The Pacioretty Trade: Let the Rebuild Begin (But Dare Not Speak Its Name)

Just when you thought Marc Bergevin had backed himself into an all-too familiar corner, with the punditry saying he’d never net the same return as Canes’ GM Jim Rutherford – a prospect and three picks, including a second-rounder, for Jeff Skinner – the Habs’ GM pulled a proverbial rabbit from his helmet in the form of consensus top prospect Nick Suzuki. The second-round pick was gravy on the poutine. With this trade, Bergevin may have saved his muscled bacon. Perhaps most encouragingly, he and the organization have sent a strong message to fans that the rebuild is officially on, if we can all just agree not to call it that.

Expect more of the same this season, with the Habs falling deep out of playoff contention by the time Weber returns from injury. A blessing in disguise, in my view, as it will hasten the rebuild and allow the Habs’ brass to add to their already rich trove of picks from what’s expected to be a banner 2019 draft class.

Will Weber be the next to go? I’m guessing they want him around to mentor the kids—second-tier prospects like Josh Brook and Cale Fleury, for starters, who’re close to turning pro. Fair enough. Man Mountain showing the ropes to the new line of defence can only help fine-tune their development. Carey Price, traded? Highly unlikely, unless there’s a GM unhinged enough to take on his contract.

More importantly for Bergevin, he’s finally addressed the Canadiens’ epic and much-bemoaned need for a number-one centreman—check that: they’ll take a number two, as well.  At long last, the Habs, in a few short years, should be stacked at the position—something we haven’t been able to say for as long as most of us can remember.

In trading their captain and the face of the franchise, the Habs are also acknowledging what most of us have known for a few years now: Pacioretty may have been a worthy ambassador for the franchise, but he is too mercurial a player – his playoff record (10 goals in 38 games) speaks to a steep decline in production when the post-season intensity ratchets up – to act as captain of an NHL team.

On the ice, where it matters, Max Pacioretty lacks the mettle needed to lead men into battle.

Takeaways from the Canadiens’ Train-Wreck 2017-2018 Season

On a scale of disaster, it would be hard, you’d think, to top the Montreal Canadiens’ final season under GM Pierre Gauthier. Yet here we are, six years on, well short of that dubious low-water mark with just a handful of games to play. Of all the losing campaigns in the Habs long and storied history, in other words, this one may take the cake!

But despair not, Habs fans, because Marc Bergevin, lo and behold, has a plan. One that’s still short on details and apparently doesn’t include blowing up the roster or conceding that the team’s core – Pacioretty, Price et al – won’t be breaking the Stanley Cup drought that stretches well into its third decade anytime soon. But a plan it is, though it’s safe to say no one’s doing cartwheels down Saint Catherine Street and setting cars ablaze in anticipation of a parade.

Geoff Molson, to our collective bewilderment, declared that he stands firmly behind his beleaguered GM. Marc Bergevin, said Mr. Molson, remains one of the league’s premier evaluators of talent—a rose-coloured assessment that flies in the face of all that we’ve witnessed on the ice this season: the Alzner, Hemsky and Streit signings, the Schlemko acquisition, the failure to resign Radulov and Markov with no backup plan, the magical thinking behind the expectation that Jonathan Drouin could draw on his deep well of talent to seamlessly morph into a number-one centerman, the Subban trade (still), and the list goes on.

These are not the decisions of a GM with a sharp eye for talent.

The lack of accountability on Bergevin’s part has been mirrored in the team’s performance. Barring a few exceptions – your next captain, Brendan Gallagher, and Paul Byron, with props to Jeff Petry – the players counted on to deliver the mail (Pacioretty, Price and to a lesser extent Drouin) have given us prolonged stretches of uninspired play, with Price in particular looking completely out-of-synch on his way to putting up AHL-worthy numbers.

The team-record 12 shutouts against (and counting), more than attest to an anemic offence, reflects a reluctance to “arrive at the net with the puck and in ill humour,” to quote legendary Flyers’ coach Fred Shero. On too many nights, the sheer will, tenacity and self-sacrifice needed to win in today’s NHL were sadly absent—which is perfectly understandable if you believe hockey players take their cue from their captain.

