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.”

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.

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.