Montreal Canadiens Rene Bourque (from left), Andrei Markov, Rene Bourque and Peter Budaj.
In many ways, the Montreal Canadiens are still not a good team. When you finish third to last in the entire National Hockey League, that much is obvious.
However, despite the relatively minor tweaks the front office made this past summer, the team is in undeniably better shape come this season (whenever it does eventually begin).
Granted, that’s kind of like looking for silver linings in the middle of a thunderstorm…while holding a lightning rod (the lack of positives might end up shocking you instead), but they are out there. One just has to look closely. All right, very closely.
Here are the top five ways this upcoming edition of the Habs are a better team than the 2011-12 one:
Former Montreal general manager Pierre Gauthier.
No, rookie general manager Marc Bergevin arguably hasn’t made that much noise since being hired this past May, but nonetheless consider him an improvement over Pierre Gauthier.
One can actually make a case that even Youppi! would be an improvement, as he at least would show up and wear a smile to not talk to the media. Indeed, Gauthier earned the clever nickname “Ghost” during his career in management, a reflection of his ability to avoid questions and the media altogether.
Apparently, when Gauthier infamously pulled Mike Cammalleri from an actual game (in which he was playing) to trade him to the Calgary Flames for Rene Bourque, he did so just so the press would not find out (via SportsIllustrated.com).
Forget how bad the actual trade seemed then (and looks now after a lethargic Bourque scored just five times in 38 games with Montreal) and focus please on the overly clandestine, CSIS-esque operation that would have made for an intriguing sub-plot in the new movie Argo (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is Canada’s Central Intelligence Agency).
Don’t even bother to sarcastically ask yourself who does that. Ask yourself instead who even thinks of doing that. Thankfully, the one man who did is no longer with us...us being life in the NHL and not life in general, in case that wasn’t clear. The dude's still a human being after all, even with the nickname.
Former Montreal Canadiens interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth.
Another one of Gauthier’s messes that needed to be cleaned up was Montreal’s coaching situation.
Maybe Jacques Martin, who guided the Habs to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993, wasn’t the right man for the job.
Maybe Gauthier, who possesses the soft skills of a brick to the back of a head, needed to first fire assistant coach Perry Pearn to seemingly toy with Martin before firing him 25 games later with a 13-12-7 record.
Maybe he even then needed to promote Randy Cunneyworth to the position of interim head coach for lack of a suitable alternative at the time.
However, he most certainly did not have to crumble under the external pressure from media types and fans alike and throw the unilingual, Anglophone Cunneyworth under the bus by essentially saying he would never be hired as the team’s official head coach.
Mr. Gauthier, a little advice if you ever find yourself in a similar position: Even if you’re thinking it, you don’t say it publicly. Hell, you don’t even do him the courtesy of letting him know behind closed doors…but, admittedly, that would be more for your personal safety than anything else. Just make sure there are witnesses around if you do.
What resulted from the public relations blunder was an underwhelming 18-23-9 team record under Cunneyworth, who was thrust into a less-than-ideal situation that would have made John McClane jealous. The team ended up sucking so much Hoover would have been a suitable sponsor, or at least a supplier of potentially just-as-good replacement players in a pinch.
In any case, Michel Therrien, who helped lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008, is back, and despite his own shortcomings is still an undeniable improvement over Cunneyworth. During his last go-around with the team, he did accumulate a relatively decent 77-77-22-14 record.
Worst-case scenario: The Habs suck as much as they did before, but the local French media don’t scapegoat Anglophones as a result…unless Carey Price starts channeling Steve Penney (who actually is a Francophone, but still sucked except for in the playoffs, which, once I think about it, might be an improvement worth exploring).
Colby Armstrong, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Montreal’s major signings from this summer are only major due to the fact that there were only the three (Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon). It’s kind of like calling your in-laws the best you’ve ever had to their faces when in reality they’re also the worst.
Still, there’s little denying Prust and Armstrong are credible fourth-line players at the absolute worst and potential second-liners when looking through rose-colored glasses. Meanwhile, Bouillon gives Montreal a decent contingency plan should injuries arise.
All Montreal gave up relative to last season: Mathieu Darche, Brad Staubitz and Chris Campoli. Call it a win, especially considering Campoli’s general ineffectiveness, at, you know, playing…and I’m not just referring to the fact that he dressed for only 43 games.
It’s been said on these pages before (and I’ll say it again), but Montreal, contrary to popular opinion, does possess organizational depth, and that includes prospects.
Alex Galchenyuk for example gives Montreal a legitimate franchise superstar up front for the future, which is something they’ve arguably lacked since the days of Guy Lafleur (and I’m of course referring to teammate Mario Tremblay).
Sure, that aforementioned depth isn’t all that impressive when one takes into account the talent levels of all the relevant parties in the pros, but Montreal is more than capable of icing two legitimate top-six lines and three NHL-caliber defensive pairings each and every night, and that’s more that can be said for a lot of teams out there.
Granted, that would be teams in the American Hockey League, but the point still stands.
Montreal Canadiens Brian Gionta (right) and Scott Gomez.
With the additions of Prust and Armstrong, the Habs now boast no less than 10 players who could play on the top two lines.
That’s not even including Travis Moen, who has in the past, when Jacques Martin was looking to spark the team’s offense. Hey, facts are facts, and Moen does have one Stanley Cup-winning goal to his credit…even if Chris Phillips is the one who scored it.
Obviously expecting Prust and Armstrong to reach new career highs in points (which would constitute relatively modest totals of at least 30 and 41 points respectively) is a recipe for disappointment, but they will provide scoring punch to the bottom two lines to complement the punching punch of a guy like Ryan White.
Now, the general basis for the argument that Montreal’s scoring will improve this season admittedly stems from the fact that it can’t get much worse. The Habs scored just 212 times last season, which averages out to a paltry 2.59 goals per game.
This season, however, look for Scott Gomez to tally more than the sigh two goals he notched last year. Tomas Plekanec is also due to score more than his 2011-12 52-point total. Ditto for Brian Gionta, who was limited to just 15 points due to injury.
The bottom line is if the Habs can stay healthy, they’ll put the puck in the net more often. However, considering the Los Angeles Kings scored just 194 goals last season, success is more a matter of keeping it out.
P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens covers Tim Connolly of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
On defense, the Habs are actually no worse off than the Minnesota Wild, who, like the Habs, gave up 226 goals last year. That’s admittedly under the assumption, though, that Minny will realize sooner rather than later that adding a No. 2 defenseman to five No. 6s doesn’t magically result in a decent blue line.
While the signing of Francis Bouillon doesn’t compare to that of Ryan Suter, in a way it’s the intangibles that instill confidence in the Habs’ blue line for next season.
With players like P.K. Subban, Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz a year older and presumably wiser and Josh Gorges entering his prime, the deficiencies in the games of Tomas Kaberle and Andrei Markov should be more than offset. And with goalie Carey Price set to be the major beneficiary of such an improvement, look for him and Montreal to win more games than they did in 2011-12.
That may not be the hardest thing to predict, considering the team did win just 31, but the manner in which they do so should be infinitely more impressive…at least more impressive than a bunch of millionaires haggling over more millions of dollars. In that sense, once the season starts, the team's fans at least can’t lose.