Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban.
On the whole, the Montreal Canadiens as a team proved a lot of naysayers wrong last season. After finishing last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, they almost placed first in 2013.
Really, up until last April, most everything that could go right did. Of course, that final month of the regular season and the playoffs proved to be a very different story.
When the team is winning and contending for first place in the conference and even in the entire league, it’s hard to find fault with anyone and easy to give players the benefit of the doubt. However, a crushing 1-4 first-round series loss and a 5-10 finish overall left a lot to be desired from many Habs up and down the lineup.
Here are the top five players that fans should hope will have the biggest chips on their shoulders heading into 2013-14.
Montreal Canadien Jarred Tinordi.
Defenseman Jarred Tinordi grabs an honorable mention for the simple reason that it has yet to be determined if he will make the team out of training camp.
It’s of course assumed to a certain extent, seeing as a lack of size was one of the main deciding factors in the first-round loss to the Ottawa Senators, and Tinordi is 6’6”. More importantly, though, Alexei Emelin is out rehabbing his knee injury, opening up an at-least-temporary roster spot.
Considering Tinordi played two games for the Habs in the regular season in place of Emelin and then all five playoff games, simple logic dictates the coaching staff has already made up its mind, and that it’s Tinordi's spot to lose. Nevertheless, as that same first round series—in which Montreal was heavily favored—proves, one shouldn’t count their chickens before they’re hatched.
Assuming he does make it, though, it’s clear, like last year’s rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher immediately before him, Tinordi will have to prove he belongs. In theory, he shouldn’t have to look all that far for inspiration.
If the 5’9”, 178-pound Gallagher can earn a Calder Memorial Trophy nomination against all odds, Tinordi might have to win it altogether just to avoid being chirped in the locker room.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban.
Norris Memorial Trophy winner P.K. Subban might seem like an odd choice to make this list, mainly for the reason stated at the very top of the sentence.
Indeed, with him having been named the league’s best defenseman this past season, it’s easy to get caught up in all the hype surrounding the 24-year-old. However, as stated in the very bottom of that last sentence, he’s just 24.
Forget the whole supposed maturity issue perpetuated primarily by the non-Montreal media that doesn’t watch him play regularly and by opponents whose skin Subban has gotten under. That’s part of Subban’s charm/skill set.
Sure, he attracts attention on and off the ice, but in a league in dire need of an injection of personality and on a team in dire need of toughness, Subban is a nice breath of fresh air. What him being only 24 does mean, though, is there’s room for growth.
It’s definitely a scary thought that Subban theoretically hasn’t yet reached his peak…scary, impressive and undeniable all at once. When one watches him play, it’s clear he has skill in droves. He also has flaws in his game, including an inherent lack of discipline, taking ill-timed, stupid penalties.
Next to the usual suspects in Brandon Prust (110) and Ryan White (67), no Hab accumulated more penalties in minutes last year (57). The next closest defenseman, Emelin, who never met an opponent he didn't like (bashing into the glass) had just 33.
Granted, Subban averaged 3.5 minutes per game more than Emelin (23:14 vs. 19:40), but, by the same token, both Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges each had more total ice time last year and neither had more than 15 PIM.
No one is disputing Subban’s talent or that the Norris was well-earned. When you put up nearly a point per game as a defenseman (38 points in 42 games), you deserve a lot of recognition, but Subban still has a lot to prove, even if only for the simple reason that this year is a contract one.
Oh, Subban will get the payday he sought last offseason, probably more of one in all honesty—no matter what happens this coming season. The Norris guaranteed him that much at least. But it didn’t guarantee much else, least of all a Hall of Fame career from here on out.
While he has the skills to earn one, it’s up to him to do just that and not remain complacent.
Speaking of stupid penalties, no Canadien better personified an inherent lack of discipline on the ice (or, well, stupidity) than forward Ryan White.
Time and again last season, White took ill-advised penalties, costing the Habs more often than not.
On January 22, he sucker-punched Florida Panther Tomas Fleischmann. Four games later, he took an unsportsmanlike penalty after arguing with a referee, helping along a 5-1 defeat against the Ottawa Senators.
In his first game back after three as a healthy scratch, he took exception to a legal hit from Buffalo Sabre Steve Ott, taking a penalty in the process, leading to a blown 4-2 third-period Montreal lead.
In the playoffs against the Ottawa Senators, he was at it again. Igniting a line brawl in Game 3 with the Habs down 4-1, he ill-advisedly took on the much-larger Jared Cowen. As has been well documented, he and the Habs ended up losing that fight, the game, as well as the series quite handily.
Whatever his intentions (probably to admirably help his team gain momentum in the latter incident and stick up for a fallen teammate in the initial one), White still failed miserably on each occasion.
When your primary job function is giving the team’s better players a rest by simply eating up minutes and staying out of trouble, you have to realize your career as a professional hockey player is on thin ice to start. When you can’t even do that properly, you probably should be reassessing your career choices…that is if you aren't at risk of having it done for you.
Inexplicably, however, White still had the gall to file for arbitration this offseason, perhaps just slightly overestimating his value to the Habs as a lightweight enforcer (and not having heard that they had traded for the not-so-lightweight George Parros).
Needless to say, he and the Habs settled before things got to arbitration with a one-year, $700,000 deal. However, one has to believe White is one mistake away from the Hamilton Bulldogs, at best…“one” of course being anyone but White, who might very well be living in a technicolor dream world made up of sunshine and lollipops.