The Habs fans I know all say they haven’t watched a full game for weeks if not months. At the Bell Centre box office and in sports bars, pubs and restaurants across the province, people are feeling the pinch of a season lost with 40 games to play. And chances are the worst is yet to come. Forget about John Tavares (he wants to win now!) and retooling via trades and free agency. The Canadiens are more than a player or two away from playoff contention, besides which Montreal is the Siberia of free agent destinations: everyone loves to play here, as long as they’re suiting up for the visiting team.

There have been some bright spots in this otherwise woeful season: Brendan Gallagher’s return to form after two injury-plagued seasons, Charles Hudon’s solid rookie campaign, Eric Deslauriers’s take-no-prisoners approach to every shift, and the continued development of Nikita Scherback. Arturi Lehkonen is a well-rounded young forward who plays a 200-foot game, and he’ll rebound from this year’s sophomore slump. Alex Galchenyuk’s improved second-half play bodes well for next season, providing the Canadiens don’t make the mistake of bailing on him. None of the above plays centre, of course, unless you include Galchenyuk, and who wants to reignite that debate?

But let’s not kid ourselves: there will be no quick fixes for your Montreal Canadiens. Not this year or next. Tanking is the clearest path to renewed respectability (unless you’re the Edmonton Oilers), together with a front office shakeup early in the offseason to give the new brass, led by GM Julien Brisebois, time to prepare for the upcoming draft and finally begin the process of rebuilding this once-proud franchise.

Not gonna happen, of course. At least not for now, if you believe Geoff Molson. But that reckoning will come, perhaps as early as next season. Because the time for half-measures is past. Montreal fans deserve more.

To quote the late great Fred Shero once again: “Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion, you must first set yourself on fire.”

Pacioretty, Kessel, and the Fate of the Canadiens’ Captaincy

The NHL trade deadline invariably fails to live up to the relentless media hype—a casualty of cap constraints, certainly, but also a testament to the growing tendency on the part of NHL GMs to jealously guard their futures. And while this year’s deadline did see a few big names moved, it was a nothingburger in Montreal, where Marc Bergevin chose to hang on to his meagre assets, perhaps hoping they’ll command a better return come the offseason—or in Max Pacioretty’s case, next season, if the American-born winger can rediscover his scoring touch ahead of the 2019 trade deadline (a gut check wouldn’t be a bad idea, either).

The patient approach may not sit well with restless Habs fans clamouring for a shakeup tout de suite, but Pacioretty has done little this season to enhance his trade value, posting the worst offensive numbers of his career.

Still, the odds-on consensus is that the Canadiens’ Captain will – and should – be dealt.

Pacciorety’s fate, assuming he is traded, recalls Phil Kessel’s final days in Hogtown before the Leafs mercifully dispatched him to Pittsburgh. Kessel, too, had outworn his Canadian welcome, was savaged daily by the local press (Pacioretty’s treatment has been tame by comparison) and like his American counterpart seemed to be suffocating under the weight of an entire city’s expectations.

Both are products of the U.S. development program, and both came into the league at about the same time (Pacioretty a year later than Kessel). Both, by temperament, are better cast in supporting roles, with the Canadiens’ captain being by far the more mercurial of the two: In his first season with the Habs, fans will recall, a fulminating Pacioretty all but sent himself down to the minors, adding that he wasn’t coming back until he got his game straightened out. Now there’s someone who cares, I remember thinking.

Both have chafed under the media scrutiny in Canada, at times (in Kessel’s case) openly feuding with reporters; and both are proven finishers. Kessel, to his credit, has matured into a more complete player and at 30 is on pace to put up career-high helper totals. Pacioretty, primarily a gunslinger, is best served riding shotgun to someone who can spring him loose off the rush or set him up for the one-timer.

Phil The Thrill has found a better home in the Steel City, where hockey takes a back seat to football, winning a pair of Stanley Cups while playing mostly on the third line.

