I want to preface everything that I say in the piece following by declaring clearly: I am in no way trying to throw cold water on the enthusiasm that Habs fans have for their team at this moment. I went back and forth on whether I even wanted to bring any sort of negative vibe in after 3 great, convincing wins. I am as pumped as anyone to see this team get off to a 3-1-0 start, firing on almost every cylinder. It has been inspiring to see a brand new Rene Bourque using his size and powerful shot to give the Plekanec, Gionta line what it has always needed. Its been amazing to see his two previously mentioned linemates play some of the most creative and effective hockey we’ve seen from them in a long while.Its been great to see Carey Price involved early, standing tall in net and making critical saves when the team needs them. Brandon Prust has been a revelation! His presence on a line with two rookies has given the Habs 3 scoring lines – which is something we haven’t seen since.. the 80′s?
Most of all, it has been thoroughly enjoyable to watch a resurgent Andrei Markov come back to the NHL, finally health after so many disheartening injuries and pick right up where he left off in 2008-2009 where he was just about the only reason to cheer for the Habs. Over the past three years, how many times have you heard someone tell you that Markov was finished, or not that good? People forget that this man was a legitimate Norris contender every season from the first lockout until his injury. If it weren’t for future hall-of-famer Nicklas Lidstrom he’d have a few of his own trophies at home. Forget Pronger, or Niedermayer. Markov was the best 2nd best defender in the league during that era, leading his club in every way imaginable, while standing somewhat in the shadows of other players due to his subdued, shy, and reserved nature.
And so it is understandable – the jovial, celebratory mood of Habs fans now, realizing just what they have missed over the course of the last three seasons. Slowly, we remember the Markov who would sneak behind defenders on the powerplay for a cross-ice, backdoor pass from Kovalev – a move which may as well have been his signature during that era, as he scored goal-after goal on the league’s best powerplay. I won’t lie, seeing him last season, and in the first game against Toronto, I wasn’t so sure we would ever see that guy again.
But here’s the thing. It isn’t going to last. And without PK Subban around to take the pressure off of his minutes, I expect a decline in the perception of his defensive ability to coincide with the Habs first loss after the current winning streak.
I don’t say that to imply Markov isn’t capable of a high level of play over a full season. He very clearly is. His body of work speaks for itself. Still, Markov’s mobility is the one feature of his game that has clearly changed since the 2008-2009 season. He is noticeably slower in the defensive end, and although he was always more of a ‘Lidstrom-esque’ defender, using positioning and skill, rather than brute force, his defensive game cannot withstand the rigors of even a shortened season. Pairing him with Alexi Emelin will surely help cover some of his physical shortcomings. But it won’t cover them all. My fear is that when Markov is unable to sustain his goal-per-game pace, the mood regarding his come-back will change. And I don’t think that is fair.
Markov shouldn’t have to play top-pairing minutes. He is far more valuable to the team playing second-pairing minutes with Emelin, and saving a little of his energy for the powerplay. The top pairing on this club should be PK Subban and Josh Gorges, and I for one am hoping that there is a reunion on this front as soon as possible to capitalize on the great mojo that this powerplay seems to have with Markov the Resurgent at the helm.
The second front of Habs joy after four games has been the play of the two rookies: Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Simply put – they have been so good. It has been incredible to watch these two young men elevate their game on the highest stage, creating a buzz of excitement for the future of this team in Montreal. These two players have been so good that they created a very tough decision for GM Marc Bergevin. Now that he has made the decision to keep Galchenyuk in the NHL for the entire season, I want to take a deeper look into what thiss means for the Habs.
Because of the lock-out shortened season, teams with 18 year old players must choose after 5 games whether or not they will begin a young player’s service time by keeping him with the team for the “full” season. If Montreal had decided to delay Galchenyuk’s service time by a year, they would have needed to send him back to his junior team: the Sarnia Sting. Before the season I was firmly in the “keep him in Junior” camp. My reasoning was that even in the best case scenario, it is better to have a cheap Alex Galchenyuk for his age 19 through 21 seasons before he becomes an RFA, than to pay him as a rookie for his 18 through 20 seasons.
