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It has certainly been a year to forget for the Montreal Canadiens as a team, an organization and for its fan base. The horrors the club have gone through this season have been tough to watch, to read about and discuss in suitable establishments. At this point, anyone who followed the team throughout the year knows the few highs and the numerous lows the Canadiens experienced.
There’s no sense beating the issues to death that plagued the team all year long. They’ve been written about at length (myself included). However, the glass is not always half empty. It’s worth looking at some positives that emerged from a team that at times played excellent hockey and provided glimpses into what could be a much more successful season next year, which given the current standing of the team can’t really get much worse.
Without a doubt this has been the most promising part of the Canadiens’ turbulent season. Max Pacioretty coming back from that devastating hit to become a 30-goal scorer, a big free agent acquisition in Erik Cole, who has lived up to every penny he’s getting paid and the emergence of David Desharnais as a more than capable centreman.
It’s safe to say that when Pacioretty said in the offseason that he’d be back better than ever, there were doubts. Those kinds of plays are career changers and no one really knew how he would respond when coming back. Except him, I guess. Outside of the blip in his production after he was suspended for the hit on Kris Letang, Pacioretty has been excellent. Aside from the inspiring aspect of his return, his attitude on the ice, his fearless style of play and of course his production are one of the few things that has brought a smile to Canadiens’ fans faces this year.
For all the heat that Pierre Gauthier has taken this year, signing Erik Cole during last year’s free agent frenzy was a stroke of genius, so far. Cole has earned every dollar he made this year with his play. The man never gives up, takes hits as hard as he gives them and has topped his previous season’s goal mark by a goal to date (as of March 20). He’s proven to be a terrific leader, rubbing off on Pacioretty among others, a class act, flying in Louis Leblanc’s parents for his first career game, and a comedian apparently, high-fiving officials with impunity.
It’s been said that the two power forwards flanking the diminutive Desharnais have been the key to his success this season. It certainly helps but that doesn’t give him enough credit. Here’s a player who has produced at every level he’s played at. While Cole and Pacioretty clearly open up the ice for him, they aren’t responsible for his impressive peripheral vision and decision-making. The chemistry between he and Pacioretty has been obvious since they began the season together in Hamilton last year but credit needs to be given to Desharnais for incorporating Cole seamlessly into the mix. At a cap hit of $850,000 again next season, he could be the steal of the year if he continues to perform as he has.
Rookie Defencemen Finding Their Place
While growing pains were expected from Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz, as they both made the jump from the KHL and the Swiss League respectively, both have shown they can perform at the NHL level. Emelin was probably wondering what he had done, leaving Russia to hang out in the press box, during the first few months of his NHL career.
Since his rocky beginning, he has become a solid, dependable defenseman with the ability to deliver some of the most punishing body checks I’ve seen a Canadiens player hand out in longer than I can remember. There have been some defensive lapses but his physical presence on the ice and smart decisions in the defensive zone should get him a raise in the summer. He’s only gotten better as the season wore on.
As for Diaz, he has more or less shown that he’s a better version of Yannick Weber. Called up to be part of the Young Stars lineup for All-Star weekend, Diaz has proven he can play, well, at the NHL level. Coming out of camp, he surprised most by effectively knocking Emelin down a notch on the depth chart and starting the season with the Canadiens. Since then he has been a steady presence on the blue line with some defensive lapses here and there. His adapting to the NHL from international hockey was not flawless, but like Emelin, he shown improvement rather than regression.
With both players entering into restricted free agency in the summer, barring the unlikely trading of their rights, the improvements should continue. Bet against the cursed sophomore slump.
Subban Finding His Game Again; Markov Finally Back In The Lineup
It was painful watching P.K. Subban struggle the way he did in the first half of the season. You could see the moment where his mind would snap on the ice and he’d begin playing outside the style that brought him success last year. Trade rumors were spreading and the much publicized welterweight title fight between him and Tomas Plekanec hit the news. It looked like the wheels were falling off.
And then a brand new Subban emerged after the All-Star break. The coaching staff has done an excellent job managing his minutes and he’s responded beautifully. He’s calm with the puck, he isn’t forcing the play nearly as much, he doesn’t take on the entire other team anymore with end to end rushes (although I suspect he’d still love to) and he’s not yapping anywhere near as much as he used to. It looks like he’s put whatever was upsetting him aside and he looks more and more like the future star of the league many analysts think he’ll be.
The Andrei Markov debacle was a major part of the fodder to relieve Pierre Gauthier of his duties after opting to sign the bionic-kneed Russian to a new three-year deal over James Wisniewski. It has been hard to watch the setbacks but they appear to be over. It was very easy to forget what he brought to the table as he’s barely played in two years. But his return has served as a reminder to how good and what kind of an impact he can have when, and if, he remains healthy.
His precision passing, calm demeanor and ease at operating the power play was sorely missed. While it’s clear his legs aren’t back yet, and that’s understandable, his presence on the blue line shows you why Pierre Gauthier opted to re-sign him. Nothing against Wisniewski, but the Montreal powerplay has shown that the Sheldon Souray’s, the Mark Streit’s and the Mathieu Schneider’s who came before him were not the lynch pin to powerplay success. Having Markov back on the ice and showing less rink rust than I would have expected is excellent news, despite the three or four months longer that the Habs faithful had to wait.
Gorges’ Knee And Re-Signing
It was baffling seeing Josh Gorges offered a one year contract. Granted his knee was a major question mark, but Gauthier made even less friends with that move. What followed was Gorges showing not only that his knee was A-Ok, but his loyalty to the organization by signing a six year deal at nearly $4 million a year.
What followed in a season of misery was Gorges showing the kind of heart and leadership this organization will be lucky to have for more than half of the next decade. He currently leads the NHL in blocked shots with 215 and quarterbacks the league’s best penalty kill, despite the Canadiens being in the bottom rung of the standings and the departure of the unorthodox but effective penalty killing prowess of Hal Gill.
Always touted as a future captain of the Canadiens, seeing him inked for an extended period of time and showing no wear and tear on his reconstructed knee is terrific news.
No Regression For Carey Price
After the season Carey Price had last year, pundits and fans alike were wondering what kind of year he’d have this year. After playing 72 games last year, the consensus was he’d tire and not be able to put up the same kind of numbers. He’s had a pretty good season considering what he had in front of him.
His numbers are not as good this year and that is a reflection of the team, not Price. From challenging for playoff positioning a year ago to fighting to stay out of the cellar this year, they were bound to be off. But if you look at the goaltender stats of all the bottom feeders, you’ll see Price’s 2.43 GAA and .916 save percentage as the best of the bunch.
There have been soft goals but that’s part of the game. His reaction to those types of goals was nice to watch, if that’s even possible. Instead of waving his arms around or glaring at teammates, like he did when he played himself out of the number one job two seasons ago, he reacted with the poise and maturity he developed last year. There were no tantrums or throwing his sometimes embarrassing defencemen under the bus.
While there were positives on the defensive front at points throughout the year, it did get messy in front of him. He was able to keep this team in more games than they deserved to be in and without him between the pipes, Nail Yakupov might have been a guarantee.