In Pacioretty’s defence, he’s never had the good fortune of being paired with a legit number-one centerman, yet still ranks among the league’s top snipers over the past six years. Think of what he could accomplish alongside the likes of Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. But even then, Max may not be the kind of player who can thrive under those circumstances. Like Kessel, he may be better suited to playing with quality third-liners who can do the heavy lifting and get him the biscuit in the right areas to bury it.

Of the two, only Kessel has earned his playoff bona fides in the shape of two gem-encrusted Stanley Cup rings. He alone has shown the ability to consistently elevate his game on hockey’s grandest stage. Pacioretty’s career playoff numbers pale by comparison. On the ice, where it matters, and in the hearts of fans, he remains a polarizing player—which might be the fate of all streaky scorers in pressure-cooker markets like Montreal and Toronto. But there’s more to it than that: if donning the mantle of captain of an NHL hockey team means leaving it all out on the ice every night, Pacioretty does not pass the eye test.

Fortunately for the Canadiens, there happens to be a player on the roster who fits that description to a tee. So while the search for that elusive number one centerman stretches well into its third decade unabated, Habs fabs can take comfort in knowing the team’s next captain is already in the room.

Look for the little guy with the big grin, the bloodied face and the golf ball sized welt on his cheekbone.

New York-style Front Office Transparency Unlikely in Montreal

Photo Credit: NY Post

The New York Rangers’ front office recently published an open letter to fans explaining that they were staging a fire sale to jump-start their rebuild. It was a gutsy move by Blueshirts’ GM Jeff Gorton and Team President Glen Sather, and it didn’t take long for the story to reach L’Antichambre’s taupe studios in Montreal, where the panel, led by François Gagnon, picked it up and ran with it. The common refrain? If the Rangers, who sit ahead of the Canadiens in the standings, can be up front with their fans about their plans, then why not the Canadiens?

Amid the continuing chatter, not a peep from Geoff Molson or the Canadiens’ brass. But that hasn’t stopped the media from speculating wildly ahead of the February 26 trade deadline. Weber to Toronto for Nylander, a first-rounder and a warm body; Pacioretty to Saint Louis for prized prospect Robert Thomas (in your dreams); the entire Canadiens’ defence minus Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Victor Mete for a second-round pick and a bag of pucks.

There will be no such missive issued to fans in Montreal anytime soon—that’s not how the Canadiens roll. The future, if you’re a Habs fan, is shrouded in mystery, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. The veil of secrecy will only be lifted after the changes come (presuming there’re on the way) and the team holds a carefully stage-managed press conference to lay out its vision for the future.

In the unfortunate event that Geoff Molson decides to stand by his man beyond this season, a beleaguered but ever dapper Marc Bergevin will do anything but take the fall for the team’s player evaluation and development woes, citing injuries and a failure on the part of uniformed hockey personnel to perform up to expectation.

I could be wrong: the Habs’ brass could surprise us by following suit—and they wouldn’t be the first: not to be outdone, Vancouver Canucks’ President Trevor Linden issued a letter of his own to fans this week, and others could follow, if the epistolary trend continues.

My guess is that the Canadiens’ rebuild will be more like a retrofit: Carey Price and Shea Weber (at least for now) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, courtesy of their all but untradable contracts—which leaves Max Pacioretty, Andrew Shaw and Tomas Plekanec as the only core pieces likely to be on the move, if not now then during the offseason. Hardly the stuff rapid rebuilds are made of.

Six months on, the decision to sign Carey Price to a maximum-term deal is looking like it may have been premature. While the desire to get a deal done during the offseason is understandable, a more prudent approach might have been to wait just a little longer, till late October, a mere ten games into the season, as the wheels had already fallen off by then—in part because of Price’s less than stellar play. Had they waited, the Habs, by now, might be presiding over a fire sale for the ages.

Not so. The rebuild may well be slower and more painful for the Habs than it will be for the Rangers or Canucks, because like it or not, the team is stuck with a pair of aging core players on bad contracts who might have formed the cornerstones of a bona fide rebuild before and after this season’s trade deadline.

