't create much offense but just enough to usually keep him in the line up ahead of older, more established players.
• Lars Eller. He had a poor season followed by a strong playoff. Four full seasons into his NHL career and we're still not sure what he is. We know what he isn't: He's not as good offensively as David Desharnais. He's not as good defensively as Tomas Plekanec. He's not as promising as Alex Galchenyuk. In his last two non-lockout NHL season his numbers are strikingly similar: GP 79-77 Goals: 16-12 Assists: 12-14 Points: 28-26. In his last three seasons, Eller's shooting percentage has dropped from 12.4% to 9.5% to 8.8%. The fact that he scored 13 points in 17 playoff games while registering a gaudy shooting percentage of 21% would suggest he is poised to take his game to the next level. He believes he can be a top 6 player. Do the Habs share his belief? As a restricted free agent, we're about to find out. Here's what I wrote about Eller at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season: Lars Eller. Peculiar second season for Eller who seemed to be on his way to establishing himself as a productive man down the middle. Highlights included a snazzy shootout winner and of course that four goal performance which, coupled with the pre - all star break smack down of the Detroit Red Wings, provided Canadiens fans with at least two memorable nights. But the flip side to Eller's season featured droughts of dispassionate play, bad penalties and a seat in the press box as a healthy scratch. He did more than double his goal output which leads you to believe he's capable of reaching at least 20 on a regular basis but what kind of playmaker is he and who will his line mates be? It'll be very interesting to watch his development. Is he a classic 3rd line centre with the potential to occasionally fill the #2 slot? If he gets the same kind of chemistry going with a winger that, say, David Desharnais has with Max Pacioretty, can he actually be a bit of an offensive force? Or is he destined to be remembered as a decent, useful player who was acquired for Jaroslav Halak? In the meantime, remember this - he's only 22.
• Michel Therrien. He did it. You didn't think he would but he did it. And now he rightfully has a new long term deal. In two seasons under Therrien the Habs have moved from last place in the Eastern Conference to first place in their division to the Eastern Conference Final. Much more comfortable in his own skin. P.K. Subban might not be thrilled that Therrien will be sticking around for awhile but show me a coach who is well liked by each of his star players and I'll show you the coach of a losing team. Therrien and Subban will ultimately be fine. If there's something Therrien would like to take back I suspect it would be keeping Vanek with Plekanec for as long as he did and then moving him alongside Briere or Lars Eller instead of reuniting him with Desharnais and Pacioretty. Michel Therrien comes across to many as an unsophisticated hockey mind. But they underestimate him. He learned how to think hockey when he was a 19 year old defenseman playing Junior in Longueuil under a young coach named Jacques Lemaire.
• Marc Bergevin. We know he's got style. We also know there is substance behind the style. Bergevin has built a strong front office. He brought in Stephane Waite. He signed Daniel Briere after resisting the temptation to offer Vinny Lecavalier a crazy deal (that was quite the swan song, Paul Holmgren). He acquired Dale Weise, Mike Weaver and Thomas Vanek. But perhaps his best (non-dance) move was heading to the room to address the players following their 4th straight loss (5-0 to the struggling Washington Capitals at the Bell Centre on January 25th). Whatever the message was - it worked. The Habs sailed into the Olympic break with a 5-1-1 record. Now what does he do for an encore?
• Rene Bourque. I'm not surprised he raised the level of his play once the playoffs started. All he had to was breathe to do that. His full season mirrors his career. Flashes of brilliance followed by a Claude Raines impression (look him up. Not Casablanca). Maybe next season Scott Mellanby can be on weekly stand by hug patrol.
• Travis Moen. Difficult season. Not that bad just difficult. Habs added two young forwards in Weise and Bournival who make Moen expendable. He's still a useful 4th line player who can play the body and kill penalties. But injuries are starting to take their toll on the 32 year old winger - In the last three years he's missed over 60 games.
• Ryan White. Would be a more useful player on a talented young team that could use some energy, grit and defensive awareness. Like Edmonton.
• George Parros. Acquired in a trade with Florida as a direct result of last spring's beat down in Ottawa and subsequent player exit interviews when it was suggested by more than one that the Habs had been bullied once too often. Missed all of training camp and the exhibition schedule with a shoulder ailment and never really caught up. When he did play he managed to neutralize Colton Orr (you didn't see Orr go out of his way to try to take out Plekanec's knee for example) and the idiots in Ottawa. And he did actually contribute to wins over two of the best teams in the league - the Bruins and the Black Hawks. As one of the smartest men in sports surely Parros can see that his future is not on the ice but in a TV studio.
• Douglas Murray. Like Parros, Murray was playing catch up all season. I've already said my piece (peace?). And yes he actually did contribute something positive. He was a regular member of the one of the NHL's best penalty killing units. He blocked a lot of shots. He forced a lot of shots wide. And he banged people, ending with the second best hit differential on the team. (1. Emelin +89 2. Murray +50 3. Prust +49 4. White +25 5. Moen +23 Bottom Six: 6. Eller -36 5. Gorges -37 4. Desharnais -46 3. Gionta -73 2. Pacioretty -89 1. Gallagher -109) Unless you don't think hockey is a physical sport. Than these fancy stats don't mean a thing. Murray played his best hockey leading into the Olympic break. So did his defense partner - Nathan Beaulieu. And he'll always be remembered for taking on John Scott.
• Denis Coderre. It's one thing for a loud mouth talk show host (like me) to suggest that David Desharnais should be sent to Hamilton to get his game straightened out. It's quite another for the newly elected mayor of Montreal who's need for attention apparently supersedes his mandate. This was a horrible example of leadership by the same man who stood up in front of the country via The House of Commons to denounce Shane Doan for saying something Doan never actually said. Like almost all politicians like to do Coderre licked his middle finger, stuck it in the air and decided he'd take the "populist" approach and pile on the struggling Desharnais. His massive ego has no doubt convinced himself that he was the reason Desharnais turned his game around. When in reality what he did was commit an act of political cowardice and gutlessness.
• George Parros and Colton Orr. Opening Night. Round Two
• Milan Lucic in the handshake line
• Chris Kreider ending Carey Price's season
Mitch Melnick is the host of Melnick in the Afternoon on TSN 690 - Montreal's Sports Authority. Mitch also has his own website at MitchMelnick.com where you can find his blog, music links, upcoming events, neat photos and more. Listen Live to Melnick - weekdays from 3:00 - 7:00 pm. If you have questions or wish to contact Mitch, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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