At the start of the 2010-2011 season, fans of the Montreal Canadiens greeted
their team with an unusual combination of optimism and cynicism. Following
back-to-back unexpected playoff wins over heavily favoured opponents, there was
an idea that the team could build on their success and finish higher than the
8th seed in the Eastern Conference. On the other hand, the trading of Jaroslav
Halak, the player to whom many fans and analysts accredited Montreal’s playoff
success, to the St. Louis Blues left some fans unsure whether the Canadiens
could improve their record with Carey Price in goal.
The Canadiens enjoyed a moderately successful season, finishing with 96
points, good for 6th in the Eastern Conference. Here is an overview of the
events that exceeded and fell short of our preseason expectations.
The greatest success story of the 2010-2011 season was undoubtedly the
progression of several of Montreal’s young players. Although Jacques Martin has
been criticized by some for being unable to work with young players, the
evidence provided by this season seems to prove otherwise.
Most important of all, Price established himself as the franchise player many
hoped he would become when he was drafted 5th overall in the 2005 Entry Draft,
finishing the season with a 38-28-6 record to go along with a .923 save
percentage and a 2.35 goals against average. His play was remarkably consistent
throughout the season as he made the transition from public enemy number one to
a fan favourite and leader in the dressing room.
PK Subban also exceeded expectations and seems likely to rival Price as the
team’s best player in future years. Although he struggled at times in the first
half of the season, was called out many times for a lack of respect, and was
even a healthy scratch for five games, he found his game in the latter half of
the season. With Markov, Gorges, and Spacek out for the year, Subban was called
upon to be Montreal’s number one defenceman. In one notable playoff game, he led
the team with an incredible 40 minutes of ice time. However mixed are the
reviews of Subban’s year, his emergence as one of Montreal’s most valuable
players is sensational considering he only just completed his rookie
season.Three other young players also made significant improvements this season,
even if they still have a lot left to prove. Lars Eller, who played a passable
season as a bottom six forward, started to come into his own in the playoff
series against Boston. It is unlikely he starts next season in Montreal’s top
six but he could work his way in there by the end of the year. David Desharnais
and Max Pacioretty are two players that did not even start the season with the
Canadiens but after a few months of dominating the AHL, they found themselves in
NHL jerseys. Desharnais, a player that many doubted would ever be a legitimate
NHL’er do to his size, stepped in and earned a roster spot for next season. He
played his best hockey of the year just before his season-ending injury.
Pacioretty was once highly touted but seemed to have been written off by some
fans after a poor 2009-2010 season. Now he seems likely to start next season on
Montreal’s second line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Yannick Weber and Ryan
White also made less noteworthy improvements although they remain depth players.
The development of Montreal’s young players bodes well for the future but it
was hardly a perfect season for the Canadiens. When Andrei Markov was lost to
injury early in the season, the early optimism about Montreal’s season was
replaced with the usual tempered expectations of merely reaching the playoffs.
As the injuries piled up, the chances of Montreal going far in the playoffs
decreased significantly. Although the mass of injuries that ruined Montreal’s
season must be considered a disappointment, the Canadiens survived the loss of
three starting defencemen as well as anyone could have expected. Indeed, these
injuries might be the main reason why so many young players got the chance to
earn Martin’s confidence.
Apart from injuries, the Canadiens were also bothered by a lack of firepower
up front. They finished the season with 216 goals for, less than any other
playoff team. Part of the blame could be placed on Travis Moen having to fill in
for an injured Max Pacioretty, but not all of Montreal’s scoring problems can be
attributed to injuries. Too many of their key forwards underachieved this
season. Gomez, of course, was the biggest disappointment, scoring 7 goals and 38
points in 80 games, but he was not the only top six forward to struggle. Playoff
hero Mike Cammalleri put up a less than impressive 47 points in 67 games. That
is not good enough for a player that is counted on to be Montreal’s top sniper.
Gionta managed to score a respectable 29 goals but only finished with 46 points
in 82 games. That means that The Big Three forwards that Bob Gainey added two
years ago, at a combined cap hit of roughly $18.36M, put up the offensive
numbers of a mediocre second line. Even Montreal’s leading scorer, Tomas
Plekanec, who had another solid season as the team’s number one centre, saw his
point total drop from 70 to 57.
So while there has been significant internal growth over the course of the
season and, should they stay healthy, there is no reason to think that Montreal
can not improve upon their 96 point finish, the team does still have a lot to
prove up front. It is perfectly logical to think that minus the injuries and
with the further development of players like Eller, Weber, Pacioretty, Subban,
Desharnais, and possibly Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz, the Canadiens can
contend for a Cup. But one must not fall into the trap of thinking that
everything will go according to plan. Habs fans have been making this same claim
before every season for years: that their young players will be better and that
they’ll have fewer injuries, and yet every year, they finish in the 6-10 range.
So while there is reason to hope that this team is deeper than those of past
seasons, the Canadiens still require another capable forward and maybe another
top four defenceman too before they have the depth to withstand the inevitable
wave of injuries to come.