5 Realistic Keys to a Successful 2013-14 Season for the Montreal Canadiens

Ryan SzporerContributor IIINovember 13, 2013

5 Realistic Keys to a Successful 2013-14 Season for the Montreal Canadiens

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    It’s hard to define a successful season, especially for the 2013-14 Montreal Canadiens. Few analysts were able to make heads or tails of their 2012-13 season, after all.

    Starting last season at an improbably impressive 20-5-5, the Habs crawled to the finish line, going 4-6 over the regular season’s final 10 games. They then bowed out quietly in the first round of the playoffs against the Ottawa Senators in just five games.

    As such, many pundits could not figure out whether or not injuries played a factor in their fall from grace or if the Habs were just playing over their heads in the early going, with gravity catching up with them by season’s end.

    Currently 9-8-2, the Habs are where most experts envisioned them entering this season—a bubble team in danger of missing the playoffs. A year after they won the Northeast Division, that would clearly constitute a cut-and-dried failure. But what would constitute a success?

    Here are the five most realistic keys—from the most realistic to the least—that would translate into a good 2013-14 for the Habs:

5. Making the Playoffs

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    As alluded to earlier, making the playoffs wouldn’t so much mean a successful season as missing them would mean a disastrous one. As a result, “not missing the postseason” would probably be a more apt title for this slide, the No. 5 spot on the list.

    In any case, one can make an argument that there are three types of teams in the NHL:

    1. Teams that aren’t in any position to make the playoffs, whose sights should arguably be set on tanking the rest of the way.
    2. Teams in a position to win the Stanley Cup.
    3. Teams that should be looking to just make the playoffs at this point.

    The Habs are unfortunately in the latter group currently. The following four keys will go a long way toward determining whether or not they will fit into the second or even first categories.

4. Alexei Emelin Returns to Form

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    Signing Alexei Emelin to a four-year, $16.4 million deal, the Habs made a long-term commitment to a key part of the team’s success last year. With him in the lineup, the Habs went 25-8-5. However, it wasn’t exactly a risk-averse investment, seeing as he ended the season on the shelf, where he is currently (poised to return in the coming games).

    A healthy Emelin, who is making $2 million this year before his new deal kicks in next season, means a great deal to the Canadiens. Despite only playing in 38 of 48 games last year, he still led the team in hits with 110.

    At 6’2”, 224 pounds, he is also the team’s biggest defenseman, excluding Douglas Murray, who was signed to a one-year deal this summer to replace Emelin in the lineup. Needless to say, the slow-of-foot Murray likely won’t be back next year, assuming Emelin is healthy.

    For that reason alone, consider Emelin returning to form especially important.

    Joking aside, it’s obviously much more than that. The Habs arguably made an excessive gamble negotiating with Emelin prior to him coming back. And $4.1 million is a lot of money in an NHL in which a salary cap is a reality.

    As such, Emelin returning to form is not only critical to the team’s success this year but its long-term success as well. The idea here is that the Habs knew something fans looking on the outside in didn’t about Emelin’s rehabilitation—maybe that it was going smoother than expected.

    That is why Emelin slides into the No. 4 spot on this list, because maybe him returning to form isn’t such a long shot. However, based on other signings made in the recent past, Habs management has proven to be somewhat fallible.

3. Averaging 3-Plus Goals Per Game

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    At this point it seems increasingly unlikely that the Habs will end up averaging over three goals per game like they did in 2012-13 (49 in 19 games; 2.58 goals per game). However, for the sake of attainability, let’s just say their goal should be to average three per game from this point forward.

    The Habs started the season well enough in that category with 33 goals in their first 10 games. Since that point, though, the offense has dried up, scoring just 16 times in nine games (1.78 goals per game).

    The Habs are 3-4-2 in those games, proving the theory that the team is most successful when it's scoring—OK, maybe not the most out-on-a-limb theory out there...

