This post won’t be the favorite of everyone who subscribes to this blog. But I’m a big Montreal Canadiens fan and I like to write about my Habs a couple times a year: usually at the beginning of the season and invariably sometime in May/early June when they’ve been eliminated from competition. With the 2013-14 season starting up tomorrow I thought I’d give my opinions and projections as to what we can expect this year.
I’ll start by saying that I’m expecting a disappointing year for Canadiens fans. I’ll explain why.
Last year nobody really expected very much of the Canadiens prior to the start of the strike-shortened season. The team had completely transformed its management and coaching staff and was clearly in rebuilding mode. Where in the past the team had been very reluctant to give young players a spot on the team, they started the season with 19 year old Alex Galchenyuk and 20 year old Brendan Gallagher in the opening day lineup. Nobody ever expected the impact they would have and, thanks to them and a few other maturing young players (like PK Subban and Max Pacioretty), the Canadiens ended the season with the 4th best record in the league. The team showed a lot of promise and there was plenty to build on. Unfortunately I think management has taken a step backwards this off-season.
I don’t like what the team did during the summer. I don’t like it at all in fact. The talk last year was that a greater role would be given to Galchenyuk. It was said he would start this year at center, his natural position. That would have meant trading another center, something that hasn’t been done. I wrote about it in last year’s season wrap-up: this team is loaded at center and someone has to be moved if you’re going to be giving larger roles to Galchenyuk and Eller. Instead, the major move of the off-season was to sign aging Daniel Briere to a 2 year contract. When that trade happened I was initial shocked and unhappy (I’m sorry, but despite his obvious skill I’ll never be a Briere fan) but then I thought “Hey, they’re doing this in preparation for a major move. Worst case, Briere can fill in at center should Plecanek or Desharnais be traded”. But that major move hasn’t happened. Instead we have basically the same lines we had last year (got rid of Cole/Ryder, brought in Briere) and have added another midget to the lineup.
New management/coaches always promise innovative and aggressive changes when things are bad. This strategy worked for the Canadiens last year: you could see a breath of fresh air and new energy on the ice immediately when the season started. But then, when things work out, management starts getting conservative and staid. Young players who should be in the lineup suddenly have to re-prove themselves while veterans, who maybe have been solid (but unspectacular) for many years, get their position by default. Nowhere is this more evident this year than in the treatment of Jarred Tinordi.
When I wrote my season wrap up last May I automatically assumed he was going to start with the Canadiens this year as a top 6 defenseman. There was no doubt in my mind after seeing his performance in the late season and playoffs. After PK, he was the most remarkable defenseman out there. He added a physicality seriously lacking on this team. But this pre-season began with Tinordi “possibly cracking the lineup”. I couldn’t believe it. But he played almost every pre-season game and has proved it again. He’ll be starting the season with the Canadiens. But in the meantime the Canadiens also signed aging (and slow) Douglas Murray. Should Tinordi not play because the Canadiens feel they have to play Murray because of the contract accorded him then I think Habs fans will be very upset. I know I will. And how about Josh Gorges, Raphael Diaz or Francis Bouillon, how can they be ahead of Tinordi on the depth chart? Again, will the Canadiens do what they did last year: give a young player who clearly deserves to be on the team a chance? We’ll see. But pre-season didn’t give encouraging indications of this.
I’ve mentioned Briere and Murray. The other major signing of the off-season was fighter George Parros. He’ll be good to have on some nights, but don’t look for him to have a major impact on the team with the 5 or so minutes per game that he’ll play.
Ok, so I’ve discussed the moves and/or lack of moves the Canadiens made during the summer. I’m very lukewarm about all the additions. Not because I dislike any of the players, because I really dislike the mix.