Frankly, I still think this. Look at the PK Subban situation right now as a reason to try to keep young players in their initial contracts for as long as possible. Added to this, look at the contracts of players like Tyler Seguin or Jeff Skinner as 20 year-olds who will see a huge boost in salary in their age 21 seasons rather than age 22. It is an interesting case study when you look at those two specifically, and frankly I’m not entirely sure it backs up my reasoning or contradicts it.
Tyler Seguin was kept up by the Bruins in his 18 year old season. He played mainly on the fourth line, playing 12 minutes per game and totaling 22 points on the year. He made $2.6M with bonuses that year, rather than the $5.75 he’ll make next year. Would you rather have that production by an 18 year old on your team, or have a 21 year old making the same amount of money, trying to best the 67 points he put up last year? The choice is pretty clear right? Well it would have been if the Bruins had not won the Stanley Cup in his rookie season! Seguin put up 7 points in 13 games played – giving the Bruins a scoring boost from an unlikely source during their playoff season.
But it wasn’t always pretty. Seguin was scratched from the lineup many times that year, and there were many people who decried that the Bruins at the time, insisting were wasting a young talent by having him sit on the bench and in the press box. Would Tyler Seguin still be one of the best young forwards in the game if he played an extra year of junior rather than 4th line minutes in Boston? Or did Tyler Seguin learn far more valuable lessons as part of an historic Bruins club who put together a magical playoff run and Cup Victory (*note.. puke). It is a tough call – and there is no right answer.
Jeff Skinner is another player who fogs the line between rational management and rushing players to the NHL. Skinner joined a fairly terrible Carolina Hurricanes team in 2010-11, playing all 82 games and recording 31 goals and 32 assists. Skinner burst into the NHL and torched the league from the start. By every measure he was the second best player on his team after Eric Staal. And yet, the Canes missed the playoffs that season. They missed them again last year, while Skinner had another good season scoring 44 points in 64 games. So ask yourself again: Would you rather have Jeff Skinner at age 18 make $1.4M and score 63 points for a team that misses the playoffs, or Jeff Skinner at age 21 make $1.4M (rather than the $5.75M he’ll make next year) for a team that has a better chance to make the playoffs?
Herein lies the important question for the Montreal Canadiens with regard to Alex Galchenyuk, and why small sample sizes will kill you. So far it looks as though the kid can play at the NHL level. In a very small sample he has looked very comfortable out there. With the information we have, you could convince me that the best move for Alex Galchenyuk is to play for the Montreal Canadiens this season. And yet I still get that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that this is an 18 year old kid who missed almost all of the past season with an injury, who despite playing well limited minutes over four games, could easily struggle for the next 40. He would be wasting time and money when he could have been learning to be an elite player, working on his defense and playing 25 minutes per night in Sarnia – far from the glaring lights of Montreal. Given this, and the desire to delay his contract and to save the Montreal Canadiens millions of dollars in 2015, I can entirely accept the rationale that it would be the best decision to send him back to junior for the rest of the season, and welcome him back to training camp next season, ready to start his ascension to the top line. Marc Bergevin clearly sees the opportunity to play Galchanyuk as a third line forward, and potentially get the Canadiens into the playoffs this season.
Like I said at the outset: I’m not trying to ruin your day but I do think that the Habs fantastic start has necessitated a sober second look, lest we forget that this team finished dead-last in the East last season. I expect that if Montreal can get PK Subban into the lineup soon, his presence will free Andrei Markov to continue to elevate this team’s powerplay. Finally, I think Alex Galchanyuk is good enough now to play in the NHL. Even so, the Habs could have saved themselves a lot of money and capspace in three years – when they should be in the prime of their contention, if they had sent him back to Junior to work on his game away from the bright lights of the NHL, rather than start his free-agency clock in his year 18 season.