Montreal Canadiens: 7 Reasons the Habs Could Be Playoff Bound in 2012-2013
The city of Montreal feeds off the Canadiens. They're part of the culture of the city, not merely a hockey team. When the Habs make the playoffs, there's a whole new life to the city. When they aren't, you can't help but feel something in the air is missing.
The Canadiens are coming off perhaps their most embarrassing season in franchise history. Montreal finished with a disastrous season—they went 31-35-16, for 78 points. They finished 15th in the Eastern Conference. It was the first time they missed the playoffs since the 2006-2007 season and the first time they finished last since 1941-1942 when they finished sixth back in the Original Six days.
However, all hope is not lost for the future. This season may have been a blessing in disguise for the Canadiens as it exposed longtime weaknesses in the organization which have started to finally be addressed this offseason.
While the Habs are overall a team of gaping holes, it is not a team that is as bad as 15th in the East. This team can make it back to the dance next year. That's not to say they'll be a Cup contender but there are ways they can gain their respectability back.
3rd Overall Pick
This is perhaps the most obvious one, and it's also the first chance the Habs will have to improve the roster. This is the good that comes with a bad season—the Habs will have their highest draft pick since 2005, when they drafted Carey Price fifth overall.
Montreal will have a chance to grab a very good player. They'll get one in a draft class that's really thin which means picking in the Top Five is an even bigger advantage than usual over other teams. Montreal will only have Edmonton and Columbus picking before them.
Many expect the Oilers to go after a defenceman or trade down and Columbus will grab Yakupov if the Oilers don't take him. That leaves the Canadiens with the possibilities of Mikhail Grigorenko, centre/winger of the Quebec Remparts, winger Filip Forsberg out of Sweden or Alex Galchenyuk, centre of the Sarnia Sting. If the Habs want to go defence, Matthew Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels or Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips may be available as well.
With the Habs having drafted a defenceman the past two years, and the glaring need of a top-six forward, I say they'll go in that direction and take Galchenyuk. Grigorenko has many red flags, being dubbed an inconsistent player and has offers from the KHL which may scare teams away.
Forsberg is an interesting option but the Habs have the need for a big centre, which has been a need of this franchise for decades. Galchenyuk, at 6'2", 185 pounds, also has the character to handle the pressures of playing in Montreal.
Rick Springhetti, scout and reporter for McKeen's Hockey Magazine had this to say on Galchenyuk: "He's a very smart player with good hands, never cheats defensively. Average skater with a strong work ethic."
Many scouts agree that if not for Galchenyuk's knee injury this past season, he'd be giving Yakupov a run for his money as the top prospect in this year's draft. He had 31 goals and 52 assists for 83 points in his first year with Sarnia. He returned for the OHL playoffs this year and potted two goals and two assists in six games.
Just imagine Galchenyuk at centre for the Canadiens instead of, say, Scott Gomez.
Chance to Dump Bad Contracts and Make Room for Free Agents
This will be perhaps the trickiest part for the new Canadiens management team.
This is where Marc Bergevin is left with the biggest mess. The roster is loaded with bad contracts for underperforming players. That of course is attributed to the Bob Gainey/Pierre Gauthier era, in which they left a legacy of players like Scott Gomez, Tomas Kaberle and Rene Bourque.
Scott Gomez has two years on his contract, with an annual cap hit of $7.3 million. Kaberle has two years left with a hit of $4.25 million. Bourque's cap hit is less of a burden at $3.3 million, but he has four years left and didn't show Habs fans all that much last season.
That's $14.9 million tied to three inconsistent and underperforming players. The Habs should focus on trimming the fat and get guys on their roster who will contribute all 82 games and the playoffs.
They won't be able to cut all that salary but one quick solution is sending Gomez to the minors.With that $7.3 million saved, the Habs will have more room to sign their own restricted free agents. If they're able to cut additional salaries, they can also make a big splash in free agency.
Zach Parise will not solve the size issue up front, at 5'11" and 185 pounds, but he's a legitimate top-six forward that's been hard to come by for this team. Parise doesn't take nights off, and has been durable throughout his career, with the exception of the 2010-2011 season, in which he only played 13 games.
How big of a mess were the Devils that season?
Parise is good for 30 goals a year. Adding him to a lineup with Cole and Pacioretty—who were each 30-goal scorers—will give a much needed additional scoring threat on the top two lines, and someone who's responsible defensively as well.
Maybe Parise's former teammate Brian Gionta can play a role as well in bringing Parise to Montreal. If Gionta plays a role in the Habs signing Parise, fans will appreciate the captain that much more.
If the Habs wish to get the top defensive prize, then Ryan Suter of the Predators may be available as well. Nashville will have to pull off a miracle to keep both Suter and RFA Shea Weber. At 6'1" and 195 pounds, and as a responsible defenceman who can contribute up front, why wouldn't the Habs be hot on his trails?
Either way, if the Habs really want a quick fix, they'll have to score a big name in free agency.
Geoff Molson and Company Have a Chance to Right the Ship
These are the Montreal Canadiens. You may know them as the greatest franchise in hockey. The franchise that's won 24 Stanley Cups.
However for the past 20 years fans of the city have only watched a team that's been stuck in mediocrity—a team never able to be a perennial Cup contender. They had to settle for a low playoff spot, and that's been considered a great year! The Canadiens have finished first just once since their last championship—in 2007-2008—before losing in the second round.
They've only been past the second round once, on a miracle run in the spring of 2010, thanks to the divine goal-tending of Jaroslav Halak and the timely scoring the team got from Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta.
That hardly sounds like a resume of a team that should be a Stanley Cup contender year after year. Could you imagine if teams like the Yankees, Celtics or Lakers settled for a playoff spot? Why should the Canadiens have to settle? Go after No. 25. Hopefully, this will be the philosophy of the ownership and management group going forward.
