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?

Midseason Post Mortem

Bergevin’s mid-season presser did nothing to excite hopes that a quick turnaround is imminent. Which it isn’t, of course. Not with this team, and certainly not on his watch. The $7.5 million kitty he has to play around with remains unspent—a vivid testament to the corner into which he painted himself when he was unable to sign Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov. Yet somehow the Habs GM found a way to deflect responsibility for the apparent lack of a backup plan by suggesting (incredibly) that the situation was beyond his control.

Codswallop. Letting them walk was an egregious error.

The Canadiens, it’s clear, are not the same team without them.

Bergevin’s insistence on a one-year deal, in Markov’s case, came back to hurt the Habs, when the right thing would have been to give the taciturn Russian an extra year of term for distinguished service to the organization. The Moscow-born defenceman, it bears recalling, returned to play after back-to-back ACL tears – a feat seldom accomplished in all of professional sports – and was the Canadiens’ most complete defenceman for the better part of 17 years.

Markov, the consummate mensch, bowed out quietly, electing to play in the KHL rather than sign with another NHL club (and based on the Markovian numbers he’s put up thus far this season, it’s clear the former Hab has still got some game). If anyone deserves a place of honour in the team’s crowded pantheon of greats, delivered with the pomp and circumstance only the Canadiens are capable of, surely, it’s Andrei Markov.

In the meantime, a rash of mid-season injuries has forced Claude Julien to juggle his roster. The ongoing carousel across the lineup has done nothing, on most nights, to ignite the team’s sagging offence.

But the Habs have shown signs of coming around, even in back-to-back overtime loses to the Bruins and Islanders. There are fewer passengers, and in the absence of several regulars, Pacioretty, Galchenyuk and Hudon have stepped up their play, Petry has rediscovered his speed game, and Jerabek has begun to show why he was among the KHL’s top-scoring defencemen before making the jump to the NHL.

Perhaps most heartening, for Habs fans, is that Claude Julien has the team playing with a greater sense of urgency (at least until last evening, when they marked his Beantown homecoming with an atrocious effort).

Wins are what’s needed at his stage—at a clip that would shock even the most sanguine Habs fan.

Within a few weeks, the organization will confirm what we pretty much know already, and that’s that the Habs are entering a rebuild (possibly disguised as a retool) by shedding some assets, starting with Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Andrew Shaw. You can probably include Jordie Benn and Joe Morrow in that group, and Karl Alzner, too, though the Habs would have to shoulder part of his contract—a dream scenario at best. You have to wonder whether all those hard minutes have begun to catch up with the former Washington Capital, who stands fifth among NHL ironmen with 470 consecutive games played. On a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, Alzner is no more than a depth defenceman—a very expensive one at that.

The growing consensus, among the punditry, is that Alex Galchenyuk deserves a fresh start—an idea most would have considered preposterous only a few years ago, after his breakout 30-goal season.

How did it come to this?

For one, Galchenyuk was fast-tracked to the NHL, bypassing the AHL altogether after missing all but a handful of games during his final full season in the OHL. Like others before him – Guillaume Latendresse, Jarred Tinordi and Louis Leblanc come to mind – his development was rushed to fill a desperate organizational need.

In the meantime, the never-ending debate about whether he’s a centre or a winger has metastasized to another roster player, Jonathan Drouin. In both cases, the Habs failed to properly evaluate the player, leaving holes in their lineup that you could drive a fleet of Zambonis through. With Drouin best served as a winger, the Habs, for all intents and purposes, have two legitimate centres on their first three lines, and one of them – Phillip Danault – is out indefinitely with a concussion.

The consequences, like the injuries, are piling up, and the Habs’ train-wreck 2017-2018 season is about to take a turn for the worse, with the start of a limited fire sale looming large.

The road to redemption, for the Habs, ultimately leads directly through Geoff Molson’s office. He, more than anyone, holds the keys to the future, and some tough choices lie ahead. Here’s to hoping he has the stomach to make the right moves—none bigger than the decision to hand over the reins to a new GM.

