TORONTO — Before turning the keys over to their kids, the Montreal Canadiens brain trust did not take the transition of power within the dressing room lightly.
In fact, the matter of where Brendan Gallagher would live — and who would feed him — was jokingly said to have become an “organizational crisis” after his landlord and mentor, Josh Gorges, was traded to Buffalo over the summer.
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The anecdote was relayed tongue-in-cheek, but the point was well-made: Everything was carefully weighed and considered.
And as the franchise took its first strides into a new era with a season-opening 4-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, there was a lot to like about how things looked. Every member of the new leadership group made an impact — P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec all scored while Andrei Markov made Phil Kessel’s night a long one — and the Habs lived up to their pre-season hype as Canada’s top team.
There is a long season to be played and many speed bumps to absorb, but this a tantalizing group. If things go well, they could be a powerhouse in the NHL’s weaker conference.
While there is much focus on the youth — Gallagher, Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk are being asked to do more — it was a savvy veteran who looked like a savvy off-season signing.
Manny Malhotra’s 13 minutes may have flown well under the radar, but they gave Michel Therrien options not every coach will enjoy. For starters, they freed Plekanec up to play more offensive minutes with Galchenyuk and Gallagher because Malhotra is more than capable of handling the defensive responsibility.
The 34-year-old is one of the game’s best in the faceoff dot — he was 11-5 on this night — and should help maintain a sense of calm when the heat gets turned up this season. Malhotra was already said to have spoken up in the dressing room on Wednesday for a Habs team that had also lost captain Brian Gionta since playing its last meaningful game.
Plekanec was the most dominant player on the ice, getting a lucky break on the winning goal when his pass deflected in off Leafs defenceman Stuart Percy, and the most relaxed-looking player afterwards. He was considered by some to be the front-runner to replace Gionta as captain, but instead was among the Fab Four named as alternates.
As much as the captaincy issue dominated talk in Montreal throughout the summer, it hardly seems like an issue now. Carey Price is as much the leader of the team as any of the players stamped with letters and there is something to be said for doing things by committee.
With a younger group — one learning to run after starting to walk — it is going to take time for the roles to be more clearly defined. With road games on back-to-back nights to open the season, Therrien emphasized the need for a detail-oriented game.
The sense that they accomplished that after a slow start in Toronto brought some satisfaction.
“The times we didn’t do it, there were guys on the bench letting guys know saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be better,”‘ Subban said. “I said it at the start of the year: We need 22 leaders, not four. Today it seemed like there was no passengers on our team.
“Everybody was held accountable, and everybody was holding themselves accountable and doing what they’re supposed to do.”
The Habs had suffered losses to Toronto in the opener each of the past two seasons and were savouring a better start this time around as they packed up for Washington. Having so many key players contribute was a nice bonus.
Plekanec even joked that it justified the decision to go with a group of alternates rather than name a captain.
“Good call by coaches, I guess, by management,” he said. “Obviously it’s a great honour when you’re talking about the captain of the Montreal Canadiens. Being in Montreal so long I guess, a lot of people saw me as a top candidate.
“But I think they made a good call by going with the four A’s. We’ll figure it out next year."
In the meantime, there is opportunity to be found for everyone in the room. At the outset, anyway, this has the makings of a special season.