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.