Oilers and Habs Lost in Transition

Parity is at an all-time high across the NHL, and a quick glance at the NHL standings, post all-star break, is all the proof you need. The Avalanche, last year’s basement dwellers, are playoff pretenders looking to add some parts for a run, while other teams widely expected to punch their ticket to the dance well in advance – traditional Western Conference powers like the ‘Hawks and Ducks – face the unfamiliar prospect of a dogfight to the end just to creep into the postseason. Others still – the Oilers and Senators, teams most thought would be playing meaningful hockey into April – are outside the playoff picture, looking in.

Nowhere is the failure to live up to expectation being felt more keenly felt than in Edmonton, where the Oilers’ dramatic fall from grace prompted TSN’s Travis Yost to muse about the “death of heavy hockey.” Yost cited the Oilers’ lack of back-end mobility and focus on hitting among the main reasons for the team’s sub-par season. Peter Chiarelli, he argued, “embraced heavy hockey” at a time when the league was trending in the opposite direction, towards speed, skill, and transition.

In Montréal, meanwhile, Marc Bergevin has played a starring role in transforming the Habs’ once mobile defence into one of the league’s slowest—with little to no emphasis on body checking, sadly. By gutting the Canadiens’ once fleet-footed blueline corps, he undermined a strength that’s been key to the team’s regular-season success in recent years—it’s transition game.

The Habs’ swiss cheese defence was on full display during the team’s final game before the all-star break—a 6-5 loss to the mighty Carolina Hurricanes that saw Coach Julien call out his players for lack of attention to detail and qualify the loss as “hard to digest.” It was the last in a growing body of “must wins” that the Canadiens have parlayed into losses, often coming out flatter than a French pancake in the opening frame—again a departure from previous seasons, when the Habs were known as a strong first-period team.

Chiarelli, Bergevin—both essentially erred in favour of brawn. Where Chiarelli remodelled his roster after the Los Angeles Kings circa 2012 (props to Travis Yost), Bergevin revamped the Canadiens’ defence with an old-school, stay-at-home focus on savvy and experience at the expense of youth and agility.

It hasn’t worked—which is the charitable explanation.

The prolonged absence of Weber has done nothing to help team’s slim chances, of course. But the damage was done in the first two weeks of the season, when the team fell behind the eight ball and never recovered.

There were too many changes on defence, too fast, and the player group never had the chance to gel. Not that it would have made a difference: even with a healthy roster, the Habs are deficient in every facet of the game, from defence to offense, all the way up to the GM’s office. And with NHL-ready reinforcements in scarce supply – a casualty of poor player development – the organization and its fans have no choice but to suck it up and brace for the rebuild, with a new GM who can put the franchise back on the path to respectability.

Bring it on, then, because it’s all over but the crying. But take heart, Habs fans: 2018 is a draft-rich year for the Bleu-blanc-rouge, and it could well get richer, if Marc Bergevin can be trusted to pull off a trade or two for high-end prospects and picks, and use the newly available cap space to dip into the offseason free agent pool. Weber could fetch a king’s ransom on the trade market and lay the foundation for a rebuild, particularly if the Canadiens agree to absorb part of his contract. But that’s not likely to happen until his deal becomes more cap-friendly a few years down the road.

In today’s youth-driven NHL, the window to win opens and closes much faster than it once did—a fact the Canadiens’ brass would do well to consider in the weeks and months ahead. Rumours that a rebuild won’t pass muster with the fan base are greatly exaggerated and should be cross-checked in the kidneys at once.

An injection of youthful enthusiasm would give the fans something to get excited about—even if it means a long stretch of failure on a spectacular scale not seen since the Gauthier era, a mere seven years ago.

If the Leafs can do it, why not the Habs?

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