Last season, the Montreal Canadiens had one of the biggest meltdowns in the history of North American sports. The team had come off two extremely strong seasons and hockey experts even billed the Habs as a contender coming into the 2015-2016 season. They were billed as an elite team for good reason too, when you consider their past successes and that the core of the team remained in tact.
So what the hell happened?
First and foremost, their backbone, and best player in the leaguem Carey Price went down to injury very early in the season, only partaking in 14 games (posting a 10-2-2 record). It's simplistic to say that one player doesn't make or break a team, but in this case, it totally does. There was a reason he took home the Hart Memorial Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, Vezina Trophy, and William M. Jennings trophy in 2015. Price's performance was simply masterful as he kept his team in games that they had no business winning.
It also did not help that Brendan Gallagher missed 29 games with a hand injury. At the time that Gallagher went down, the Habs were doing well in the Eastern Conference and Gallagher was one of their most consistent contributors on the wing.
This begs the question; if the Habs have a healthy squad in 2016-2017, will they re-establish themselves as an elite team?
Here are 8 hopes and 8 fears for next season.
16 Hope: Kirk Muller
It was really a breath of fresh air when the organization signed on a returning Kirk Muller to an Associate Coach's role. What exactly does "Associate Coach" mean? We're not really sure. But Muller is one of the few guys that nobody has a bad word to say about, as his positive outlook and charismatic personality are infectious. He's one of those former players that Montrealers will always have a soft spot for... even though he doesn't speak a word of French. Statistically speaking, the power play has been horrendous since Muller's departure. In the past decade, the Habs have been a team that has thrived off of their special teams. Having a successful power play is crucial to their success going forward and Muller being back to run the power play will certainly help the cause.
15 Fear: Michel Therrien Potentially Losing the Room
The terminology "losing the room" confuses a lot of people. It basically means that the players have tuned the coach out as the message goes in one ear and directly out the other. Professional sports teams often talk about their group being "tightly knit" and how they have the utmost respect for the voice of authority. However, this is only the case when the team is winning. Scenarios where the team is fighting internally and the coach is losing the room, usually only happen when the team is losing games. Not only did the Canadiens lose a lot last year, but to quote Brian Burke, this catastrophe of a season was like: "an 18-wheeler going off a cliff." How long will Michel Therrien's leash be and can he regain the confidence of the room after such a monumental collapse? With Muller lurking in the wings, things can change quickly.
14 Hope: Strong Defence
More than $28 million has been invested in the Canadiens' top four defensemen. No, that is not a typo! P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry, and Alexei Emelin command a lot of money. Provided that the coaching staff limits Markov's minutes and Emelin simply plays better, the Habs are looking at a more than capable defensive core.
We have not even mentioned the emergence of the likes of Nathan Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn, and Mark Barberio. Beaulieu was one of the few Habs that had a solid season and Barberio seemingly came out of nowhere to become, arguably, their most consistent defenseman. Entering the 2016-2017 season with those two as your number five and six defensemen is a very good sign and demonstrates the solid depth that the Habs have on the blue line.
13 Fear: No Depth At Forward
Conversely, the Habs are not deep at all at the forward position. The first line going into next season is pretty well set, as Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, and Brendan Gallagher had instant chemistry when they were put together to close out the last few weeks of the season. But the scoring outlook is quite bleak after that. Tomas Plekanec is penciled in to center the second line, but who exactly is he supposed to play with? I think it's unanimous that David Desharnais is basically useless and that the Habs are just stuck with the year left on his contract at this point. When the Mayor of Montreal clamours for a one-way plane ticket out of here, it's usually a good indicator that production is not up to par. Sven Andrighetto showed flashes of brilliance last season, but simply isn't an NHL calibre second liner.
Plekanec has been one of the Canadiens' most dependable and low maintenance players for 10 years. But even he will start to get frustrated if he's not given suitable wingers for the second line.
12 Hope: Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin's Body of Work
As we've established, last season was a failure. But to be fair, the track record of Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin has been quite good since they took over in 2012. When they arrived on the scene, the team had finished dead last in the Eastern Conference (that's right, even worse than the lowly Leafs). They immediately turned the team around upon their arrival and much of the credit goes to Bergevin. He has demonstrated a knack for assessing his team's needs and then going out and actually acting on it, rather than snoozing. For example, in his first season on the job, he knew that Erik Cole was on his last legs (despite a strong season one year prior). He trusted his intuition and traded the veteran and it turned out to be a fantastic salary dump, as Cole has done a great deal of nothing since then.
Going into the playoffs in 2014, he also won the Thomas Vanek sweepstakes as he added some offensive punch for a small price. It's true, Vanek was not the game changer the fans had hoped for, but he did deliver some timely goals and Bergevin ultimately gave up very little for him.
