With the start of the season a little over a month away, there are still several unanswered questions dogging this edition of the Montreal Canadiens. In terms of roster activity, it wasn’t necessarily the most active of summers: the expected buyout of Tomas Kaberle, the signings of Daniel Briere and George Parros and the turnover in goalie coaches topping the list of notable moments. Coming off a Northeast division win and a fairly successful regular season but disappointing playoff appearance, it seems as though the philosophy is to stay the course. I’m not sure if Bergevin thinks this squad, as it is currently comprised, will make the playoffs in an 82-game season, let alone win the division or if he’s just sticking to a slower rebuilding philosophy. With the addition of the Red Wings to the Atlantic Division (and Eastern conference), the Canadiens have seemingly avoided making any major additions to their roster in response. While the jury is still out on Toronto’s attempts to improve and the impact of the Seguin-Eriksson trade for the Bruins, life is probably going to get a whole lot tougher for the Canadiens this season. They might not have gotten worse (and you can definitely make the argument that the Leafs additions plus unsustainable percentages last season indicate that they will be worse), but I’m not sure that the Canadiens got better this offeason.
Going into the 2013-2014 season, there are several major questions that need to be answered.
1. Is Carey Price an elite goaltender? Or is he merely very good?
Coming off a season where he started quite strong and then dropped off a cliff, there are some legitimate questions about Carey Price‘s ability to be an elite netminder in Montreal. He’s definitely got the skills – in 301 career regular season games, he’s put up a .915 save percentage and a 2.56 GAA to the tune of 145 wins. He’s got an Olympic roster invitation in, where he definitely has a legitimate chance of being the backup. Even more incredibly, the Canadian goaltending situation is so fluid right now that he could end up as the starter. Playing in Montreal, a city with the history of eating its goaltenders alive, he’s had a bumpy ride since his entry into the NHL and it’s become easy to forget that he’s only 26.
This season wasn’t the first time that questions were raised about his playoff goaltending. Granted, he hasn’t exactly played on powerhouse teams, but he hasn’t quite performed that well in the playoffs. His career playoff numbers show the drop-off: 9 wins and 17 losses in 30 games, with a save percentage of only .905 and a GAA of 2.90. In his 3 playoff appearances, he’s only put up a save percentage above .900 (.934 to be exact) in the 7 game loss to the Bruins in 2010-2011.
So who is Carey Price? Is it bad luck in the playoffs? Is it playing on some definitely suspect teams? I wouldn’t pin the Ottawa loss on Price, but I definitely think he has to be better. Particularly since he’s carrying a $6.5 million cap hit until 2017-2018. I think he’s a very good goalie and one this team can build around, but I’m always left wondering when he’s going to make that next step. Hopefully being in an Olympic year will push him from ‘very good’ to elite.
2. Who is the second line centre?
If we’re looking at it in terms of skill-set, Tomas Plekanec is the ideal 2nd line centre. Good defensively, can chip in on offence. On this team however, he is the defacto #1 centre. This leaves the remaining spots to be divided between undersized and overpaid David Desharnais, Plekanec-lite Lars Eller and #1 centre of the future Alex Galchenyuk.
Desharnais is small, soft and seemingly only plays well with Max Pacioretty. How much of that line’s success in 2012 was driven by the resurgence of Pacioretty? In his first season into his first ever lucrative contract extension, Desharnais produced only 28 points in 48 games and was a -2. He tended to score in bunches, but spent a large amount of that time not producing. He was predictably pitiful in playoffs (not as if he’s the only one) with 1 point in 5 games. It’s just not enough to keep playing him as a #2 centre, but he’s not physical enough to move anywhere else in the lineup. I firmly believe his contract extension was the first major error of Bergevin’s tenure as GM.
Lars Eller was having an absolutely fantastic season as the 3rd line centre, though he bounced around quite a bit across the lineup. In very limited ice-time and almost no PP time (particularly when compared to Desharnais), he put up 30 points in 46 games. Coming down the stretch and into the playoffs, he was a beast for the Canadiens until he was knocked out by a vicious hit in Game 1 of the playoffs. Will he bounce back? And if he does, does he finally get to play in the #2 spot? He’s got some size, 6’2 and 209 pounds. He’s also reportedly in the best shape of his life after the injury. I’d like Eller to take the #2 spot for the Canadiens this year.
