On February 20th, the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames will meet at McMahon Stadium in this year’s Heritage Classic. If it at all resembles the latest meeting with the Albertan club, it should be a barn burner. Upon watching the game this past Tuesday, however, I realized that the Flames and Habs share something in common. The two teams seem to be firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place.
It seems as though, year in and year out, both teams have trouble breaking through that threshold between mediocrity and superiority. Aside from Calgary’s 2003/2004 run, and the last year’s playoff performance by the Habs, neither team has had a serious shot at hockey’s Holy Grail. The Habs and their Western Canadian counterparts have made a habit of being knocked out in the early round of the playoffs or missing the dance all together. They have consistently drafted in the middle of the first round or have traded away their picks with the hopes of becoming more competitive. These similarities aside, it was the comments recently made by new Flames GM Jay Feaster that got me thinking about the Canadiens.
In an interview during a recent broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada, Feaster stated that he had no intention of trading away his team’s best players and initiating a major overhaul. Feaster claimed that the team has a number of pieces already in place that could lead his club towards a birth in the Stanley Cup finals, specifically mentioning the likes of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jay Bouwmeester. As it stands, it would be easy to laugh at Feaster’s comments. Kiprusoff has had a shaky season and has yet to play near the standard he set back in the 2004 playoffs. Bouwmeester is a shell of the player the Flames thought they acquired. Furthermore, although Iginla is having a strong season thus far, he isn’t getting any younger and is unlikely to be hiding another 50 goal season in his back pocket. One has to ask at this point, whether the prospects of Pierre Gauthier attempting to build a cup contender around the current core are just as unlikely.
If one analyzes past Stanley Cup winning teams, a re-occurring structure seems to appear. Winning teams usually consist of; 2 offensively productive centremen, 2 or 3 solid wingers, a shutdown line, 2 solid all-around defensemen, a shutdown pairing and a stud in nets.
The Penguins, Red Wings, Ducks, Hurricanes and Lightning have all followed this formula. Of course, this is not the only blueprint for success, the Blackhawks won without a stud goalie. Keep in mind however that they compensated for it with a sickening amount of depth up front and on the blue line. The question must be asked, whether or not the Canadiens have the necessary pieces in place that can be complemented in order to win the ultimate prize?
Aside from Tomas Plekanec, the Habs do not have a consistently productive center. Scott Gomez has shown, over the past few years, that he is incapable of carrying the offensive load for any extended period of time. On the wing, the Canadiens have committed to Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri for at least the next four years. Aside from the two ‘Italian Stallions’, no winger has demonstrated a consistent nose for the net. Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot have all the tools, but have yet to put them into action on a nightly basis. Max Pacioretty, injured Tuesday night, is still an unproven talent, as is Lars Eller.
Jeff Halpern has shown, over his career, of being a capable shutdown center, but the Canadiens management has arguable done a poor job of teaming him up with players of similar capabilities. Moen is not the defensive force he was with the ducks, and youngsters such as Kyle Chipchura and Maxim Lapierre never panned out with the team.
Prospects for success on the back end seem bright, assuming that Andrei Markov returns to full strength and Jacques Martin doesn’t strangle P.K. Subban. There are question marks surrounding the team’s two top shutdown defensemen, and Josh Gorges will have to acclimate himself with a new body part, and Hal Gill is only getting older. Thankfully, the Habs seem secure between the pipes for at least the near future.
When reviewing the team’s core group, fans should be concerned with the fact that there are a lot more question marks than sure things. Having to hope that Eller and Pacioretty develop properly, as well as constantly waiting for a number of players to realize their full potential doesn’t exactly send waves of confidence through the Canadiens’ hopeful. Plekanec and Scott Gomez don’t exactly measure up when compared to Crosby and Malkin, Datsyuk and Zetterberg, or even Richards and Carter. Unless the likes of Eller, Pacioretty, Louis Leblanc and Jarred Tinordi develop to their full potential, Habs fans will continue to be forced to the edge of their seats in April rather than June.