Is Julien Brisebois still available?

Habs’ Playoff Hopes All But Dashed

What a difference a week or two can make, especially for teams on the bubble. In the absence of Carey Price – whose latest injury was declared a state secret – and stud defenceman Shea Weber, the Habs rode the red-hot goaltending of rookie Charlie Lindgren right out the crater they’d dug for themselves, stringing together five wins and clawing their way back into the playoff picture. For now, at least, the prospect of a lost season well before the New Year has dimmed, but the margin for error remains extremely slim. Another losing skid, and the knives will be out for Marc Bergevin, and Geoff Molson, for the well-being of the team, the city and the province, will have no choice but to enact the necessary sacrifice to appease the hockey gods.

The Leafs, meanwhile, have cooled off after a torrid start, while in Tampa, Lighting’ GM Steve Yzerman and assistant Julien Brisebois – touted by many as the next Canadiens’ GM before Geoff Molson opted in favour of Marc Bergevin – have assembled a championship-calibre roster on the strength of a brilliant draft record.

No NHL team has plucked more diamonds from the rough on draft day than Tampa. The incomparable Nikita Kucherov was a late second-round pick, while Alex Killorn and Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Brayden Point were third-round picks; Ondrej Palat, incredibly, was taken in Round 7 with the 208th pick (that’s just before the cognoscenti pack it in for another year). Tyler Johnson? Undrafted. Signed by Yzerman in 2011.

If you’re a longtime Habs fan, it’s enough to make you weep.

In the brave new age of parity under the cap, Habs fans old enough to remember the sixties and seventies have learned to live with diminished expectations; the dynasties of old, we’ve grudgingly accepted, are a vanishing breed. Still, Original Six franchises face added pressure to remain competitive and retool on the fly, rather than risk losing fans to a painful rebuild—an unlikely scenario in Montreal, where hockey’s the only game in town and players are accorded a reverence befitting saints (it’s not for nothing the Hall of Fame is known in French as the Temple de la renommée). The objective is to make the playoffs, and then, as they say, tout est possible!

But not even the great Carey Price has been able to carry our floundering franchise past the second round. Au contraire: The Habs, during the Price era, have shown that all-world goaltending is no guarantee there’ll be hockey at the height of mosquito season in Quebec.

Yet, year after year the organization pledges undying faith in this team’s core players, none more than Captain Max Pacioretty. Let me be the latest to say that the Canadiens will never win a Stanley Cup with Max Pacioretty as their captain. Sure, he’ll get you to the post-season, but when the playoff intensity ratchets up and penalties are rarer than hens’ teeth, when success calls for a willingness to accept cruel and unusual punishment and give blood for the good of the team, chances are you’ll find Max Pacioretty somewhere out on the perimeter, where the coast is clear and the living is easy.

Memo to Geoff Molson: As a fan and a seasoned armchair GM, I’d swap the status quo for a shot at a brighter future in the time it takes to say “Jordie Benn is having a breakout season.” Why, I’d watch a full season of Stars on Ice and learn to crochet just to get within cross-checking distance of the Conference Final.

The Canadiens, pro sports winningest franchise, are a proud organization steeped in a rich history—a fact that players are reminded of at every conceivable opportunity (no pressure!). To kick off the season, fans, too, are treated to a solemn torch-bearing ceremony on a scale matched only by the Olympics. All that winning breeds a certain swagger, of course, and when the Habs win, we, the legion of loyal fans, bask in reflected glory. Another Stanley Cup would all but lift us onto a completely different plane beyond the earthly pale.

But success has also caused complacency to creep in—we’re among the most storied franchises in professional sports, what’s to change!

As longtime Intel CEO Andrew Grove wrote: “Success breeds complacency and complacency breeds failure.”

He could have been talking about your Montreal Canadiens.