Among General Manager Marc Bergevin’s more well-travelled soundbites was one in which he stated that there are guys who get you to the playoffs and others who get you through the playoffs. The fact that he was referring to former Canadien disappointment Lars Eller doesn’t make the statement any less true. So with the clocks sprung forward, the trade deadline a thing of hindsight and the promise of playoffs looming, it bears asking the question – are the Montreal Canadiens comprised of guys who will get them through?
Recent Canadiens’ playoff appearances would suggest that the team’s shortcomings lay primarily in the areas of leadership, experience, grit, size and plain old goal-scoring. With two years separating this Montreal roster from the last to qualify for the postseason, have these areas been upgraded enough to bring the Habs to the next level?
Many will jump to a quick and hearty “NO”, given the Canadiens’ everlasting struggles with goal-scoring. The offence definitely remains a concern, but the playoffs are a different beast and it is a different type of player who excels in the postseason. Goals are hard to come by and often the flashier top-line skill players (aka “The guys who get you to the playoffs”) are checked into oblivion come playoff time. The nature of offence in the playoffs is simply different than it is during the regular season and often requires teams to grind out goals through hard work and determination. Quite simply, the NHL playoffs are a war and it takes a warrior to win. These qualities have lacked in recent Habs’ playoff teams, largely due to a lack of experience, leadership and overall toughness.
The addition of Shea Weber is the biggest and most obvious upgrade in terms of leadership and experience. While Weber’s trophy case remains void of a Stanley Cup, his prominence as a mainstay on Team Canada’s gold-medal winning blue line cannot be discounted. Nor should the fact that he is the NHL’s reigning recipient of the Mark Messier Leadership Award.
Weber is not alone in terms of an injection of leadership and experience into the room. Alexander Radulov is a well-travelled player who began his North American hockey career by leading Patrick Roy’s Quebec Remparts to the 2006 Memorial Cup with an MVP performance. That is a title that would suit Radulov well, as he went on to become a four-time winner of the KHL’s Golden Stick Award for Most Valuable Player. Radulov’s KHL trophy case also carries the 2011 edition of the league’s ultimate prize, the Gagarin Cup. Alexander Radulov is a player who loves to win and is hungry for a Stanley Cup. He seems to feed off of the energy of the crowd, which is a tantalizing prospect, given the unparalleled playoff atmosphere of the Bell Centre.
While achieving success and excellence in other leagues and at other levels is valuable, it cannot compare to the experience of the real thing. Andrew Shaw and Dwight King each bring with them two Stanley Cup Championships. Their real-world Cup experience should prove significant when the games really start to matter.
These external additions should certainly help the leadership of the team’s core, but there has been improvement from within, as well. Max Pacioretty is a different player from the one who first donned the ‘C’. Last season he seemed to be weighed down by the pressure of the captaincy, but this season he appears to have embraced it. Pacioretty’s playoff performance will go a long way to determining what kind of leader he has become, but if the regular season is any indication, the impact should be positive.
Behind the bench, the presence of Stanley Cup winning coach Claude Julien, as well as Kirk Muller, who won the Cup while skating on Montreal Forum ice, should also better equip the team for postseason success.
All that’s been said above is basically the long way of saying yes, the Canadiens have improved in terms of leadership and experience; and significantly so.
Next comes the question of size and toughness. Canadiens fans have long lamented seeing their beloved players pushed around the ice by bigger and stronger teams. Bergevin must share at least some of those sentiments, because while his trade deadline moves did not rock the boat, they certainly tipped the scales. Adding Steve Ott, Brandon Davidson, King and Andreas Martinsen gives Julien a depth of size and toughness not enjoyed by a Canadiens coach in recent memory. These players represent an option that Julien can turn to, if a series turns rough, which most are likely to do. Worth noting too, is that Bergevin did not sacrifice team speed in the process. The Canadiens can play a speed game but can also engage in an alley fight. To break it down to basics, does a playoff opponent prefer to face off against Desharnais, or Ott? Andrighetto, or King? The term warrior was mentioned previously and the Canadiens are trending more and more in that direction.
While all of that is well and good, many will say that these are simply depth upgrades, which do not do enough to make up for the lack of scoring. The team still seems to lack the killer instinct and offensive firepower that will be necessary to best the teams of the Mighty Metropolitan division. While this may very well prove to be true, one might be surprised to find there has actually been significant improvement to the offence since the Canadiens’ previous postseason appearance in 2015. Gone from that squad are P.K. Subban, Eller, David Desharnais, Dale Weise and P.A. Parenteau. They have been replaced by Radulov, Weber, Shaw, Artturi Lehkonen, and Philip Danault. In short, the Canadiens have added more scoring prowess than they lost.
To all of this, add the fact that existing Canadiens players have gained experience and maturity along the way, since the buzzer sounded on their last playoff game. Superstar goaltender Carey Price added a World Cup of Hockey gold medal to his mantle, alongside his mountainous man-crush in Weber. Alex Galchenyuk is a more developed player than he was in 2015, as are Nathan Beaulieu and Jeff Petry. Brendan Gallagher belongs on that list as well, although it remains to be seen what kind of player he will be with two metal plates in his hand
With all of this knowledge in hand, let’s return to the initial question. Do the Canadiens have the guys to get them through? On paper, the upgrades are there, to varying degrees, but It deserves to be restated that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a battlefield meant for warriors; players who have a competitive quality that cannot be measured quantitatively. Call it hunger, courage, endurance, or plain old fashioned ‘having a screw loose’; whatever that intangible characteristic is, the players who have it are the ones who get you through the playoffs.
Looking at the current Canadiens’ roster, there are many such players to be found. Weber, Price, Shaw, Gallagher, King and Ott all fit that warrior mould – and there may be others in the group who have yet to emerge. Lehkonen’s European career exploded during a playoff run, which suggests he may prove to be another member of this special faction of player.
It appears as though the 2016-17 Canadiens roster will likely be able to get the team to the playoffs. In terms of getting through them, they are much better equipped to do so than they were in 2015. In fact, this edition of the Canadiens, from top to bottom, is the strongest to take playoff ice during Price’s entire career, to date. Are they strong enough to achieve Stanley Cup Glory? The smart money says they don’t have the firepower, but the Habs are known to produce Teams of Destiny – especially when boasting elite goaltending. There also remains one factor that is unique to this team: plain old Montreal Canadiens mystique. When discussing the Habs and championship players, one must not only consider the players who grace the Bell Centre ice, but those who haunt its’ rafters. Who knows? When all is said and done, it may be the Ghosts who end up pulling them through.