It was a somewhat softer landing than I think many expected last night as the Canadiens were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in what I think I can safely call a disappointing end to a promising season. As the final seconds ticked off of the clock the remaining sparse crowd that the Bell Centre attempted to recognize the effort of the players who had overachieved all season long to win the North East division, but could not in the end, defeat a solid-if-not-great Ottawa Senators team. The last time the Canadiens were eliminated from the playoffs, by the eventual cup-winning Boston Bruins, there was a palpable sense of despair within the Habs community. Losing to a rival is tough. Losing in over time of Game 7 is worse. This time around I’m not sure there were too many people who gave Montreal a serious chance following their dispiriting Game 4 loss in Ottawa.
The reasons for this are many. Recently, the injuries sustained to key players became too much to bear. As much heat as Carey Price took in the final weeks of the season for sub-par play, we saw last night exactly what would happen to this team if Carey wasn’t the goalie for the long-term. This is not to over-state the importance of one guy, or to disparage the play of Peter Budaj, who frankly played as well as you could expect from a back up that rarely played this season. Still, the loss of Price to injury all but sealed this series as over for the Habs.
It didn’t stop there though. The loss of Lars Eller was an incredible blow to this team. And seriously – just how crazy a thought is that given how his season started? Its amazing to think of his very public benching earlier this year, given how incredibly he responded, finally getting the opportunity to play with skilled wingers instead of plugs. I’ve been a very public booster of Eller’s talent ever since the trade with St. Louis happened. He’s far from the perfect player, but his skill set as a skilled forward with good size and amazing vision is going to be critical to the Habs success next year and beyond.
I’m definitely bringing up the size issue because in this series – possibly more than in any other year, Montreal’s sheer lack of size was on full display. The spark of what could be is right there on view. Subban, Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Pacioretty, and Eller all played significant roles on this club. We saw glimpses of the future on defense in cameos by Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beulieau, and Greg Pateryn. But there is some serious reason for concern as the team flips the calendar pages toward next season.
Andrei Markov started the year on a tear – and ended with a thud. The veteran defender is still an elite powerplay defenseman. Markov ended the season 3rd in goals and 4th for points among NHL defenseman, but in every other facet of the game, Markov started to show that he simply cannot be relied upon to play big minutes for a playoff contending team. Next year is the final of his current contract, and one certainly wonders whether or not he’ll be back again after that.
We can certainly expect that Tomas Kaberle will be bought out before the start of the 2013-14 season, lessening slightly the cap burden on the club – but at some point (and I expect early) in the season next year the Habs are going to need to lock up PK Subban long-term. There is no way at all that Montreal gets a discount on his next contract after what took place to start the year. Eric Karlsson makes $6.5M. Drew Doughty makes $7M. You don’t like those numbers? Tough. Dion Phanuef makes $6.5 which means PK’s agent is about to do very well.
Montreal’s defensive log-jam is further complicated by the dearth of rookies waiting to get NHL time, and the dearth of smallish NHL defensemen already signed to contract. If Raphael Diaz has a spot on your roster, you simply can’t afford to employ Francis Bouillion, Josh Gorges, and Yannik Weber. It seems crazy to speak ill of the former two players, given the fact that they play their guts out every game – but Ottawa showed that having a big, physical blue line is the best way to make sure that the types of scrambles that led to Montreal’s undoing in Game 4 don’t happen. The trick is to find big guys who are mobile and compliment them with the offensive guys like Subban and Markov. Josh Gorges is a warrior, but he’s not giving Montreal what Ottawa got from their young blueline.
I’m going to leave it there for now. I’m sure on the coming months there will be much to talk about with this team. As I said off the top – there is a core of young talent on this team that is good enough to ensure that Montreal is in the playoffs for years to come, but they need big help in the most literal sense.
Great season guys. It hurts right now – but a huge thank you to all of the people who come on this site, who participate, and follow this club through all of the ebbs and flows. It makes us crazy, and bitchy, and ecstatic – usually in the space of one period. It wouldn’t work without you.
Go Habs Go!!