|Photo Credit: Montrealhockeytalk.com|
Each year there are questions we have about the team. Last year I had questions like:
- Will the players buy into Michel Therrien's system? (Yes)
- Will Alex Galchenyuk spend the season in the NHL or go back to junior? (NHL)
- Will P.K. Subban hold-out for a large chunk of the season? (Nope, just a few games)
- Will Andrei Markov hold up for the whole season? (Yes, but performance did not)
- Will Pacioretty-Cole-Desharnais be a potent line combo again? (Absolutely NOT)
Everyone has those questions that keep nagging at them. The ones that just keep burning inside your head when you think about the upcoming season. Here are my 5 burning questions about the Habs:
1. With new goalie coach Stephane Waite guiding him, will Carey Price finally meet our high expectations?
Stephane Waite comes to Montreal from the Chicago Blackhawks where he spent ten years as goalie coach. Waite was a member of two Stanley Cup winning teams, and each winning team had a different set of goaltenders (Antti Niemi/Cristobal Huet in 2010; Corey Crawford/Ray Emery in 2013). Overall, Waite brings over 30-years of coaching experience to the position. During his extensive career, Waite has also worked with Craig Anderson, Nikolai Khabibulin, Jocelyn Thibault, Brian Boucher, Felix Potvin, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Michael Leighton, Patrick Lalime, and Marty Turco. Some of them are journeymen; some of them are All-Stars. All of them have had a level of success at the NHL level.
Since being drafted 5th-overall in 2005, Carey Price has been a lightning-rod with fans and the media for both praise and criticism. Price came in with high expectations and thus far in his career, has not truly lived up to them. In 2007, he led Canada to a gold medal in the World Junior Championships, and finished his junior hockey career with the Tri-City Americans where he won the Del Wilson trophy as the WHL's top goaltender. At the conclusion of the junior season, he signed his 3-year entry level contract and joined the Hamilton Bulldogs for their Calder Cup winning playoff run. Not only did Price start, he excelled. Price won the Jack A. Butterfield award as Calder Cup MVP and capped off his remarkable year by winning the CHL goaltender-of-the-year award. Expectations in Montreal for Price could never be higher.
Since making the jump to the NHL at the beginning of the 2007/08 season, Price has been wildly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. No one ever questions the talent, but his desire and dedication has been suspect over the years. Prior to the 2012 season, Price signed a 6-year/$39 million dollar contract extension with the Canadiens. Big money for a goaltender who has had an average career to this point. Price proceeded to lead the Canadiens to a 2nd-place finish in the Eastern Conference with a 21-13-4 record, but finished the year with a pedestrian 2.59 goals-against average (GAA) and a .905 save percentage (PCT). He was arguably outplayed at times by journeyman backup Peter Budaj, who posted an 8-1-1 record in relief, to go along with a 2.28 GAA and a slightly better .908 PCT. After a disasterous playoff run, ending with a minor knee injury and a first-round elimination at the hands of the Ottawa Senators the question of what kind of goalie Price really is remains.
Marc Bergevin knows what kind of coach Stephane Waite is from their time together in Chicago. Clearly unhappy with the work of Pierre Groulx. Directly unrelated, but still relevant are comments made by former goaltending coach Roland Melanson. Melanson stated that he has seen Price's skills and technique deteriorate each year since he left the organization in 2009. Consider that a shot at the ability of Groulx by his predecessor. Waite is here to bring out the best in Price. Bergevin expects Waite will successfully work with both Price and Budaj to maximize the use of their skills and improve their overall consistency. No one questions the pedigree Price has nor the talent level he has shown in the past. The burning question to be answered here is whether or not Waite can do for Price what he has done for both Anti Niemi and Corey Crawford. Only time will tell.