11 Fear: They Won't Make a Splash in Free Agency
The NHL free agent frenzy of July 1st is actually way more exciting than the trade deadline. General Managers around the league are trying to fill holes, assess needs, and are generally willing to break the bank to do so.
There is an extremely deep pool of unrestricted free agents this summer. Players such as Steven Stamkos, David Backes, Kyle Okposo, Milan Lucic *gasp*, and Andrew Ladd are all unrestricted free agents. With the gaping holes on left and right wing on the second line, one would think that Marc Bergevin would want to make a splash and pick up some much needed help.
But what if these free agents simply aren't interested? We've seen it before, where a Montreal GM will offer crazy money to a UFA but it's just not enough as some players don't want to deal with the media scrutiny, taxes, and language policing that comes along with playing in Montreal. Even if Bergevin opts to seek help via trade, it's difficult to find a dance partner. By his own admission, making trades on Play Station is a lot easier than making trades in real life.
10 Hope: Brendan Gallagher
Brendan Gallagher has heard it all from hockey pundits and "experts." Since his junior days, they have lamented the fact that he's too small and that his strategy of going hard to the net wouldn't fly in the big leagues because he would end up flattened. Gallagher proved everyone wrong in his rookie and sophomore years, but surely his small frame would break down after all the abuse, right? - Not so much!
Gallagher's relentlessness, tenacity, and (sometimes forgotten) talent, has made him one of the most consistent contributors in the Canadiens top six forwards. Just to clarify, we did mention that he missed significant time this season due to injury, but his injury had nothing to do with wear and tear or rigors of a season. A slap shot directly to the fingers (where there's no padding) would put anyone down.
Another quality that Gallagher has demonstrated is his leadership. Speaking of leadership...
9 Fear: Max Pacioretty
A year ago, Max Pacioretty was overjoyed and overcome with emotion when he was named team captain. It's fair to say that his first season with the "C" did not go so well...and that's an understatement. Obviously, the team had their worst result since 2012 and in a way this one was more painful to witness because it actually started off with such promise. Pacrioretty himself was slightly sub par in terms of his production as he's used to hovering around the 40 goal mark, while this season it was a struggle for him to hit 30. There were also nights where he seemed invisible on the ice (along with the rest of his teammates).
The biggest concern however was the fact that Pacioretty didn't respond to the pressure very well. In post game interviews, he didn't offer much in the way of solutions as he would simply compliment the other team night after night. By the end of the season, he was even dipping out and not doing interviews on the rare occasion, due to the frustration. By his own admission, he has been a little too sensitive in the past when it comes to receiving criticism.
Don't get it twisted, yours truly believes that Pacioretty is ultimately the right guy for the job. But he's going to have to step up his game and step up his leadership qualities.
8 Hope: Alex Galchenyuk
Alex Galchenyuk had a rocky start to the 2015-2016 and red flags were starting to pop up. When well-respected journalists like Brian Wilde from CTV outright says: "people's opinions are starting to sour on Galchenyuk," it's safe to say that there was some validity to it. Galchenyuk drew even more negative attention to him when he had a domestic spat with his girlfriend, where the police were called (and Galchenyuk got socked in the face).
To his credit, he put this all behind him and as Harry Dunne said in Dumb and Dumber: "Totally redeemed himself!" Galchenyuk cranked his game up to new levels in the second half of the season and was flat out dominant. He displayed all the makings of a superstar and an uncanny ability to bury the puck with authority off of one-timers.
Going into the season, everyone wondered if Galchenyuk had the ability to be a center in the NHL or if he would remain relegated to the wing. Galchenyuk answered that question, with authority, and is poised to be the team's number one center for years to come. This is huge for the team going forward because you simply cannot trade for a primetime centerman in this league, as they are diamonds in the rough.
7 Fear: P.K. Subban
The P.K. Subban saga hit new levels this year. There's two schools of thought on the charismatic defenseman. People are either haters and think that he's self-centered and his charitable donations are simply to promote his own brand and lure new sponsors (Gatorade, Scotiabank, Samsung, RW&Co). They also think that he's fake and the image that he projects in front of the camera is not how he actually is. We then have the P.K. adorers who think that he walks on water, can do absolutely no wrong, that Michel Therrien is 100% responsible for the flak that he gets, and that the league is racist.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle; Subban's charitable donations should not come into question, as no Canadian athlete has ever pledged that much money. It's also not an accurate criticism because he had most of these sponsors before the donation. He's also a player that the franchise should embrace because in his words, he's: "born to be a Montrealer" and embraces the tradition. He's also a pretty damn good player...