While some may say this has nothing to do with what we see on the ice, I ask you: How many bad owners or bad general managers win championships? Success of an organization starts from the top. Solid leadership and vision from the top will trickle down to the product on the ice.
Geoff Molson has that opportunity to establish himself as a great owner. If his hiring of Bergevin works out, it's a great start.
Molson is a fan of the game and a fan of the Canadiens. While he's sitting on a gold mine with this franchise, and knows he can put a high price for fans to watch his team, he wants this team to win. It fulfills his goal as a businessman and as a fan.
Of course, you'd think all owners care about winning. Molson just has to show it's what's most important.
Maturing of the Team's Core
Task No. 1 for Marc Bergevin: Build your staff. Task No. 2: Sign Carey Price and PK Subban to long-term deals. No franchise becomes successful if it's not committed to building the organization through its stars.
Price will be 25 years old when hockey season rolls around. Subban is 23. Subban will enter his pivotal third season of his NHL career. After a stellar rookie year, followed by a tough second season (although he got better later on), his third season will show a lot of where he is in his development.
Price has gone through a lot in his career already. People must keep in mind that goaltenders often don't truly flourish until they're in their late 20s. Where did Mike Smith come from this year? What age was Tim Thomas before everyone knew who he was? Jonathan Quick truly became an elite goalie this season.
Max Pacioretty is another blue-chipper for building a championship team. He has another year on his contract. He scored 33 goals and added 32 assists for 65 points. He was arguably the Habs' best player this season, and will probably win the Bill Masterton trophy, having come off a season-ending concussion and fractured vertebrae in 2011.
He's 23 himself so his best is likely still to come.
The Habs have other promising young players including Lars Eller, Alexei Emelin and David Desharnais who has himself two big wingers to help overcome his lack of size.
All of these players being one year older, one additional year of experience can make all the difference in getting back to the playoffs. While that is not the franchise's ultimate goal it has to be a playoff team's first.
Team Should Be Healthier
Ah yes, that health factor. So many what-ifs have been the topic of discussions among Habs fans the last few years. What if Andrei Markov played a whole season? What if Pacioretty and Josh Gorges had played that playoff series against Boston? What if Brian Gionta hadn't been injured most of last season?
It happens to be that injuries will always be a factor in determining how far a team goes. Just look at the remaining four teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs: the Rangers, Devils, Coyotes and Kings. How many big injuries are plaguing those teams?
That's not to say the Habs are at their level even when they're healthy. However staying healthy gives a majority of teams in the league a fighting chance.
If everything stays steady before opening the season, the Canadiens' best players all head into the season healthy. It hasn't happened in a while. That's a good first step to success in 2012-2013.
New Coaching Staff Could Re-Energize the Team
Whoever the next coach of this team is, he has the toughest coaching job in the league. Fans will want instant results. Any coach will have to be bilingual. That's just how things seem to work.
What will be the most crucial from the next coach of the Canadiens will be how that coach relates to the young players and develops them. Poor player development has been one of the reasons for the Habs struggles in recent memory. Many players have struggled in Montreal only to go on and be solid contributors elsewhere.
The next coach will also have to hold all players accountable. The problems that surfaced from the last coaching regime was the fact that veterans were given tons of leeway, whereas young players would be benched for mistakes, even though more mistakes should be expected out of younger players.
Everyone has their own theory of who the next head coach will be.
CBC's Elliotte Friedman recently reported on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada that Chicago's Joel Quenneville may be looking at other coaching opportunities due to differences with Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman. He also said that Quenneville would be Bergevin's top choice if he were available.
The new coach will have the chance to mold a young team into his own. Hopefully though, fans will give the coach a chance and not condemn him as a terrible coach so early on, as they've done so many times before. As long as management is patient though, that's all that really matters.
While I'm not dubbing Marc Bergevin as the savior of the Montreal Canadiens, I will give him the benefit of the doubt in suggesting he'll do a better job than his predecessor, Mr. Gauthier. Bergevin said all the right things the day he was hired. In a news conference, he told TSN and other reporters:
"I took this job because I know I’m ready. I’m sure I’m ready. If I wasn’t ready to accept this challenge, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. The unknowns don’t scare me. I believe that to be honest is the best way to work, and we’ll all appreciate this."
His introductory news conference was a breath of fresh air for Habs fans. Bergevin seemed to be preaching all the qualities and philosophies the previous management team lacked. We don't really know what Bergevin is going to bring to this organization. He's expected to bring a Stanley Cup, but fans mustn't judge his performance until he's at least three years into his tenure. He'll need some time to fix up the mess he's inherited.
That being said, if Bergevin plays his cards right, he has a solid chance to get the Habs back to the playoffs quickly and build them to back to a level in which they're respected around the league and seen as a legitimate cup threat.
Conclusion: Nowhere to Go but Up
This organization isn't one that's going to rebuild slowly. They want to get back to the playoffs as soon as possible. They're going to do everything possible to fix this thing up quickly whether it's the right way to go about it or not.
They have some solid pieces to start with but it's going to be tough to turn this thing around to the point where this team can win the Stanley Cup.
While I can't say when that's going to happen, Habs fans can at least feel good about their playoff chances next season. The current situation is fixable and ownership will do everything they can to get the team back to the playoffs and regain the revenue they lost this past season.
We'll find out pretty quickly (within the next couple of months) how serious the organization is about rebuilding their winning tradition. Fans will have a good idea after knowing who's joining the team and who the Canadiens will part ways with.
After going through this past season, it's safe to think better days must be ahead for this franchise.
Stefano Mocella is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand via email.