Saturday, September 28, 2013
Canadiens poised for...what?
The official mantra for the 2012-13 Montreal Canadiens, as per freshly re-minted head coach Michel Therrien, was "no excuses". An even more significant philosophical commitment that didn't make it onto the dressing room wall was the braintrust's stated aim of being a harder team to play against. While the jump from 15th to 2nd place in the NHL Eastern Conference suggests they achieved that goal, come the playoffs, Therrien's charges were easy pickings for the Ottawa Senators. Mind you, by the time the Sens were done manhandling the Habs in 5, Lars Eller, Carey Price, Brian Gionta and Alexei Emelin were gone with season-ending injuries, Max Pacioretty was reportedly playing through a separated shoulder and Brandon Prust was being held together with baling wire. But hey, no excuses.
Fast forward to the precipice of the 2013-14 season, and general manager Marc Bergevin has addressed the team's most glaring needs - even if not to the complete satisfaction of a rabid fan base and an unforgiving local media. Among off-season acquisitions, veteran enforcer George Parros and hulking defenceman Douglas Murray make the Canadiens bigger, tougher and smarter (both players are Ivy League graduates), but they're both 33 and not exactly fleet afoot or given to wizardry with the puck. In the short term, however, they represent much-needed size and toughness and give Prust a break from having to fight most of the team's battles.
Seven seasons after spurning Montreal in favor of Philadelphia, Daniel Briere is finally in the fold - better late than never, at least through the myopic lens of the hopelessly politicized French hockey press. Bergevin is betting that Briere still has a couple of decent seasons left in him, even if he perpetuates the team's well-earned reputation for relying too heavily on undersized players. With Briere, Gionta, David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher and Francis Bouillon on board, the Habs only need Sneezy and Doc and they'll have the full set.
Briere, Parros and Murray should make the Canadiens better, but their's are only supporting roles in a cast headlined by a core of players who were still cutting their teeth in minor or junior hockey when the three newcomers broke into the NHL. Price, Eller, P.K. Subban Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk are the main building blocks for the future, and there's no reason they shouldn't all lift their game to another level - yes, even Subban, whose potential upside is that much more remarkable when you consider he won the Norris Trophy in just his third full season. The one player is that group who's past the point of expectation and needs to deliver on demand is Price, who actually regressed last season. It's enough already. He's been in the league for six seasons, he's got the big money, long-term contract, and the fact that there's an ongoing debate over whether he's an elite goaltender is proof enough to me that he isn't - yet. If he's the goalie his supporters insist he is, anything less than Vezina-calibre consistency is unacceptable. Not when he's 28. Not when he's 30. NOW.
I see the Canadiens finishing anywhere from first to fourth in the new Atlantic Division. On paper, I actually have the Bruins, Senators and Leafs all ahead of the Habs. That's giving myself plenty of room for error, but pre-season predictions are a mug's game at the best of times because so much depends on injuries and other intangibes - like whether Carey Price is finally going to put it all together.
On another note, thanks to everyone who reached out after I got the bum's rush from TSN 690. I've received at least as much moral support from regular listeners as I did when I left CHOM - and CHOM has significantly higher ratings than TSN. As I said on Listener Appreciation Night at Hurley's, I've never worked at a radio station with listeners as loyal as the TSN 690 audience, and I thank you for that. The next chapter awaits. Details to come.