For Habs fans of any age, I can assure you what the team is going through this season is extraordinary in every way imaginable. As a youngster, I considered the Habs demigods. For half a century it was never about making the playoffs, it was never about making the Stanley Cup Final, it was about winning the Cup or the season was a failure. What was most amazing about this time was this demand, of cup or else, was not an exaggeration, was not hyperbole, but an accurate reflection of the team’s record and extraordinary talent base.
Possibly the biggest downfall of the Marc Bergevin era was the expectation that the team was at worst only a few players away from another golden era. Year in and year out the team tried to find a magic potion that was no longer available. It took decades of mediocrity for the fan base to evolve and come to the conclusion; times have changed. Doing the same things over and over again in pursuit of the Cup, with nothing but the odd flares of excitement to show for it resulted in a new understanding by the fan base and the owner: Time to let go of the old guard and bring in the new.
The arrival of a soon-to-be three-headed team of Jeff Gorton, Kent Hughes, and Martin St. Louis has resulted in a modern, cutting-edge take on how to build a team during the cap era. The result is the team and the fans are willing to wait for this plan to succeed and that calls for nothing less than tanking.
Despite every point I made a tanking season can be a nightmare. To top it off the management team refuses to pull off an outright tank job. How can the team tank, because they have to (to attain high-level draft picks) and not tank at the same time? In other words, can two opposites exist at the same time and both are true and needed? Can excelling and tanking co-exist? The answer is yes and while I did not see it coming, it is here and it has a name; Tankapalooza.
Tanking is a miserable experience, trying to win a Cup with mediocrity is frustrating to say the least. Yet a Tankapalooza with a game plan can be entertaining, invigorating, and here’s the best part; foolproof. This is foolproof for the fans, the players, the scouts, the coaches, the management, and ownership. Let’s look at each group and see how they embrace a Tankapalooza.
The Fans: I will talk for myself but I suspect many will identify. Here are a few snippets but this goes on and on. During overtime games and shootouts, I only want the Habs to win, but when they lose I mourn for a few seconds (less than six seconds) and then I rejoice for tanks’ sake. Lose with a minute left in the game and I am sick to my stomach for … six seconds … then I quickly recover and rejoice for tanks’ sake. The one moment that took me out for more than six seconds was the Caufield injury. For a dreary, long, possibly 18 seconds, I felt for the young man. It was truly exciting to watch him make a run for 50 goals. Cole is a truly lovable fellow and no one would wish him any sort of harm, but then … for tanks’ sake … I realize this could be the difference between a top-three pick and a top-12 pick or worse. Intelligent-in-the-know-fans can only rejoice. It’s a win-win situation. Win, we see the future of the team, lose we see the possibility of a much better future.
The Players: For the young players the pressure to succeed is just enough to push them forward while not deep enough to cause harm. Make a mistake, the coach will let you know and suggest a different, better approach to a similar future hockey event. For the vets, they can try to play their best and land up being traded to a Cup contender (not a bad deal) or they can sign contracts with the idea of mentoring the youngsters (see Jake Allen, Chris Wideman, or even David Savard). A lot of veterans are mentoring the kids and many seem to embrace the venture. Now among the players, there is a twilight zone. Players like Josh Anderson might be too good to be traded or others too overpaid to be traded, like the beloved Brendan Gallagher or the not-quite-beloved Joel Armia. It’s hard to know how the twilight talent will work out and for them, this whole voyage must be hard at times, but for the team’s youth, this is a very promising era.
The Scouts: These days being a scout (pro, Euro, or amateur) for Montreal has to be exciting. For old-time scouts that are still with the team, they watch their choices grow. The team has had close to half the players be rookies at times and while no one’s winning Rookie of the Year contests (Kaiden Guhle had a small chance before the injury), among Justin Barron, Jordan Harris, Johnathan Kovacevic, and Arber Xhekaj, none are close to busts. Still with the defence, add Lane Hutson, Jayden Struble, and Logan Mailloux and all could either rep the future or will be trade pieces for major deals. The scouts have to be very proud and among forwards, there are a handful of solid NHL prospects too (Joshua Roy, Sean Farrell, Owen Beck, Juraj Slafkovsky, and maybe Riley Kidney). Even more exciting for the scouts is this upcoming draft so they are truly enjoying this Tankapalooza! Their past work is solid and their upcoming draft might be one for the ages.
The Coaches: I’m going to just comment on St. Louis here. Not only is Martin a saint the way he handles losses and disappointments, but he’s also named after a city, which means nothing, but let’s thank his parents for not having the last name Bangkok. St. Louis is the right man in the right place, his intelligence; especially emotional intelligence is off the charts. This Tankapalooza has the Saint as one of the big reasons it is not only existing but flourishing. If I may, one caveat; I’m not sold on the support team, but that is for another day. Really the only question about Martin is whether he will mature as a coach when it is contender time. The money is on him pulling it off. Meanwhile, he is the perfect man for the Tankapalooza and its requirements.
Management: If you’ve been following the Habs you know how great Gorton and Hughes have been. One can question the choice of Slafkovsky and the trade for Barron, but the jury is still out and Barron is looking awfully good after a season in Laval. Slafkovsky is a different story but let’s talk in three years. Gorton and Hughes are playing high-stakes poker and so far they are winning. They created this Tankapalooza and will be honoured for it if they continue in their tracks.
Ownership: Geoff Molson has to be enjoying the Tankapalooza more than anyone. He gave Bergevin a try and had some good times but overall, things were just not working out. While tanking – the team is excelling; a young defence, solid offensive pieces, a goaltender discovery, Rafael Harvey-Pinard’s recent emergence, a big bounty available in the next draft, and a fan base that no longer questions his choices (for the time being). Molson’s popularity was at an all-time low last season and his choice to clean house has turned the tables back in his favour.
Obviously, there are difficult moments and it will continue for a number of seasons, but for a Montreal Canadian team to have such poor results and so many exciting moments is turning into a blessing. That blessing has a name and that is – TANKAPALOOZA.