Reasons for Habs Optimism Despite Early Playoff Exit

Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

MONTREAL, QC. — In the wake of a heartbreaking game five loss that ended the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff season on Thursday night, there has been much criticism floating around in Habsland about the team’s inability to compete with a bigger and stronger opponent. Despite a disappointing outcome in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup against the Ottawa Senators, it is important to remember where the Canadiens organization stood just one year ago. In May of 2012, the Canadiens had recently hired Marc Bergevin as the team’s 16th general manager after what was a very disappointing season, the result of which was a 28th overall finish. Without a head coach in place, and a lineup that lacked many necessary components, the Canadiens were in complete disarray. Keeping this in mind, it would be unjust of us to neglect what was a very positive campaign for the Habs even though their playoff-run ended prematurely.

Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images
Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

There are multiple factors that enabled the Canadiens to take a giant step in the right direction in 2013. Beginning with the hiring of Marc Bergevin on May 2nd 2012, the team appointed an executive that demands hard work and accountability starting at the top of the organization. By surrounding himself with other high profile executives like Rick Dudley and Scott Mellanby, the emphasis was on building an executive staff that could work together to build a winner. And after the debacle that was the Pierre Gauthier era, Bergevin brought the Canadiens instant credibility.

The 3rd overall selection of 18-year-old center-iceman Alex Galchenyuk at the NHL entry draft in June was another gigantic stepping-stone for the Canadiens organization. Although the majority of the team’s roster remained the same, Galchenyuk represented a reason for optimism because his combination of size and skill at his position make for a highly coveted asset in today’s NHL. The process of reshaping the team continued during the free agency period when a few more pieces were added. By signing forwards Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong, and defenseman Francis Bouillon as unrestricted free agents, there was obvious focus on adding grit, character, and depth to the team’s makeup. Moreover, the re-hiring of coach Michel Therrien on June 5th was another decision that proved to have a positive influence for many reasons. Though it raised some eyebrows initially, the decision to bring coach Therrien back into the fold was instrumental in re-establishing a winning mentality. Just like Bergevin, by demanding accountability, and coining the slogan “No Excuses” above the door of his team’s locker room, Therrien was able to get the most out of his players this season en route to a second place finish in the Eastern conference and a Northeast division crown. Further, his ability to communicate with young players like Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher enabled the two youngsters to continuously improve throughout the course of the season.

In particular, the development of Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher this season was something that Canadiens fans can hang their hats on. Not only did they contribute with their play on the ice, but their hard work off the ice also injected a newfound life into the Habs team chemistry. Finishing 5th and 3rd respectively in the NHL’s rookie scoring race, Galchenyuk and Gallagher certainly made names for themselves. In fact, Gallagher’s 15 goals and 28 points in just 44 games propelled him to earn a Calder trophy nomination for the NHL’s top rookie. Together the duo gave the Canadiens some much needed secondary scoring, an asset that fans can look forward to for years to come.

Another positive storyline this season was the resurgence of defenseman Andrei Markov. After a tumultuous past couple of years on the long term injured reserve list, Markov played in all 48 regular season games, and all 5 playoff games. Although he appeared to wear down towards the end of the season on the defensive side of things, there is no denying that he was always a threat on the power play. With 10 goals and 30 points in what was a shortened regular season, it is clear that Markov still has what it takes to be a top offensive defenseman in the league. Subsequently, P.K. Subban, Markov’s partner on the power play for most of the season, was possibly the most positive development this year. After staying at home and missing the first six games during a contract dispute, Subban came back hungrier than ever. With 38 points in 42 games, Subban established himself as the Habs most valuable player and one of the top all-around defenseman in the National Hockey League. Specifically, the combination of his speed, strength and pure determination have made him a front-runner to win the Norris trophy for the league’s top defenseman in 2013.

So while losing to the Sens in only five games might be a difficult pill to swallow at the moment, if you can objectively look at where the Canadiens stood last year, this season was in many ways a huge step forward on the road to higher levels of success. With the stability of a management team and coaching staff that demand hard work and accountability, the captains of this ship appear to have the leadership qualities that can guide this team towards its ultimate goal. As young players like Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Jarred Tinordi continue to develop and come into their own, the Canadiens have a strong mix of young talent that can complement established core pieces like Carey Price, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty. As long as the Habs fan base can mange their expectation levels as this team continues to grow, all signs point toward a bright future for the Montreal Canadiens.