Alex Galchenyuk is the undisputed #1 centre of the future for this team. At only 19, he cracked the Canadiens lineup but played most of the season on the wing, next to Brandon Prust at first and then Lars Eller. This was a good move for his development and allowed him to become acclimatized to the professional game (particularly after missing most of his last junior season) while not being eaten alive in the face-off circle by the rest of the conference. He started off well, hit the rookie wall in the middle of the season but recovered nicely. He played a pretty solid game over 200 feet and was impressive considering he was a teenager. He’s got some time to fill out his frame, and he can reasonably be expected to add some size up the middle. I think he stays most of the season at wing again, but is eventually transitioned to a full-time centre role somewhere between his 2nd and 3rd season. A long-term approach to his development is probably best here.
3. A sophomore slump for the rookies?
Most rookies go through it at some point, but with the way that the play of Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk drove the Canadiens to success last season, you can’t help but worry what a sophomore slump would do to this team. While I fully expected that both would make the team in some capacity, I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome – both players became core contributors over the course of the season and gave the forward lines some key depth. The offensive prowess of the third line gave the opposition fits over the course of the season. Gallagher, in particular, was an absolutely fantastic addition with the ability to drive the net, play physical despite his small stature, irritate the opposition and put up important, dirty goals. The tiny 5’9 RW put up 15 goals in his first season, and another 2 goals in 5 games in the playoffs. Playing with fellow rookie Galchenyuk for most of the season, they both were key contributors. Galchenyuk put up 9 goals, 27 points in 48 games playing from the 3rd line and looked every bit as good as he was billed at the draft. That Gallagher-Eller-Galchenyuk line could be fantastic for years to come. A prolonged sophomore slump from both players would be detrimental to their ability to fight for a playoff spot.
4. Is the D tough enough? Skilled enough? Deep enough?
This is a particularly important question with the loss of Emelin until at least November to his MCL/ACL injury sustained late last season. Though it’s hard to conclusively prove that the two were related, Emelin‘s injury coincided with the beginning of the D struggles that carried on into the playoffs. Emelin has both a solid first pass, a hard shot and was one of the few D that opposing forwards knew they had to look out for coming down the wing or across the middle with their head down. The extended loss of Emelin was most likely the impetus for signing the glacial but tough Douglas Murray for a year. Still, his loss will be felt hard and I’m not sure the D improved enough to handle the grind of an 82 game season and playoffs.
Subban is obviously an elite d-man, but Markov is a big question mark. He slowed down tremendously at the end of last season and his mobility isn’t what it once was. I’m not sure he can be counted on in a top-2 role anymore. Gorges took a step back last season, but even so, he’s a serviceable #4 d-man. Adding to the list of smaller, undersized offensive-minded players is Raphael Diaz. The last pairing currently resembles a mashup of veterans like Bouillon and Drewiske and rookies like Tinordi and Beaulieu. I’m not sure that this D is good enough to face the likes of the Penguins, Bruins and Redwings on a regular basis – and definitely not deep enough to sustain an injury to another major player.
5. Is the new-and-improved Michel Therrien the real deal?
Colour me as someone who was pleasantly surprised by the Michel Therrien that guided the team to a division title in 2012-2013. I was equally surprised by how quickly he melted down and reverted back to the Therrien of old in the playoffs. Was it a case of being out-coached by Paul MacLean or was it justified given his team’s no show? The entire playoff appearance was sidetracked by the idiocy and theatrics, but I can’t help but wonder if Therrien simply crumbled under the pressure when confronted by a good coach. For most of last season, Therrien was communicative, happy-looking and effectively embodying the ‘no excuses’ mantra, but as soon as the going got rough, he seemed to abandon all of that. I’m interested to see what adjustments he’ll have made over the offseason. I’m sure he took the loss as a bitter pill so hopefully he channels that into some important adjustments.