2. Can P.K. Subban play at a Norris Trophy level over a full 82-game schedule?
After holding out of the abbreviated pre-season and the first six games of the regular season, P.K. Subban signed the 2-year/$5.75 million 'bridge' deal offered by Marc Bergevin. He promptly returned to form and then some, buying into Michel Therrien's system and riding it all the way to a Norris Trophy. Subban finished the year with 11 goals and 38 pts and an impressive +12 rating in 42 games played. Most importantly, he cut down on the risky play and continued to improve in his own end. Subban also contributed 51-hits, many of them of the bone-crunching highlight-reel variety. Often considered cocky and immature his first couple of years in the league, Subban matured as the season went along.
This past off-season, Subban has continued to work hard to improve. Along with Carey Price, Subban was invited to the Team Canada orientation camp in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Olympic games. If Subban continues to improve defensively - there's no reason why he shouldn't - his tremendous skating ability and howitzer of a point-shot would be a good fit for a Canadian team aiming for another gold-medal.
Unlike the aging Andrei Markov, Subban's play was consistently at a high level all season long. At 24-years old, there's no reason to believe his conditioning level will deteriorate. Subban has a tremendous work-ethic and he's playing for his massive pay-day this season. Playing a spread-out grind of an 82 game schedule compared to last years condensed 48-game schedule should not affect the young legs of arguably one of the leagues top 5 defenders. Barring injury, Subban should be in the running for a second-straight Norris Trophy and should finish off the year with a 7-year/$50 million dollar payday. Or something like that.
3. What kind of production will we receive from Daniel Briere?
When the Habs signed Danny Briere to a 2-year/$8 million dollar contract, there was a collective groan from Habs fans, on Twitter especially. Briere had previously been a compliance buy-out of the Philadelphia Flyers - he signed an 8-year/$52 million contract in 2007 - and had seen his production plummet for a second straight season. Factor in his advanced age (35 years old) and lack of size (5'10" listed; maybe on skates) and a team plagued with questions about size on the roster just added another little person to the lineup.
Briere also irked Habs fans after signing said bought-out contract with the Flyers, indicating he preferred the anonymity of living in Philly over the public scrutiny of the Montreal hockey life. Coming to Montreal now sparked a fan reminder of that contract. However, watching the other teams in the league throw money around like it was going out of style (Toronto will regret giving David Clarkson 7-years/$37 million in about a season or two), Briere's contract appeared to be around the league average for a player of his production level.
A motivated Briere might not return to his 32 goal/70 point average but he should aid the power-play and mentor the other scoring smurf - David Desharnais, pay close attention! - while chipping in 20 goals/50 points. If he can do this, then his contract would be acceptable. If he can return to his previous top-line form, then Montreal got a steal of a deal. I don't see those 35-year old legs returning to top-line minutes, but if Michel Therrien can keep him around 15 minutes a night, with a large power-play presence, he can surely milk out whats left in Briere for the benefit of the hockey club. Briere's continued strength is his playoff performance. Regardless of how his regular season plays out, Briere always steps up his game when the stakes are higher (50 goals/109 points in 108 career playoff games). For a team expected to contend again this year, adding a proven playoff leader is worth its weight in .... millions.
4. Will adding the size of Douglas Murray and George Parros make a difference on the ice?
Last season, the Habs added Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong to the lineup to provide some grit. While Prust exceeded all expectations with his performance, Armstrong combined with holdover Travis Moen to contribute roughly... nothing (4 goals/11 points combined in 37 and 45 games, respectively). While Armstrong was great for viewers on 24-CH and was probably a great locker room presence, his on-ice performance left a lot to be desired and he was not invited back (he has since signed with the Växjö Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). Instead the Habs traded for veteran enforcer and Princeton alum George Parros.
Parros is a heavyweight, standing at 6'5" and 222 lbs. Brandon Prust will no longer have to take on the large Fraser McLaren types; not that he can't handle them. Parros is a respected veteran who understands his role on the hockey club. He is also great in the community and should endear himself to Habs fans much the way Brandon Prust did last season. While community involvement doesn't reflect on-ice performance, adding a character like Parros who uses his moderate celebrity to help make a difference is a boon for the city itself. On the ice, he knows he will be a healthy scratch against skilled teams such as Detroit, Pittsburgh or the New York Rangers. He knows what his job is against physical teams such as Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia. He will contribute roughly the same as Colby Armstrong in terms of offense (2 goals/5 points), just over an 82 game schedule. But his presence alone should boost the confidence of skilled players such as Desharnais, Briere and Alex Galchenyuk.
