The Montreal Canadiens are an organization driving along in a dark tunnel without functional headlights. You do not fire your head coach, fire an assistant coach, trade a player with a 6 million dollar salary cap hit mid-game and have the worst power play in the league all before the All-Star Break if things are going well. But just how long is this dark tunnel and is there a glimpse of light on the horizon? Believe it or not, I think the Habs may have just hit rock bottom and now can start the climb back up, although no one should hold their breath hoping for a quick turnaround next season. Here’s why:
1) They have Carey Price as their starting goaltender, now and for the future.
Price is in his 5th full season in the NHL. It seems like he’s been around forever with all he’s been through: the trade of Christobal Huet during his 1st season when the Canadiens were leading the Eastern conference, losing his starting job to Halak 2 years ago and watching his team make a run to the conference finals behind Halak as Price rode the bench, the firing of both Guy Carbonneau and Jacques Martin as head coaches and the resignation of Bob Gainey as GM, last year’s stellar season of 38 wins and near upset of Boston in the 1st round of the playoffs and all the way up to the debacle this season has turned into. But the fact of the matter is Carey Price is still only 24 years old. He won a World Junior gold medal for Canada and an AHL title with the Hamilton Bulldogs. He’s got all the tools necessary to be a top goaltender in this league for a long time to come. And he’ll only hit his prime in another couple of years.
Price is a restricted free agent at the end of this season and will require a big raise over his current 2.75 million per season. Think something in the area of 6 years at 6+ million per. But the pucks stop with Price so he will get his bucks. And the Habs will be solid in nets for years to come.
2) They have a young defensive corps that is only going to get better
Andrei Markov is 33 and has been injured the last couple of years. When he plays he is clear-cut #1 defenseman. But just look at what the other defensive players have done this year despite Markov not being available all season. They have only given up 119 goals against, 4th best in the Eastern conference and 12th overall in the NHL. They have the 3rd best penalty kill in the league. And they are very young on the back-end.
Josh Georges (he of the new 6 year, 23.4 million $$$ contract) is 27 years old and is leading the league in blocked shots. He is a leader on the Canadiens, wears the A on his shirt and will be the next captain of the Habs when Gionta moves on to another team.
Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz are 25 and 26 respectively. Both are in their first NHL season and both have struggled at times this year. But both have shown good flashes as well. Diaz has 2 goals and 11 assists and is only a -2 while Emelin has brought toughness to the backend that Montreal fans have not seen in a long time.
And of course, there is PK Subban, a lightning rod for controversy this season. The Montreal media is all over this kid for not performing and yes, he is having a mediocre season. But let’s cut the kid some slack, he’s only 22 years old. Subban has talent to burn. If the Canadiens can find a way to get him to focus and if Subban himself stops acting like a Superstar and concentrates on improving his game, he is going to be a key player for Montreal for a long time.
With older players like Gill and Campoli in the final year of their contracts and unlikely to be here past the trade deadline, let alone re-signed for next season, it is entirely possible the Canadiens top 6 might very well be Markov (assuming he’s healthy), Georges, Subban, Emelin, Diaz and Kaberle next year. They are lacking some size, but overall that is a pretty decent defensive corps.
3) The group of forwards is starting to get some diversity
Last season the top 6 of the Canadians forwards more resembled the cast of The Smurfs that that of a professional hockey team. But that is slowly starting to change and yesterday’s trade of Michael Cammalleri for Rene Bourque only continues that transformation. Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, Rene Bourque are all 6’2” and are signed for minimum next season, as is Lars Eller, who will be re-signed for sure . That’s 4 of your top 6 in the future. Pencil in David Desharnais as one of your top 2 centers simply because he’s earned that right with his play this season. After that, it starts to get interesting.
Scott Gomez is probably finished in Montreal after this season. But unless a GM on another team gets rip roaring drunk one night and makes the biggest boneheaded trade in the history of the NHL, the Habs are not going to be able to move him over to another city. With 2 years left on his contract, the Canadiens either have to buy him out and take a salary cap hit for the next 4 years or bite the bullet, send him to the minors and pay him his full salary. But at least they will have some cap space either way.
Brian Gionta will be back, as will Tomas Plekanec, barring more trades. Both have struggled this year (Gionta has been injured a lot as well), but both can contribute to this team as part of the top 9. Kostitsyn and Moen are UFAs at year’s end but the Canadiens will have enough money to resign one, if not both of them. Personally I would try to sign AK46 and let Moen walk, but that’s just me.
The 4th line will be in good shape, Montreal has been stockpiling 4th liners for years! Just kidding. But with the opportunity to re-sign players like Blunden, Darche, Ryan White and others, they will put together a decent 4th line.
So 8 of the top 9 next year could be Cole, Pacioretty, Bourque, Eller, Desharnais, Gionta, Plekanec and possibly Kostitsyn. They have Louis Leblanc waiting for his shot or they could use some cash to go land a 2-3 million dollar free-agent this summer to round out that list.
4) The Habs finally have some decent prospects on the way
It seems like forever that since Montreal has had players to look forward to seeing in the future. But that is starting to change as well. For the 1st time in a long time, the Canadiens had 3 prospects play for team Canada at the 2011 World Juniors: Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival and Nathan Beaulieu all wore the red and white this past holiday season. And Jarred Tinordi played for the US (albeit not very well). With these players on their way to Hamilton next year (or in Gallagher’s place, possibly Montreal) and with players like Louis Leblanc and Ian Schultz (who was part of the Halak trade) already in the AHL, the prospects cupboard is no longer quite as bare as it once was. Plus, based on the Habs play so far this year, there is every reason to believe they will be adding minimum a top 10 draft pick to that group at the 2012 NHL draft.
5) The Canadiens will have some cap space
The true value of the Cammalleri for Bourque trade yesterday was the salary cap space the Habs gained. Cammy was making 6 million per year, while Bourque makes 3.33, so they gained 2.67 million of space for next year. Buying out Gomez or sending him to the minors will free up some more. And if they do somehow move Gionta or Plekanec (the more attractive of the 2 and easier to move assuming he waives his NTC), they gain another 5 million. None of that is sent in stone though, so let’s look at what is.
The Canadiens have 7 forwards and 4 defensemen under contract for next year, plus backup Budaj is already signed. If they permanently promote Leblanc to the show, that leaves them with about 19.5 million to sign Price, 3 D and 7 F. Take 6 off for Price, you have 13.5 left. AK46 is another 4 and Eller is probably about 2, leaving 7.5. Doesn’t seem like much, right? Wrong, because once you have signed these players, you now need to sign your bottom 5 forwards (4th liners and spares) as well as Emelin, Diaz and Subban. The 3 D-men are all RFAs and shouldn’t cost too much, maybe 4.5 to 5 million total. So they have somewhere around 3 million left for the pluggers, but don’t worry about cutting it close, as whatever they do with Gomez will take care of that problem.
To wrap it all up, yes the Habs are still in that dark tunnel without headlights. They could very well be there again next year. But overall this is a relatively young team that despite their awful record in 2011-2012 could potentially start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as early as 2013-2014. That might be small comfort to Montreal on a cold, snowy night, but it’s better than nothing.