The 2012-13 Montreal Canadiens went from worst to first, but after a relatively quiet offseason the odds are that the 2013-14 squad will regress towards the mean.
When we last saw the bleu, blanc, et rogue of Montreal, they were getting manhandled out of the first round of the playoffs by a more physical Ottawa Senators team. Still, the 2012-13 season had to be considered a rousing success. After a dismal 2011-12 campaign when the storied franchise fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the Habs rebounded beyond anyone outside of Quebec’s expectations and won the Northeast division. Despite the quick playoff exit and some glaring holes, Montreal’s expectations for the new season are sky high. But could the denizens of Centre Bell in for disappointment?
Let’s take a look at three key areas that could derail the Canadiens season.
This is the big one, as it is for most NHL teams. Carey Price has proven that he can play like an elite netminder, but questions about consistency remain. Price looked great last season, aside from that stretch at the end of the season when he couldn’t stop a beach ball. Backup Peter Budaj seems like a nice guy, what with the image of Ned Flanders on his mask, but he’s simply not capable of anything more than occasionally spelling Price. The fate of the Canadiens will mostly rest on Price’s shoulders and with the added pressure of playing for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, it could be too much for the BC native to bear.
When the Habs drafted Alex Galchenyuk third overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, they knew they were getting a pretty good player, but to have the 19 year old jump right to the big leagues and put up 27 points in 48 games must have been a nice surprise. Even more surprising was the rapid ascension of Brendan Gallagher, an undersized forward who was a mid round draft pick in 2010. His 15 goals tied for the team lead and he played a big part in the club’s revival. However, it’s not unusual for young players to take a step back in their second year as the league adjusts to them. As well, both Galchenyuk and Gallagher played in the OHL and AHL respectively during the lockout, giving them a bit of a jump on their inactive peers. If these sophomores struggle, the Habs will have a hard time replacing their offense.
Lack Of Size
The criticism most often lobbed at the Habs is that they’re too small. In a league that’s seemingly moving towards a rougher and more physical game, Montreal is emphasizing speed and skill. That may work well during the regular season, but the playoffs are another type of animal altogether. Granted, they signed 245 lbs defenseman Douglas Murray and mustachioed enforcer George Parros, but neither is a front line player expected to play important minutes. As well, big name free agent signee Daniel Briere still looks like a stiff wind could knock him down. In an Atlantic Division that contains the fighting Toronto Maple Leafs, towering giant Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, and the big strong forwards of the Detroit Red Wings, the Canadiens run the risk of being a minnow in a pond of whales.
Additionally, the Habs face a number of other pressing questions heading into the season. Can PK Subban repeat his Norris Trophy winning year? Can Briere handle the pressure cooker that comes with being a French Canadian playing for the Habs? Will Andrei Markov stay healthy again? Can Max Pacioretty take the next step and become elite? Will Michel Therrien ever smile?
Making the playoffs in the NHL is a tough job that just got tougher for the Habs with the addition of the Red Wings to their division. Detroit and Boston are clearly at the top of the heap and Buffalo, Florida, and Tampa are definitely at the bottom. That leaves Montreal battling with Ottawa and Toronto for playoff spots. Ultimately, it’s a battle that the Habs will lose.
Prediction: 39-36-7 for 85 points, 5th in the Atlantic Division.