Montreal Canadiens Max Pacioretty (from left), Carey Price and Raphael Diaz.
The Montreal Canadiens have no shortage of talent this 2013-14 season, but success is still far from guaranteed. One need only look to last season to realize both the immense potential of this current, slightly changed lineup and how badly things can get when certain players aren’t playing up to their potential.
While the team gelled to the point of starting off last season with an amazing 20-5-5 record, certain Habs undeniably played larger roles in the success than others. For the team to enjoy similar success in 2013-14 and avoid the same first-round-defeat fate, these five players have to lead the charge this time around:
Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller.
So far this season, Lars Eller has been, bar none, the Habs’ most valuable player.
He may not lead the team in points anymore (Alex Galchenyuk with seven points, who is also tied for the league lead), but his four goals in four games certainly do. His defense has been top notch as well.
All that being said, because Eller has been so lights-out good, it’s hard to imagine him playing any better than he has, and with him playing this well the Habs are still only a mediocre 2-2. As such, Eller can only be given an honorable mention here.
He’s obviously critical to the team’s success, but, while he’s emerged as one of the Habs’ most talented players up front, the Habs are undeniably deep on offense. Eller is already being given the second-most amount of ice time among forwards on the team, so there’s not much else he can do than he’s already been doing.
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and Calgary Flames forward Curtis Glencross.
Carey Price might not be a surprise to make this list, but, seeing as he is Montreal’s undisputed No. 1 goalie, he might very well be as just the No. 5 entry.
Generally speaking, a team is only as good as its last line of defense, but, last season, when the Habs were averaging over three goals per game, Price didn’t necessarily have to be at the top of his game. He definitely played well enough for the first half or so of 2013, but it wasn’t all that evident, because the rest of the team was firing on all cylinders.
When the team struggled through a 4-6 stretch last April and into the playoffs, it would definitely have helped had Price not chosen that exact same time to struggle too. He ultimately allowed 27 goals in his last eight games (compared to 14 in his first eight last season).
However, that’s just perhaps more proof that this particular group doesn’t rely on goaltending nearly as much as, say, the teams of the turn of the century when Jose Theodore was in nets.
The Habs can still ill afford to see his play fall off a cliff. But, the way they are built right now, if they are going to be successful, Price will end up being merely a component of this team…its backstop and not its backbone.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin and Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton.
During that horrid 4-6 stretch last April (5-10 including the the playoffs), one constant was the absence of defenseman Alexei Emelin.
That isn’t to suggest that the rugged, second-pairing defenseman is the only reason the Habs played so well entering the last month of the season. He was, however, a very big one if only for his unique (to the Habs, anyway) brand of hockey that saw him lead the team in hits by a wide margin with 110 in 38 games.
As previously alluded to, the Habs losing Alexei Emelin isn’t exactly the Pittsburgh Penguins losing Sidney Crosby (or it shouldn’t be, anyway). Nevertheless, it seemed as though once Emelin went down with his knee injury, the team lost its identity and struggled to cope.
Emelin is of course still out and is only due back in November at the earliest. To compensate, general manager Marc Bergevin planned ahead.
The rationale behind signing defensemen Davis Drewiske (6’2”, 219 lbs) and Douglas Murray (6’3”, 240 lbs) can easily be traced back to Emelin’s injury, evidencing just how valuable he is in Bergevin’s mind that two players were essentially signed to try to replace one.
However, because both are currently also injured, fans may never truly find out how irreplaceable a healthy Emelin is. Considering Murray seemed awfully slow in the preseason and Drewiske wasn’t thought of all that highly to be dressed for a single playoff game last year, fans may not want to.
Montreal Canadiens forward Daniel Briere in front of Edmonton Oilers goalie Devan Dubnyk.
Another constant during that ice-cold streak last spring was obviously the absence of Daniel Briere, seeing as he was only signed as a free agent this past summer. He was notably signed after it became apparent that Michael Ryder would not be brought back, and for good reason.
Ryder, one of the streakiest players in recent Habs history, at one point scored 10 goals (18 points) in 16 games last season after being acquired from the Dallas Stars. However, he then went goalless over his last nine games of the season (just three assists), when the Habs most needed some offense.
It would make sense then that the man brought in to replace him would be slightly more reliable. So far, however, that hasn’t exactly gone as planned, as Briere, placed on the team’s top line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais out of training camp, has just one assist (on an empty-net goal) in four games.
