In fairly short order, those with voices hoarse from cheering the Montreal Canadiens will stop reflecting on what was and ask the question that inevitably follows when a team like the Habs glimpses potential: So, what now?
The temptation is to assume a team with many youthful components in key places is just beginning an ascent toward glory. Realistically, in a league as level as the NHL is these days, things don’t always work that way. Parity is great for teams looking to jump forward from a bad season and, typically, terrible for ones hoping to immediately build on success.
The most pressing issues for Montreal come in the form of its two best defencemen. P.K. Subban signed a team-friendly, two-year deal in the winter of 2013. Since then, he’s earned a Norris Trophy and proven himself a playoff stud, averaging more than 27 minutes a night during a three-round run while racking up 14 points in 17 games. Subban, a restricted free agent this summer, has all the leverage entering negotiations, and the Habs’ cap number will take a hit if the team is to keep its best skater feeling loved.
Perhaps more intriguing is what happens when negotiations begin with unrestricted free agent Andrei Markov. We all know the injury history, which Markov has partially put behind him with consecutive seasons in which he was completely healthy. Though the Russian has slowed over time and turns 36 next December, he remains Montreal’s second-best defenceman. If he wants three years on a new contract, somebody will give it to him, so the Habs must decide how hard they want to dig in on term.
The defence, in general, is a point of intrigue for Montreal because the only full-timers from this season signed for 2014-15 are Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin. The blue line is also where young players in the organization are pushing hardest for jobs. Nathan Beaulieu showed his offensive dash in the playoffs, while six-foot-six Jarred Tinordi played 22 regular-season games this year. Both already have two years of apprenticing in the AHL under their belt. Do you let Markov walk if you believe Beaulieu will be a better defenceman by October 2015, even if it means a downgrade next year? Who of Mike Weaver and Francis Bouillon do you keep around to provide that valuable depth?
The other major free-agent question centres on captain Brian Gionta. The Canadiens have now gone to the conference final in the first and final years of the deal Gionta signed in 2009, and while the plucky right winger never takes a night off, he can no longer be counted on as a productive top-six contributor. Would he play for $2 million less the next couple years to stick around and be a third-liner? Letting Gionta walk opens the door to add size via free agency.
And what of this gamer goalie, Dustin Tokarski? When Peter Budaj was passed over in favour of Tokarski, many assumed he’d started his last game for Montreal, despite having one more year on his contract. Here’s the thing with that: Budaj is a perfect backup, while Tokarski is a young player who almost certainly believes he’s ready to compete for NHL playing time. The dynamic between Carey Price and Budaj—to say nothing of Budaj and the entire team—is fantastic, so how anxious should the Habs be to mess with that? And can Budaj really be bitter after seeing how Tokarski played? Clearly the kid validated coach Michel Therrien’s decision. If an NHL team views Tokarski as a youngster with upside and plenty of character, maybe Montreal can drum up another pick at the draft, replenishing some of what was lost when the team acquired Thomas Vanek.
Remember that guy? Safe to say he’ll be on his merry way as a UFA this summer.
Something else the Canadiens must contemplate is what they’ll get from a pair of playoff heroes over the course of an entire season next year. Lars Eller led all Habs forwards in the playoffs with 13 points. If you remove Eller’s first five games of the regular season, he had 19 points all year. Rene Bourque paced the Habs with eight post-season goals and, as you’ve likely heard, that was one shy of his entire regular-season total. Even the most optimistic fan has to acknowledge the greater sample size is likely a truer indication of where those guys are at. Eller and Bourque may be able to carry over some good vibes, but you’d be a fool to bank on them being offensive leaders next year.
The guy who might be, however, is Alex Galchenyuk.
Galchenyuk is the single most intriguing player on this team. Subban has shown what he can do; Price had a terrific year, including a reputation-enhancing gold medal. What the Canadiens have long lacked is a horse up front with size and skill.
The Habs deserve better than to be judged on the basis of one game, but just look at the loss that ended their season. Montreal’s forwards barely troubled the New York Rangers in Game 6, losing 1-0 in a contest that felt like it was decided by a much wider gap. Max Pacioretty is a great scorer; David Desharnais is a slick passer; Brendan Gallagher a tireless battler. But none of those guys change the dynamic on the ice every time they hop over the boards.
Galchenyuk—who had two goals in five playoffs games after returning from a knee injury—will be a third-year NHLer next October and, whether or not the Habs finally make the much-talked about move to get him at centre, the third overall pick from 2012 has got to take a front-line offensive role.
That would go a long way toward helping Montreal fight against the menacing undertow that tugs overachieving teams back toward the mean.