    Obviously, scoring three goals per game can only be considered a success if you’re allowing less. As such, it’s not the goals alone that would make 2013-14 a success. It’s what they would represent—namely, a return of the explosive offense that was the Habs’ trademark last season (3.04 goals per game).

    Scoring three goals per game would more specifically mean the return of three dangerous lines and, more specifically than that, the reemergence of talents like Max Pacioretty (four points in 10 games), David Desharnais (one point this season) and Daniel Briere (four points in nine games).

    Those three were intended to form Montreal’s top scoring line entering the season, but injuries and a lack of chemistry tore them apart.

    Briere just came back from a concussion. Desharnais was made a healthy scratch for the second time in four games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Pacioretty, meanwhile, is struggling to find his legs and game following a lower-body injury sustained earlier in the year.

    Needless to say, bigger things were expected from each of these guys, especially Pacioretty (he is the only actual “big” player among the three). However, Briere has been a free-agent bust. And Desharnais is looking more and more like a career AHLer who just happened to strike oil two years ago by being placed on a line with Pacioretty and Erik Cole and then gold by re-signing at the start of last season when his value was the highest.

    If the Habs can get these three going, the rest of the offense should follow. If only to put to bed all doubts that the Briere and Desharnais signings were mistakes, the team scoring three goals per game would make this season a successful one, at least in the eyes of management and ownership.

2. Carey Price Leading Team Canada to a Gold Medal

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    Canada winning a gold medal in Sochi isn’t unrealistic all on its own. Neither is Carey Price starting for Canada in goal, seeing as he leads all Canadian goalies invited to this past summer’s orientation camp in save percentage (.933). However, because Price has only one playoff series victory to his name, the two together might be seen as less than likely.

    Obviously, Price playing for Canada doesn’t really impact how successful the Canadiens’ season ends up, superficially speaking. It would be more symbolic of Price taking the next step in his development in becoming a legitimate superstar goalie.

    On top of that, were he to win gold, it would answer a lot of questions his harshest critics have had in regard to whether or not he’s capable of performing under pressure.

    He has only won one playoff series in his career, and that came in his rookie season against the Boston Bruins when the Habs had a 3-1 series lead. In part because of Price, the Bruins ended up forcing a Game 7 that series.

    In spite of the shutout he pitched that deciding game, the jury has been out ever since on whether Price can be considered a big-game goalie. A gold-medal victory would at least temporarily silence all talk of him not being elite, much like his performance in front of Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning (44 saves).

    Of course, despite the similarities in nomenclature, the Montreal Canadiens are not exactly Team Canada. The Habs don’t have the same firepower up front nor the same defense, a fact that will be further rubbed in if nonsensical rumors of P.K. Subban not being named to the team come to fruition.

    So, if the (ugly) uniforms weren’t dead enough of a giveaway, Price winning gold for Canada won’t be the same as him winning a Stanley Cup for the Habs. But it will be a worthwhile start.

1. Winning a Playoff Round

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    In theory, the Habs will be hard-pressed to win a round this postseason. Obviously, as mentioned previously, their focus should be on just making them right now considering how their season has started.

    It won’t necessarily be deemed a failure if they don’t get to the second round. A successful season truly hinges on how they perform in the first round, victory or not.

    Looking back to last spring, the Habs arguably got embarrassed, and it wasn’t just because they lost in five games. They got outscored badly (20-9), outmatched physically (the Eric Gryba hit on Lars Eller; the line brawl in Game 3) and outduelled in the crease (Peter Budaj’s Game 4 overtime performance, among other untimely, soft goals).

    Briere was brought in to add clutch scoring during the playoffs. Moving forward, Emelin will be expected to offset the physicality of opposing teams, especially during the postseason. And the hope is that Price will finally add to his playoff series win total for the first time since his rookie year.

    A playoff series victory would likely only result if all these things coincide with one another, making it more an end result than an actual goal. However, if the Habs do end up winning a playoff round this spring, the season as a whole can only be considered a success, especially after how last year ended. Anything from that point on would be gravy.