While a third-liner like Travis Moen similarly has to prove himself after an awful year, he makes $1.85 million per year and is much less likely to be demoted if push comes to shove.
White? Forget proving himself as a third-liner. The jury is very much out on whether he’s even an NHLer.
Then-Philadelphia Flyers forward Daniel Briere takes a cross-check.
With a brand-new, two-year $8-million deal, Daniel Briere is the Habs’ big free-agent acquisition of the summer. That the Habs play in hockey-mad Montreal should serve as motivation enough for Briere to want to prove himself, primarily out of fear of being run out of town if he doesn’t.
Briere is also coming off two straight subpar seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. Adding fuel to his hypothetical fire is the fact that he got bought out just prior to being signed by the Habs.
So, not only should Briere be looking to prove himself to the Habs as a worthwhile signing, but also to Philly for tossing him aside in favor of younger, more-prolific and less injury-prone talent.
However, the fact that recent Philadelphia signee Vincent Lecavalier—who is out of his prime at 33, has been on the decline for the past half-decade and hasn’t played a full season in just about as long—meets all the above criteria should be hint enough that Briere faces the steepest of uphill battles.
All that being said, what Briere perhaps has to prove the most is that he actually wants to be a Hab. It’s unbelievably hard to take him at face value when he says things like (via the Montreal Gazette):
Growing up, I watched the Canadiens. I admired all those Canadiens players. I wanted to be one of them, and now I have the chance to be. I also believe I’m in a good place in my life right now where I feel that I’m more ready to attack this chapter.
When he had a “chance to be” a Hab six years ago and didn’t take it, ultimately choosing Philadelphia over Montreal as an unrestricted free agent, it’s only logical to assume this “chapter” starts with the familiar story of an over-the-hill player seeking one of, if not his last, payday.
Childhood allegiances aside, Briere is going to be 36 at the start of next season. He’s already had a few concussions and, not to add insult to injury, he’s also just 5’10” and 180 pounds. Put simply, the odds are against him to succeed with the Habs, who already have a glut of small, top-six forwards.
He’d probably place higher on this list were it not for those very same odds. Few should realistically expect him to rediscover his youth as a professional hockey player, let alone realize a supposed boyhood dream from even further back and play a big role in a Montreal Stanley Cup run. The Habs could very well win it all, but for Briere to be a part of it, he'll have to stay healthy first.
Montreal Canadiens center David Desharnais and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson.
Center David Desharnais is at a crossroads in his young career. Contrary to Briere, Desharnais is just about in his prime and more is expected of him.
Despite being just a three-year veteran, Desharnais is actually entering his late 20s and, more significantly, coming off a very disappointing season (28 points in 48 games).
Granted, he exceeded all expectations in 2011-12 with 60 points in 81 games. However, if one discounts his 22-point performance in 43 games during his rookie year in 2010-11, he’s essentially had one good and one bad year.
As a result, this season will go a long way towards mapping out the rest of his career, especially with natural center Alex Galchenyuk scoring just one less point than him last year in over four minutes less of ice time per game (and being about eight years younger).
The writing is no doubt on the wall and has been for some time, even arguably predating the writing on his new four-year, $14-million contract extension last March.
Desharnais should at the very least be up to the challenge. Considering he’s just 5’7”, he has been forced to prove people wrong his entire life and career. However, the context is slightly different now with an entire city ready to write him off.
In his defense, the extension hasn’t yet kicked in, and one can definitely make a good argument that Desharnais didn’t play badly for the $950,000 he was still earning last season.
However, the pressure is now on him to consistently perform like the first-line center he was signed to be, even if only for the next few years before Galchenyuk and even Lars Eller make a serious bid to usurp him. One slip-up and the changing of the guard could come sooner rather than later.
Then-Ottawa Senators winger Daniel Alfredsson takes a shot on Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.
Out of the starting gates last year, goalie Carey Price delivered on his immense potential.
After he allowed just 14 goals in his first eight games of the season, many considered a Vezina Trophy to be a possibility. Unfortunately, he wasn’t even worthy of half-serious consideration by the end of the year.
In stark contrast to his stellar start, he allowed 27 goals (nearly double the amount) in his last eight games of the year, even getting pulled on more than one occasion. That’s not including the playoffs, during which he allowed 13 goals in just four games against the Senators.
He finished the regular season with an unspectacular 2.59 goals-against average and a mediocre .905 save percentage, the latter stat not even ranking in the top 30 in the NHL, a league of 30 teams and 30 starting goalies, give or take.
The bottom line is Price needs to be better. It’s of course not all on him, as the Habs as a whole disappointed from April onward. However, if Price ever wants to have a Vezina handed to him by anybody but the local partisan media, he needs to consistently be one of Montreal’s best players. For at least half of last season, he was arguably one of the worst.
That isn’t to say he was that bad for an entire half-season, but Montreal as a whole was just that good. And when the team started struggling in April and its skaters started looking in goal for some help to steal a game here or there, much more often than not all they found were pucks.
Whether injuries played a part or it was a simple lack of focus, Price needs to rebound this coming season. Price has admittedly had one incredible year (2010-11) and one very good one (2007-08). But that’s in six seasons of work. Truly elite players don’t just show up a third of the time.
Hopefully the hiring of goaltending coach Stephane Waite, who’s worked with recent Stanley Cup winners Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford, will similarly work wonders in Montreal.
With the 2014 Olympics coming up and a roster spot on Team Canada up for grabs, Price has the most to prove mainly because he and the Habs have the most to lose if he doesn’t.