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Where To Go From Here
Where To Go From Here(2012-03-05 07:40 posted by Curt MacLellan)

The disappointing 2011-12 season lumbered on for the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night. After jumping out to a quick 1-0 lead over the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs surrendered three straight goals and lost the game 3-1. In some ways, Saturday’s match was a microcosm of the Canadiens’ season: Coming close to victory numerous times, but falling just short in the final minutes/plays of most games. We only need to look at the Habs’ overtime loss record—a staggering 10 of 31 losses coming in OT or in the shootout—to see that the team has serious shortcomings when it comes to winning close games. Some of these problems are directly related to the defensive shortcomings demonstrated by the defensive core of the team; other difficulties can be attributed to poor defensive zone coverage by forwards coming back into the play to pick up their checking assignments; still others can be blamed on shaky goaltending. Ultimately, some of the blame must also be placed on the management/coaching staff of the team who cannot seem to put the necessary pieces in place to achieve success, nor motivate the existing players on the team to compete at their highest level for a full sixty minutes every night. With all of these areas lacking in the present edition of the Montreal Canadiens, where does the team go from here to identify and produce a successful team in the province of Quebec? And, as fans, are we heading for a rebuild within the organization?

First of all, in net, the Canadiens have one of the best in the game in Carey Price. The All Star goaltender has not had spectacular numbers this season - 23-25-9, with a 2.43 GAA and a .915 save % - but certainly has been the most consistent player on the team. His poor numbers are a direct correlation to the lack of both defensive and offensive support received by him this season. With his contract terminating at season’s end, the Habs’ first line of business must be to re-sign Price to a long-term deal. Anything short of five years would be a mistake by the team’s owners because Price is, according to most GMs, one of the top five goalies in the NHL. Thus, no rebuild is required in net, but some depth at the goaltending position is certainly required since the top options in the minors are Nathan Lawson and Robert Mayer of Hamilton Bulldogs, both of whom are having mediocre seasons in the AHL. The Habs do have two second round draft picks in the upcoming draft; look for them to snatch a goalie with one of those picks: P.K.’s brother, Malcolm Subban, who is tearing up the OHL with the Belleville Bulls, would be a key prospect to identify and select in June’s draft. Remember the Habs have made this type of hockey decision in the past. Shortly after Jose Theodore won the Vezina and Hart trophies in 2001-02, they drafted Carey Price in 2005. The very next year, 2006, Theodore was shipped to Colorado to make room for the team’s future star goalie, Carey Price. If the goaltending situation is stabilized for the next length of time, then the defensive group must be addressed in detail.

Montreal's defensive group is young, talented and multi-dimensional. However, they have demonstrated at times that they lack focus in games and make “rookie” or “inexperienced” mistakes which lead to opponents having offensive chances and eventually scoring goals. With workhorse P.K. Subban, playing on average 25 minutes per game, they have a thoroughbred to ride into the future. His offensive production has suffered this season, with only 5 goals and 26 points, but he should be able to shake the “sophomore jinx” and continue to emerge as one of the best defensive talents in the entire league. Add Yannick Weber, who is an underrated and underused player on the team, who demonstrates excellent vision on the ice and a howitzer of a shot, as well as the fearsome checking and fearless shot-blocking of Alexei Emelin, then a young triumvirate of d-men is already set in place. To finish up that d-core, they have the dependable Josh Gorges (for shot blocking and leadership); the smooth skating and passing of Raphael Diaz; the offensively gifted, yet defensively undependable, Tomas Kaberle; and the decent two-way play of Chris Campoli. However, it is no secret that the Habs are greatly missing Andrei Markov’s presence in the line-up, not only offensively and defensively, but also in a leadership/mentorship role to the younger d-men, like Emelin, Diaz, Weber and Subban. With the team now mired in Markov’s absence for over a calendar year, fans are becoming unsettled and fear that Markov may never play in the NHL again, or if he does, he may not be the player he was previous to his knee problems. If Markov cannot return to the team, a “rebuild” proper is still not applicable to the Habs on the defensive front because the young talent exists on the current roster, only a veteran powerplay quarter back with defensive awareness must be added in the offseason to tighten, galvanize, and lead the young studs into battle. This potential player may have to brought in from outside the organization.

