Calling this season a disappointment for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans would be an understatement.
Having pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to overtime in Game 7 of their 2011 conference quarterfinal series, the Habs entered this season with high hopes for significant improvement.
They were quickly dashed, though, as Montreal began the season with only one win in its first eight games and struggled to remain in playoff contention throughout the first half of the season.
The firings of assistant coach Perry Pearn Oct. 26 and head coach Jacques Martin Dec. 17 failed to improve the club’s performance and the accompanying media firestorm over interim coach Randy Cunneyworth’s inability to speak French became an unwelcome distraction.
GM Pierre Gauthier’s critics pointed to his Dec. 9 acquisition of fading defenseman Tomas Kaberle as a replacement for the sidelined Andrei Markov, followed in mid-January by his circus-like trade of unhappy winger Mike Cammalleri to Calgary for underachieving left winger Rene Bourque, as further examples of management incompetence.
Injuries also played a significant part in the Canadiens downfall, as they were among the league leaders in man-games lost to injury this season.
Though the players maintain they haven’t given up on the season, their 2-8-1 record since Feb. 13 suggests they have lost confidence in themselves.
With only 15 games remaining in their schedule, the Canadiens need a miracle to close the 12-point gap between themselves and the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets to clinch a playoff berth.
Entering Thursday’s tilt against the Edmonton Oilers, the Canadiens are dead last in the Eastern Conference, with the NHL’s third-worst record.
Most Habs fans are not only resigned to their team’s fate, but have taken to hoping they’ll lose most of the remaining games to improve their chances of winning this year’s draft lottery.
The Canadiens will enter this off-season facing uncertainty over the status of their management and coaching staff.
Despite the widespread criticism of Gauthier, there’s been no indication from ownership he’ll be replaced as GM.
Cunneyworth, meanwhile, is expected to replaced by a bilingual coach. Former NHL coach Bob Hartley and Quebec Remparts owner/GM/coach – and Habs legend – Patrick Roy have been cited as candidates.
Whoever ends up in the GM’s chair must finally address this team’s long-standing lack of skilled size and toughness, especially at forward.
The Canadiens were a one-line team for most of this season, relying on left winger Max Pacioretty, center David Desharnais and right winger Erik Cole for the bulk of their offense.
The trio was among the few bright spots in this otherwise forgettable season. Pacioretty blossomed into a good scoring forward, sophomore Desharnais moved comfortably into the first-line center role, while Cole – a free agent addition last summer – provided a good mix of offense and physical play.
Sophomore center Lars Eller has the potential to become an effective top-six forward. Center Tomas Plekanec’s offensive production suffered this season, owing to a lack of quality linemates.
Right winger Brian Gionta missed most of the season to injury, fading center Scott Gomez had the worst season of his career, while Bourque’s indifferent play illustrated why the Flames were keen to swap him for Cammalleri.
Another area that needs improvement is their defense corps.
Too much was expected this season from sophomore defenseman P.K. Subban, but he remains a genuine star in the making and, with more maturity and experience, could blossom into a future Norris contender.
Underrated Josh Gorges remains one of the league’s best defensive blueliners. Rookies Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz showed promise and could develop into quality defensemen in their own right.
If Markov can finally overcome the knee injuries that have sidelined him for all but a handful of games over the past two seasons, he’ll take considerable pressure off Subban.
Even with Subban and Gorges, a healthy Markov and the promise of Emelin and Diaz, the Canadiens are lacking experienced defensemen, especially the big, physical shutdown types.
Goaltender Carey Price was another bright spot in this miserable season, continuing to prove himself as a quality starting goalie. He and backup Peter Budaj form a solid goaltending tandem heading into next season.
In Price, Subban, Gorges, Pacioretty, Cole, Desharnais and Eller, the Canadiens have a decent foundation upon which to rebuild.
If Markov returns healthy, Emelin and Diaz continue to improve, and if they land a “can’t-miss” prospect with what could be a top-three pick in this year’s draft, the Habs will be a better club in 2012-13, depending on how they resolve their management and coaching issues.
Given the lack of quality depth available in this summer’s free agent market and the unlikelihood of suitably addressing their needs via trade, the Canadiens have little choice but to rebuild from within.
It’s been said the Habs cannot afford to stage a major rebuild like most NHL teams because their fans wouldn’t tolerate years of losing, but next year will make it 20 years since they won their last Stanley Cup.
If the Canadiens hope to overcome nearly two decades of mediocrity and return to Cup contention status, a serious rebuild must begin this summer, leaving their fans little choice but to be patient.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.