Douglas Murray was signed in August to a 1-year/$1.5 million dollar contract to provide some physicality on the blue line. With the hard-hitting Alexei Emelin out until roughly December recovering from knee surgery, adding the 6'3", 245 lbs battering ram that is Douglas 'CrankShaft' Murray to the lineup should help shore up the Habs blue line. While fans are clamoring for the equally large, more promising Jarred Tinordi to be in the lineup instead, Tinordi would benefit from another season in the AHL, where he can improve his positioning, offensive skills and consistency in a top-pairing role. Murray is aging at 33 years-old, and has lost a step in terms of speed. He can still effectively clear a crease and help on the penalty kill, however he will provide absolutely no offense, as his career high is 4 goals/17 points. That is a drop-off from Emelin, who chipped in 3 goals/12 points in only 38 games played last season. If Murray can hold the fort in front of Carey Price, block shots and play physically until Emelin returns, the Habs have themselves a solid depth signing.
Overall, these two will provide the physical play asked of them in the roles defined for them. If they are asked to assume a greater role, the weaknesses in their games will be exploited.
5. What effect will the Sochi Olympics have on the Habs roster for the stretch run of the season?
As it stands now, 10 current Habs have been invited to their respective national team's orientation camp for the 2014 Sochi Olympic games. The list is as follows:
Czech Republic - Tomas Plekanec
USA- Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk
Canada - Carey Price and P.K. Subban
Swiss - Rafael Diaz
Sweden - Douglas Murray
Russia - Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin (out due to knee surgery)
Slovakia - Peter Budaj
None of these players are guaranteed to play for their country at the Olympics. Injuries always occur and countries such as Canada, USA and Russia have a large talent pool to draw from, they may choose to go in different directions with the roster. Based on the overall national talent level and barring injury, Plekanec, Diaz, Markov and Budaj are locks to represent their respective country. Max Pacioretty should get the call for the USA and Price and Subban should both get the call for Canada, as well. Douglas Murray represented Sweden in the last Olympics, but his age and declining skating ability may not be conducive for the larger ice surfaces. Alex Galchenyuk could make the USA roster if he shows a strong sophomore campaign and Alexei Emelin may still make the Russian squad if he returns strong from his injury. All told, at least 7 if not 10 current Habs may be making the trip to Russia in mid-February.
What kind of impact will this have on the Habs lineup for the stretch run to the playoffs if these players participate. The Canadiens have a very culturally diverse lineup which is great, but it also means 4 of our top-6 defensemen, 2 of our top-6 forwards and both goaltenders will be spending the two-week Olympic break playing up to 6 high-intensity games. While other teams are sending players, too, most teams will not be sending potentially 10 players off of their 23 man roster. Instead of using the two week break to recover from nagging injuries and mentally recharge for the home-stretch of the season, our top players will be grinding it out amongst the best players in the world. Representing your country is a tremendous honour, but how will adding 6 more games and a cross-continent trip affect their conditioning and level of play during the most important stretch of the season?
The Habs slowed down considerably after a fast start to the season. They limped into the playoffs and were soundly beaten down at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. Injuries were a factor, but veterans such as Andrei Markov and Carey Price saw their performance level slip considerably. No one knows for sure how the Olympic situation will play out, but there certainly is a risk of lowered performance when you have that many of your top players adding that more games to their already full schedule.
So concludes my five burning questions for this years Montreal Canadiens. Obviously these questions cannot be truly answered until the end of the season. I will be sure to re-visit them at that time. Only 10 days to go until we let the games begin! Bring on those Maple Leafs!
Nick M. is a transplanted Montrealer, currently living in evil LeafLand. He is a contributor here at HabsAddict.com and give him a follow, as he can often be found rambling on Twitter.