As for the forwards, only the Cole-Desharnais-Pacioretty line remains productive and consistent. The second line centre, Tomas Plekanec, has had an off season, with only 12 goals and 42 points while sitting a pathetic minus 20. Nevertheless, these stats are not a proper reflection of Plekanec’s play this season. The largest reason for his offensive decline can be attributed to the ongoing “musical-linemates” he has faced. On his line, Plekanec has had various wingers like Gionta, Cammallerii, Andrei Kostitsyn, Ryan White, Louis Leblanc, Rene Bourque, etc. It is difficult for someone with hisabilities to play with different linemates on a weekly—sometimes nightly—basis. That way, little chemistry can be created through familiarity with his wingers. Plekanec will need wingers with whom he can communicate and establish that chemistry in order for him, and the team, to be successful. On the third line, Lars Eller is poised to break out offensively, because he has a skill-set like no one else on the team, and is emerging as a potent two-way threat, both on the PP and the PK. He, too, needs consistent linemates to bring out the best in him: Kostitsyn and Moen showed some chemistry with Eller earlier in the season, but the former has since been traded to Nashville (where he had a goal and assist Saturday night!) and the latter has been suffering from an injury. As for the fourth line, Ryan White and Brad Staubitz should remain with the team because they add some much needed toughness and grit to a team that lacks both. Even that toughness should help free up some time and space for the creative top line players because opposing teams will think twice before embattling a team that has top-rate grinders and enforcers. Again, not a strict “rebuild” is needed on this front, simply some tinkering with the final few pieces of the puzzle.

Not only do the players in the Montreal team need to step-up and play better, but the GM Pierre Gauthier, and the coach Randy Cunneyworth, both need to do better at their respective jobs if they want to retain their positions in the organization. On the management front, there must be a regime change in order for the team to have ultimate success. For Gauthier, firing Perry Pearn, then Jacques Martin, hiring an Anglophone coach in Randy Cunneyworth and stamping him with the dreaded “interim coach” label, and then trading Mike Cammalleri , Hal Gill, and Andrei Kostisyn for minimum returns, will prove the downfall for him. The team owners, Geoff Molson and family, will not stand for another season such as this one, and Gauthier was largely the prime catalyst in the suspect moves made within the team. His days as a GM in Montreal are numbered, and fans may see him replaced before this June’s draft. That way, a new GM can begin his reign by wheeling and dealing during the draft and free-agency period to bolster the lineup. Still, some consider Randy Cunneyworth a “lame-duck” coach, and Gauthier’s “interim” label certainly pushes that theory. However, while Cunneyworth has made some major strides with the team—making them more aggressive, tenacious, and diligent—the team still has not lived up to expectations and cannot seem to get motivated to start games, especially at home, where they have come out flat, and then cannot come from behind to overcome a scoring deficit. Simply witness the terrible record the Habs have at home: 12-15-8. For a storied franchise such as Les Canadiens and their rabid fans, that home record is a farce and is simply unacceptable. A coaching change may also need to take place because Cunneyworth’s efforts have not been good enough; and, moreover, the media and populace of Montreal may not be content with a purely Anglophone coach. Who will replace the GM and the coach? At this point, it is only speculation, but names like Pierre McGuire for GM and Marc Crawford for coach have been bantered around the rumour mill as possible replacements.

Thus, we see that the Canadiens are not necessarily in a strict “rebuild” mode. Changes definitely need to be made, especially in management, because the atrocious year unfolding for the Habs has been nothing short of a circus. For the immediate future, however, most of the aforementioned players should be returning for next season. Add up-and-coming junior/college prospects like Brendan Gallagher, Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, Michael Bournival, Morgan Ellis, Danny Kristo, etc., and the team is in decent shape as far as the future is concerned. However, most of these players are at least two years away from playing with the parent club. Finally, since the Habs are underachieving so badly this season, a high draft pick, perhaps even 2nd or 3rd overall is not out of the question. Whomever that player may turn out to be will likely be a year or two from playing in the NHL as well. In the end, then, there is no need to “blow the team up” for a re-build; Montreal Canadiens fans simply need to be patient because a Stanley Cup is only several short years away.

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