The past 17 years have been difficult for Habs fans. In this time, we’ve seen the departure of perhaps the greatest goaltender of all time, a knee injury that would diminish the career of a Finnish speedster before it even began, wasted draft picks and questionable trades. With the exception of last season, we’ve seen the Sainte Flanelle either been eliminated quickly, or miss the playoffs entirely. The latest run in the playoffs, however, has given fans a reason to be optimistic. It is perhaps not the results themselves that give reason for optimism, but the emergence of certain players and the promise of future talent which has fans looking forward to the near future.
Before the puck even dropped last season, many were questioning former GM Bob Gainey’s offseason spending spree. Critics argued that the perennially small and offensively challenged Habs only got smaller and older. Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek were supposed to slow down an already thin blueline, while no veteran presence was added to the blue chip but unproven group of goaltenders. Mr. Gainey proved many of his doubters wrong.
Despite their diminutive statures, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri had strong seasons, well on their way to 35 and 40-goal seasons respectively, before being temporarily derailed by injuries. Scott Gomez, despite his sizable contract and underwhelming total offensive production, impressed many when paired with his former New Jersey teammate. Tomas Plekanec rebounded from a subpar 2008-2009 season to reach a career high in points and showed everyone that he could be one of the better two-way players in the game.
Although he looked sluggish in the early parts of last year, Hal Gill was impressive in the latter part of the season and dominant in the playoffs. Andrei Markov’s return reduced everyone else’s minutes, making the defense corps much more effective. Josh Gorges continued his unheralded progression while P.K. Subban exploded onto the scene in the playoffs (playing like a veteran in Markov’s absence).
In net, after guiding the team into the second season, Jaroslav Halak was at the height of his game through two rounds of the playoffs. The much maligned Carey Price also showed signs that he is improving, and perhaps more importantly maturing. His .912 save percentage and 2.77 GAA are respectable numbers, even more impressive when you consider that most goalies his age are riding the buses in the AHL. Last year’s impressive performances, combined with some potential stars in the team’s system is giving fans some reason to dream big in the near future.
The team’s top-4 forwards will remain intact for at least another 4 years. Cammalleri, Gomez and Plekanec are all in their prime while Gionta has shown no signs of losing a step. The bottom six is young, fast, and ready to play for big contracts. Maxim Lapierre had a terrific postseason after being bothered by injuries for most of the season, while Dustin Boyd (who is statistically equivalent to Colby Armstrong in almost every offensive category) is out to prove that he belongs in the NHL. Tom Pyatt also showed that he can be an effective defensive forward.
The blueline also looks like it is bound to improve in the near future. P.K. Subban is the real deal, providing speed and enthusiasm not seen in Montreal since Saku Koivu’s rookie season. A healthy Andrei Markov makes everyone better, and his recovery from last year’s freak injury appears to be progressing well. Josh Gorges is young, reliable, inexpensive and constantly improving. Roman Hamrlik’s contract comes off the books at the end of the year, leaving an important amount of cap space that can be used to bring in a younger option or re-sign some of the other pending free agents. If Hal Gill can teach Ryan O’Byrne anything at all, he can be a valuable asset as well.
The team’s prospect pool also looks to be very promising. Lars Eller has had some success in the AHL and was merely a victim of an overcrowded Blues team. Max Pacioretty will undoubtedly profit from a full year in the AHL while Louis Leblanc had an outstanding camp with Team Canada’s junior squad and an equally strong start to his year with the Montreal Juniors. Add to this recently drafted Jarred Tinordi and American speedster Danny Kristo, the Canadiens’ future looks bright.
Although the team still has some question marks, such as Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot, both are still young and incredibly talented. We saw what happened to Guillaume Latendresse when a little pressure was taken off his shoulders. Price, despite his naysayers, is still well ahead of the learning curve and has perhaps learned some humility while watching Halak dominate the Caps and Pens.
Although this team likely won’t compete for the Stanley Cup this year, the infusion of youth, talent and size that is quickly approaching combined with the already strong core looks to make spring a very exciting time in Montreal for years to come. Of course this all means nothing at all, as Stanley Cups are won on the ice, and not on paper.