“Ça sent la Coupe!” my friend exclaimed after the Habs knocked off the powerhouse Toronto Maple Leafs (read: Marlies) in a nothing preseason affair that saw them pot an astonishing five goals in the first two periods alone. He was joking, of course, because no self-respecting hockey fan would suggest your 2018-2019 Habs will be doing much more than licking their wounds and lining up putts next April. But it never hurts to dream, and in Montreal, even the narrowest sliver of hope is enough to spark early-onset Cup fever – just look at the Golden Knights!
Yet, for all the gloom and doom hanging over the organization, the 2018-2019 preseason has served up a refreshing reminder that hockey is still a game played on the ice, and based on what we’ve seen thus far, there’s reason to believe the upcoming season won’t be the dumpster fire everyone and their Aunt Ginette are predicting.
With Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk now gone, the atmosphere around the team has lightened, and you get the added sense, based on the eye test, that the personnel changes have had a cleansing effect across the lineup. Throw in the new up-tempo style of play Claude Julien has rolled out and the surprisingly strong showing of Jesperi Kotkaniemi – finally a bonafide centreman! – and suddenly the future doesn’t look quite as bleak as it did just a few short months ago, at the height of the “I-never-asked-to-be-traded-Yes-you-did” soap opera starring Pacioretty and Marc Bergevin, with a gripping cameo from Geoff Molson.
The off-ice changes – the house-cleaning in Laval, in particular, and the hiring of Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson – are a tacit acknowledgement of the organization’s near abject failure to develop NHL-ready players during Sylvain Lefebvre’s tenure in Laval; with another youth movement in full swing, the presence of coaches with proven player development pedigree bodes well for the organization’s ability to get the most out of their prospects.
And let’s give credit where credit is due: Bergevin hit a home run with the Pacioretty trade when he netted Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick to go along with Tomas Tatar. The changes on defence, with what looks like the speedy Mike Reilly pencilled into the top pairing, point to an effort to get the team back to doing what they once did with the greatest of ease: move the puck in transition and play fast.
There will be growing pains aplenty. The Habs’ inexperienced defence will be exposed and likely shredded, sliced and diced some nights. It’ll be especially painful when the team doing the handiwork is the Toronto Maple Leafs (anyone but the Leafs, I beseech thee, Lord). And with no Nicolas Deslauriers and Shea Weber there to stand up for them in pre-Christmas segment of the calendar (in the case of Deslauriers, there’s still no word on when he’ll return), the Canadiens’ still smallish forwards are in for a rough ride when it they line up against the likes of the Washington Capitals (who said heavy hockey is dead?) and Los Angeles Kings.
But for the first time a quarter-century, there’s hope on the horizon, particularly at the centre position, and it starts with the kids – with Kotkaniemi and, waiting in the wings, Ryan Poehling and Suzuki, and the second-wave prospects not far behind. The future is in their hands. And while Habs fans will have to wait a few years before the prospect pool makes an impact at and beyond the Bell Centre, the kids, led by Kotkaniemi, have generated a buzz not seen in Montreal since P.K. Subban last sported a Habs jersey.