On the ice, meanwhile, the Habs, with just over 20 games to play, look like a team content to play out the string—much to Claude Julien’s growing dismay. The loss to the Las Vegas Golden Knights – the team’s fifth in a row – marked a troubling new low in the Habs’ compete level, with Captain Max Pacioretty showing the way.

And it will get uglier. So buckle in, folks, the race to the bottom, it seems, has begun in earnest.

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?

On the Road to a Rebuild

Canadian Press Paul Chaisson

If Bergevin has an ace up his sleeve, the time to play it is now. After reeling off five straight wins, the Habs have reverted to form, losing three in a row and looking a lot like the team we dozed off watching through the early days of the season.

It’s now clear as Nova Scotia crystal that the Alzner signing was a colossal mistake. The numbers were there, yet Bergevin chose to overlook them (I’m willing to wager he’s not a card-carrying member of the Advanced Analytics Club). Hemsky? Another beau risque gone wrong.

Hemsky and Streit – the foot soldiers air-lifted in to replace  Markov and Radulov – will likely play no more than 10 games between them this entire season, all for the bargain price of $1 million apiece. Nice little parting bonus if you can get it.

In all fairness, Montreal GMs, unable to lure the big fish from the free agent pool (is it any wonder that players would choose surfing or sitting poolside on off-days over Quebec taxes and shoveling out the driveway?) are reduced to overpaying and taking flyers on aging veterans in the hope that for every Semin, Streit and Hemsky, an Alexander Radulov will slip under the radar.

The Schlemko acquisition, based on what we’ve seen – which is not much, as he spent the first six weeks of the calendar on the DL – looks like a good one. Time will tell whether he’s able to play top-pairing minutes alongside Weber, as the journeyman defender has always been cast in a second- or third-pairing role.

When the trade for Jonathan Drouin was first announced, it unleashed a media frenzy culminating in his premature coronation as the franchise center that’s eluded the organization for 25 years. Lost in the rapture was the fact that Drouin has spent his entire career on the wing.

But what’s really gotta smart, if you’re Marc Bergevin, is that the gilt-edged prospect he dealt away, Tampa rookie Mikhail Sergachev, currently holds more points this season than any player on the Canadiens’ roster.

Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don’t make, as the well-worn adage goes. Sometimes, I grow wistful at the thought of a Canadiens’ defence anchored by P.K. Subban, Mikhail Sergachev, Victor Mete and a resurgent Jeff Petry—mobile defenders who can move the puck in transition to the club’s speedy forwards.

What we have, instead, is a patchwork defence – the same one Bergevin insisted was superior to last year’s – and a team that, barring a turnaround or biblical proportions, will be trade-deadline sellers, looking to swap assets for picks and prospects. Instead, the Habs sit well out of a playoff spot with over a third of a season played, their playoff hopes all but dashed: The pre-Christmas homestand many said would make or break their season produced only a handful of wins, and the team went on to ring in the holidays with a fresh string of road losses (four and counting), during which they filled the net with three goals. Worse yet, Weber is out again and may be headed for the DL, and word from inside Montreal’s hockey fishbowl is that Jonathan Drouin may not be a centre after all.

Oy vey!

On the bright side, Nick Kypreos is reporting that the Habs are actively shopping Pacioretty, who’s playing like he’s already got one foot on the next train outta town.

The Habs are a team in disarray, and not even the ghosts of championships past could save their season now.

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.

Time for Habs to Take a Page from Leafs’ Playbook

The bad news, for fans of this year’s edition of les Habitants, is that hockey’s most storied franchise is no closer to a Stanley Cup today than it was six years ago, when Marc Bergevin first took the helm after a prolonged period of gloom known as the Gauthier Era. Bergevin was the embodiment of today’s new breed of general managers—hands-on, personable, and not afraid to take the GM dress code into uncharted terrain. Groomed under the Bowmans in Chicago – first as a scout, then as director of player personnel and ultimately as assistant GM – there was every reason to believe he had the pedigree and the experience to bring the Sainte Flanelle back to the Promised Land.

