In these headiest of times, a season evoking memories of the last Cup parade down Rue Sainte-Catharine, it only seems like there’s never a middle ground for the Montreal Canadiens.
In fact, it’s easy to forget that only a few seasons ago, Montreal lurked around the league’s equator and just squeezing into the playoffs salved fans who bleed for the C-H. It’s easy to forget an upset of a top-ranked team in an opening round was cause for jubilation.
That all seems so far off and long ago, hard to recall after last season’s annus horribilis when the proud franchise plunged to the rock bottom of the Eastern Conference, No. 15 out of 15.
Making it even uglier than standard ignominy was general mis-manager Pierre Gauthier’s firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn early in the season, a very odd thing to do, and later head coach Jacques Martin, a more usual ruse for an exec looking for someone else to take the fall.
Ultimately, those moves bought Gauthier limited time, but no new life, and he was dispatched at season’s end.
In fact, it turned out to be something of a one-for-one trade: Gauthier’s place was filled by Marc Bergevin, the assistant general manager in Chicago, an exec regarded by everyone as one of the fastest-rising in the league. Gauthier landed a scouting job with the Blackhawks, something that has him working a lot of games at the Bell Centre, almost cruelly reminding him of what might have been.
A reminder: It’s still early.
The Canadiens might stagger in the back half of the shortened season (though it doesn’t look like it). Despite the form the team has shown over the past 10 games (7-1-2), they could easily have a more shortened spring than some folks are banking on. It’s not too early, however, to pose a couple of questions for consideration, if not authoritative answers.
Did Gauthier in fact have the Canadiens on the right track?
Would they be contending for the top seed in the conference if he stayed on?
The fairest thing to say: A lot of pieces, maybe the largest ones, were in place in Montreal. Strange as it sounds, a team with the third-worst record in the league wasn’t that far away, not on a position-by-position basis. Usually a team is consigned to the nether regions by dearth of talent on the top half of its roster.
That wasn’t exactly the case in Montreal.
You had to think the Canadiens were in better stead for a bounce-back this season than were the Islanders and the Leafs, a bare point and two ahead of the Canadiens in the standings at the end of last year. They still had on hand a lot of the same players from playoff teams of the two previous springs.
What Gauthier deserves significant credit for is something that no GM would put at the top of his resume simply as a point of pride: When the season was clearly a bust, he engineered a strip-down of moveable assets, maxing out the return for Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn, who netted second-round picks in consecutive drafts from Nashville (trades that would have looked better if not for the potentially career-ending injury suffered by forward Blake Geoffrion, grandson of Hockey Hall of Famer Bernie Geoffrion, picked up in trade for Gill).
Gauthier avoided any temptation to trade talent off the top third of his roster and did this for his successor even though he himself was a goner in Montreal — sort of like making your bed before being led to the gallows.
Gauthier’s legacy: Montreal had a goaltender, Carey Price, who was an established veteran, certainly in the league’s top 10 — arguably, when on his game, is in its top five.
The Canadiens had a nice mix of defencemen going six-deep. It might not have looked that way often last season but with Andrei Markov’s knee woes limiting him to 13 games, those on hand were asked to move up the grid, all playing larger roles than suited for and with the expected results.
Montreal also had an interesting mix up front. Max Pacioretty broke the 30-goal mark and looked like a future 40-goal man, something less than an all-star but a solid building block.
Tomas Plekanec would be miscast if you were looking for a franchise centre, but as a No. 2, he’s a consistent worker capable of some pretty magical moments. Factor in a return from injury for captain Brian Gionta, who missed 51 games, and the continued development of David Desharnais, and the picture looked pretty decent going forward.
Marc Bergevin hasn’t just sat on his hands at the helm so far, as his stint has been marked by a series of small, subtle moves rather than a big sweeping gesture.
Arguably the largest move has been a simple elimination: the scrubbing of Scott Gomez and his contract, arguably the worst one in the game in the era between lockouts.
He took a chance by playing hardball with defenceman P.K. Subban, a restricted free agent, but managed to re-sign him to a two-year deal for just under $3 million per, or more than a million a season less than the team is on the hook for over the same term with Tomas Kaberle. Still, that has left him with a fair bit of wiggle room under the payroll cap.
Bergevin has made moves largely intended to leave him cap room going forward (see Erik Cole for Michael Ryder). He’ll need some with Pacioretty slated to jump from $1.6 million to $4.5 million next year. That Bergeivin’s in a decent position this season can be attributed to three things falling gloriously into place, and for this he should offer thanks to the Canadiens’ scouting staff.
No. 1: The team has a future No. 1 centre in Alex Galchenyuk, easily the most impactful player out of last year’s draft and a legit Calder candidate. It was a coin flip as to whether Galchenyuk would have stuck around for the season. He had, after all, missed almost an entire year with a torn ACL. He’s proven himself not only ready to play at age 18 but capable of producing magic moments. There had been hope that he’d be a first-line centre someday when drafted third overall, now there’s a reasonable expectation that he could be that player as early as next year.
No. 2: Brendan Gallagher has, over the course of a few weeks, set himself up to be a folk hero down the line in Montreal. Gallagher, a fifth-round pick from the 2010 draft, a kid with an $870,000 salary-cap hit this year, provides a jolt of energy every time he steps on the ice. He goes fearless into the dirty areas, maybe too much so as he already missed time in the first half of the season with a concussion.
No. 3: Lars Eller, who looked like he possessed the skill set to be a first-line player in his first two seasons in Montreal, seems to grow an inch with every game. His performance in a shootout win over Ottawa this week might have been the finest by a Montreal player this year.
Again, Gauthier deserves some credit here: He ultimately made the right call on goaltender Jaroslav Halak and converted him at the very peak of his value into Eller, a trade that St. Louis would like to void at this point. Some of that cap room Bergevin has will be eaten up by Eller, who is a $1.3-million cap hit this year and goes on the market as an RFA in 2014.
NHL teams move in cycles and GMs are hired into what looks like dire circumstances. Bergevin has been above reproach so far with the Canadiens.
He walked into the room vacated by Gauthier, the bed was made for him.