This is how opening lineup looks like:
Pacioretty – Desharnais – Briere
Bourque – Plecanek – Gionta
Gallagher – Eller – Galchenyuk
Prust – Moen – Parros
extras depending on the night: White, Bournival
Subban – Gorges
Markov – Diaz (to be replaced with Emelin when recovered)
Tinordi – Bouillon
extras: Emelin (hurt), Murray, Drewisky
I’ve highlighted a few players in red. These are our midgets in the forward positions. The problem I see is that we just have too many midgets on the top 2 lines – a line can have one midget a line and can survive depending on the other two players. Our top two lines both have 2 out of 3 players being midgets. These are the lines that get the most ice time and the players who’ll be spending time against the best (and sometimes biggest) players on the other teams. Our top 2 lines are way too small, it’s at times almost embarrassing to see them on the ice at the same time. Again, I like them all individually – but I don’t like the mix. Something should have been done to address this in the summer. The 3rd line is ok, Gallagher is small but plays tough and he’s playing with some bigger guys who can get the pucks out of the corners.
I had wished to never, ever see Markov playing with Diaz again. I’ve never seen a defensive pairing get as beat up physically as I saw these two getting beat up last year when Emelin got hurt. Markov needs someone physical to play with to be effective – ideally he should be with Tinordi. Maybe you’ll see both Tinordi and Murray playing first night against the big, bad Leafs? I hope so. We have a small defense that gets banged up and bullied way too much.
I don’t like seeing Prust on the fourth line. He’s a fan favorite and did a lot of great things with the team last year. I have the feeling though that he’ll be plugged into spots on the other lines when the midgets get bullied. Again this is not ideal – it wouldn’t happen if you had a more balanced lineup.
Questions: Is there an impending deal or am I the only one to think something is wrong with this lineup? How will the younger guys feel not getting the extra responsibility management indicated they would get? How will coach Therrien assign roles, who’ll be 1st and 2nd on the powerplay? Will someone on defense be moved when Emelin is back from injury? I think there are a lot of questions in the air that were never addressed and I’m curious to see how it all unfolds as the season starts. But I didn’t find the pre-season encouraging: I especially saw Plecanek looking exasperated at times. He doesn’t look happy. I wonder about the roles of the veterans, the strength of this team is quickly shifting to the younger players. Pacioretty and Subban are studs and, barring injuries, will have great years. There’s lots to be optimistic about. But we also have too many holes: too many small forwards, too many smallish, ineffective defensemen that, at the end of the day, are not really that good. This team will be physically manhandled a lot this season, no amount of fighters on your 4th line will stop that.
And I haven’t even talked about Price. Will he finally have a consistent season in goal? I pray for him he does but anyone objective enough will agree that there’s been a steady decline in his play since he led the Canadiens past the Bruins way back in 2008. Will he ever not be just solid, but spectacular, able to be the best player on the ice and “steal” a game for the Canadiens? Because I haven’t seen that happen in a very long time. I hope for him this is the year.
So more questions than answers. And while I’ve seen other teams improved by some of their off-season moves, I haven’t seen it from the Canadiens.
Other notes from pre-season:
- I like watching Michaël Bournival and I’m happy to see him getting a spot on the 4th line. Great speed. Our 4th line last year was neither intimidating nor a scoring threat. This year, with the five different players who’ll be mixed and matched on that line, they can be both intimidating and a scoring threat.
- I saw Nathan Beaulieu in a couple of games and really don’t like the kid’s game. He reminds me of Marc-André Bergeron without the shot – ie. always giving up the puck or in the wrong spot defensively. Terrible. Maybe the future will prove me wrong.
- Look forward to seeing Michael McCarron in a couple of years. Love the way the kid bangs, would have liked to see a pre-season fight. Nice to see a forward with size.
It’ll be tough for the Canadiens this year, especially with the new re-alignment of divisions. To be in the Top 8 of the Eastern Conference they’ll have to beat out one of Boston, Detroit, Pittsburg, Washington, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Columbus (hey don’t laugh, they were a huge surprise last year) and Ottawa. That’s not including Toronto which was much improved last year. Even Carolina might surprise. RDS hockey analyst Francois Gagnon has actually predicted that he thinks the Canadiens won’t make it into the playoffs. Based on their current lineup I agree. My fearless prediction? 9th.
The beauty of team sports is that there are so many variables and so many things that can happen during a long hockey season that almost anything can happen. It’s that unpredictability that makes watching sports so interesting. It all starts tomorrow night here in Montreal against the Maple Leafs.
PS. One last thing. Time to get rid of that damn Youppi. He/it was nothing than bad luck for the Expos and he hasn’t done anything for the Canadiens. I’ll start a petition if I have to.