Flash forward to 2017. With Bergevin’s five-year plan on the books, the Habs stumbled badly out of the gate, all but playing themselves out of playoff contention through the first 10 games of the season. As a team, they were mired at or near the bottom of almost every statistical category, including goaltending, most shockingly, where a missing persons bulletin has been issued for the real Carey Price, the one we’ve all come to know and love. The Habs’ front office, led by Bergevin, had better hope he receives it.

Through it all, the Canadiens still managed to fire more rubber at opposing goalies than any other team in the league, with only the lowest shooting percentage in the history of advanced analytics to show for it. No team, through the first ten or so games, has ever shot more and scored less than your 2017 Montreal Canadiens, in other words—a small sample size, admittedly, but a sobering stat, just the same, that should give diehard Habs fans ample pause.

With their remodeled defence, the Canadiens have had trouble with their transition game—an area considered an organizational strength only a few shorts years ago, when the Habs’ blueline was anchored by longtime transition genius Andrei Markov, and P.K. Subban.

The Canadiens’ dismal start has provoked restless unease across Québec and sparked renewed calls for regime change in Montreal (Denis Coderre is said to be eyeing the position). And while Geoff Molson has made a public show of support for his GM, the chorus of calls for his ouster will grow louder, unless the team is able to turn things around.

On a great night, with the real Carey Price between the pipes, the Habs can beat any team in the league. But on most, the teams’ shortcomings – the lack of mobility, quickness and physicality on the back end, and size and scoring up front – are painfully exposed. To even squeak into the playoffs and atone for their abysmal start, the Habs will have to punch above their weight for the remainder of the season.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that considerable chunk of change Bergevin has to play around with—the Habs, at recent count, have close to $8.5 million in cap space available. But with a paper-thin pool of prospects on the farm, he has few bonafide chips to bring to the bargaining table, compromising his ability to pull the trigger on a trade without sacrificing an important roster player or two and messing with the team’s chi. Again. With each passing day, he faces growing pressure to spend Geoff Molson’s hard-earned beer money to shore up his roster. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place, all that cap space burning a hole the size of a hockey puck through your pocket.

When Bergevin first addressed the team’s poor start, he said the solution would have to come from inside the Canadiens’ dressing room. Now that’s all well and good, but this is Bergevin’s team, lest we forget, and as its GM, he has presided over a long list of head-scratching draft decisions, ill-advised free agent signings (Alzner, Streit, Semin, Hemsky et al), and a trade that will haunt the organization for years.

The changes on defence – the Alzner and Streit signings and the decision to protect Benn – speak to a deeper failure to get ahead of the curve, as David Poile has done in Nashville, and build a blueline brigade around speed. With the aforementioned Carey Price their only true star, the Habs, instead, have sought to make defence the cornerstone of a championship-winning team, much like the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils did with Martin Brodeur. But this is 2017, and the Habs don’t have a player like Scott Niedermayer in their lineup (they did, but that defenceman was traded).

Also in the name of defence, the organization has consistently found a way to ruin young players by stifling their offensive instincts. Players like Sven Andrighetto – whose 12 points, at last count, ties him with Canadiens’ scoring leaders Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher – and now Alex Galchenyuk, the Montreal media’s newest whipping boy.

Under its defence-first philosophy, skilled young players are left to languish between the press box, the farm and the fourth line while they earn the coach’s trust. It’s tough love, Montreal style. Is it any wonder those same players, their confidence all but shattered, fail to live up to their promise when finally given a chance to succeed.

The irrepressible P.K. Subban, it’s fair to speculate, was traded precisely because he could not fit into that defence-first system, or the Canadiens’ arch-conservative corporate culture, for that matter, which was never big enough to accommodate his larger-than-life personality, his brand, if you prefer.

The time is nigh for a full rebuild and a deep organizational rethink. The good news, as the Toronto Maple Leafs are well on their way to proving, is that with the right combination of unabashed tanking, a full-scale fire sale and sweeping front office changes, your Habs could be sipping from Lord Stanley’s Cup again within three to four years.