But unfortunately, where there's smoke, there's usually fire. Marc Bergevin didn't exactly give him a whole hearted endorsement at the end of the season. When asked if there was a rift between Subban and some of his teammates, he said something to the effect that teammates can't always get along. When asked if there was a chance Subban would be moved before his no trade clause kicks in, Bergevin maintained that it was his intention to keep Subban in the fold but that they would explore all options. At the end of the day, if this was simply a "coach vs. player" feud, it wouldn't generate much steam but there's clearly something more. Having a winning season and lots of success would be the best cure for this conundrum.
6 Hope: The Team Has the Right Elements
This team was pegged as a contender for a reason, as they have some pretty key components when it comes to a potential championship team. Let's start from the net and work our way up.
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone that would say Carey Price is not the best goaltender in the league. The Habs clearly have the franchise goaltender (when healthy) to work with. On defence, a team needs a horse back there that can play 30 minutes a game and can be inserted in any situation. That's where P.K. Subban enters the fray. Up front, a contending team will always needs a number one center, a power forward that can put the puck in the net, and a dependable third line center. The Habs have Alex Galchenyuk, Max Pacioretty, and Lars Eller to answer the bell on all those counts. This team has the right elements in place, so what's the problem? Their support group is not up to par.
5 Fear: Too Much of the Same Type of Player
While the team has the right elements in place, the support cast isn't up to par. As mentioned, Tomas Plekanec is on an island all by himself on the second line. Thankfully, fans have finally accepted that Lars Eller will be a third liner going forward, but he unfortunately doesn't have much help either. Let's rundown some of the names that Montreal had in the lineup this season:
Sven Andrighetto, Daniel Carr, Lucas Lessio, Mike McCarron (a solid prospect, but only had two points in 20 games), Stefan Matteau, Jacob de la Rose, Charles Hudon, Mike Brown, Bud Holloway. Catch our drift?
Some of these guys can help out when used sparingly, but they are far from NHL regulars. If the Habs had a deeper roster, they might have been able to keep their heads above water like the Lightning did when their star was injured. The roster will undoubtedly have to get deeper in order to achieve success.
4 Hope: Healthy Carey Price
This one is a no brainer. The Canadiens are a playoff team and can compete with anyone in a best of seven series with Carey Price between the pipes. As we pointed out above, Price won 10 of his 12 starts and had a masterful save percentage of .934. Some people may argue that his save percentage was only so high because he played so few games, but that's not the case as he posted a .933 save percentage the season prior.
For those not aware, save percentage is the exact percentage of shots that the goalie is saving. Mike Condon in comparison, posted a .903 save percentage, which ranked him 64th out of 74 goalies (that started a game this season) in that particular stat.
This is not to pin the blame on Condon, as what more can you expect from a rookie that hadn't played an NHL game coming into this season? But it does lament how vital a healthy Carey Price is to this team.
3 Fear: If Carey Price Gets Hurt Again
This is unanimously everyone's biggest fear, as even Carey Price himself must be wary at this point. Price's knee injury is not an isolated incident and as much as Habs fans love to blame Chris Kreider for this debacle, it's not the case. Price first blew his knee in game four of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs vs. Ottawa, where Peter Budaj had to take his spot and immediately played terrible.
His second knee injury came in 2014 during the Olympics. Once the games were wrapped up, Price missed a considerable amount of time down the stretch in which the team struggled. His third knee injury came at the hands of Kreider in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals.
So if we do the math (I really suck at math too), that would make four separate knee injuries in three years. Let's all cross our fingers that the fourth knee injury will be the last.
2 Hope: It Can't Possibly Get Worse
The likelihood of next season being as bad (or worse) than last season is highly unlikely. It was a matter of everything going wrong at once. This team is way better than their 38-38-6 record would indicate.
The worst case scenario would be Carey Price getting injured again. Even if that happened, Marc Bergevin would immediately seek help in nets and not rely on Mike Condon to shoulder the load. Bergevin himself even admitted that he should have gotten some help for Condon sooner, but they truly believed that Price would recover quicker and that "hindsight is 20/20" - fair enough.
Players like Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Nathan Beaulieu, and Mark Barberio are only going to get better, and despite his detractors, P.K. Subban hasn't even peaked yet. This team should be alright.
1 Fear: The Eastern Conference is Really Good
The team will be alright and that is a true statement. The issue is that the Eastern Conference is better than just "alright." The East used to be a punching bag for the West once the Stanley Cup Finals would commence, but that's not the case anymore. Obviously, the Pittsburgh Penguins just won the Cup, but there's some fierce competition in the East. Tampa Bay has proven themselves as a bonafide contender, and would likely have won a Cup by now if not for injuries to their best players (including their starting goalie) in back to back years.
The Washington Capitals just had a killer year, winning the conference and making it look easy. The Florida Panthers turned some heads this year, as did the New York Islanders. There is also the New York Rangers who are always there, year after year, and somehow always manage to score solid free agents. The Habs should rebound, but they have their hands full. Next season will be an interesting one for the Montreal faithful.