While it’s a good sign that head coach Michel Therrien thinks highly enough of Briere to have him on the ice in the last seconds of a close game, the Habs already have a highly paid, defensively aware leader struggling to put the puck in the net in the twilight of his career. They don’t need another.
Boasting the sixth-best points-per-playoff-game average among active players, Briere was obviously brought in primarily to inject some clutch scoring into an offense that managed just nine goals in five postseason games last year. As such, he most definitely is key in management’s eyes to the team’s success in the playoffs.
However, with the Habs just 2-2 with him in the lineup and looking to repeat as division champions, what he’s bringing to the table currently in terms of secondary scoring just isn’t good enough to even sneak them in.
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.
As previously mentioned, even as thin as he is, Briere is still not the straw that stirs the drink of that top line. God knows half the time these days Desharnais looks like he’s lost in another cup. That leaves Max Pacioretty as the key cog in that machine.
Montreal’s biggest forward (aside from the 6’5”, 224-pound George Parros), the 6’2”, 217-pound Pacioretty has also been the team’s most effective and consistent one over the past two years with 104 points in 123 games.
While Pacioretty may not utilize his frame to the best of his ability, he is still a power forward on a team otherwise devoid of one…unless we’re counting Rene Bourque, that is, but who really does in all honesty?
Whereas Bourque chips in the odd goal here and there and the team is admittedly better with him than without, his contributions are more gravy than meat. In sharp contrast, the Habs need a good season out of Pacioretty to be successful.
After he led the league in goals during the preseason, all signs pointed to a strong year from arguably Montreal’s best player up front. His injury in the first game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leads in part contributed to the 4-3 defeat and served as hopefully just a temporary setback.
Struggling with the rest of his line in the early going this year, there is hope he will be turning it around sooner rather than later after he scored into an empty net against the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday.
Scoring his first goal last year in much the same fashion for all intents and purposes, Pacioretty went on to net 17 points (nine goals) in the next 16 games. Uncoincidentally, the Habs went 10-1-5 during that period, practically assuring themselves of a playoff spot with over one month left.
Obviously, with the 2013-14 season comprising more than just 48 games, the Habs need more than just one long stretch like that to assure themselves of a playoff spot. They instead need Pacioretty consistently at the top of his game.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban celebrates a goal.
There’s always been a high risk-reward element in defenseman P.K. Subban’s game, but it’s been especially evident this season. The reigning Norris Memorial Trophy winner has indeed been the biggest difference-maker for the Habs so far, but that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing.
With six points in four games, Subban has been a huge factor in Montreal’s two wins. He had three assists in Montreal’s 4-1 win over Edmonton. He also had a helper in the team’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
He also almost singlehandedly got the Habs back in their eventual 3-2 loss to the Calgary Flame in which they faced a three-goal deficit. He first got them on the board at the end of the second period and, then, banking a shot from the point off the end boards directly to Eller, helped pull the team within one.
Then, however, his trademark indiscipline got the best of him.
Already having taken one penalty in the third period, Subban cross-checked Lance Bouma four consecutive times with under less than two minutes to go and without the puck in the immediate vicinity. Shorthanded and with their most dynamic defenseman put in the box, the Habs were understandably unable to tie the game.
Montreal as a result suffered a humiliating defeat to a team whose best player is an injured Michael Cammalleri and starting goalie is a journeyman backup. Just as amazingly, Subban proved to be Montreal’s best player and arguable reason for the defeat all at once. But, then again, no one ever really doubted the fact that he has incredible talent.
Whereas Emelin is primarily a defensive defenseman and a guy like Pacioretty has the greatest success in the offensive zone, Subban is critical to the Habs at both ends of the ice and even manages to add in some physicality now and then. As such he represents the best of both worlds for the Habs, but sometimes those worlds look like they’re needlessly crashing into one another.
Subban is as much of a game-breaker as anyone else in the league. It depends on the game, though.
If fans are looking at more games like the Edmonton one, Subban will be a good bet to win the Norris again. If there are more games like the Calgary one, though, regardless of the amount of points he scores, Montreal will end up out of the playoffs. Whether or not he’s even in the running for the Norris then won’t matter.
I will be appearing on Montreal Hockey Talk's The Franchise this coming Sunday, October 13. Feel free to tune in to the show from 8-10 am and hear me discuss the Canadiens and hockey in general with hosts Nick Murdocco and Gary Whittaker during the Sunday Shinny segment starting at 9 am. Looking forward to receiving your calls!