In light of the Montreal Canadiens exiting the playoffs with a whimper Tuesday night, now is as good a time to ask the question. What exactly are the Montreal Canadiens? Are they a team on the rise that is a couple of pieces away from being a Stanley Cup winner or has their success been a mirage orchestrated by an all-world goaltender and a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in the prime of his career?
The Canadiens will have to answer those questions this off-season. More specifically, GM Marc Bergevin will. On one hand, they were three points away from winning the Presidents' Trophy. On the other hand, they were one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, had a terrible power play and looked very ordinary against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
Yes, there will be questions. Lots of them. And the first one that will have to be addressed is the future of their coach, Michel Therrien, one of the most polarizing figures ever to stand behind the Montreal bench. The Canadiens have had an enormous amount of regular season success with Therrien as their coach and advanced to the Eastern Conference final last spring. But Therrien has been criticized as a pedestrian coach when it comes to playing style and strategy. He steadfastly refused to stay with Alex Galchenyuk at center and is blamed for a style that focuses on dump and chase with a team that isn’t physically suited to playing that style. The Canadiens play without the puck an awful lot and P.K. Subban was bang on when he suggested the Canadiens have made goalie Carey Price’s job more difficult, not easier.
Some of that has to fall on the coach. And now that Mike Babcock is available, do the Canadiens dip into that pool a year after inking Therrien to a four-year contract extension? There is an enormous part of the Canadiens fan base that is howling for that to be done. And you can see their point. With Babcock (or Jeff Blashill), Todd McLellan, Dan Bylsma and Paul MacLean - and depending upon their situations perhaps even Claude Julien, Dave Tippett or Ken Hitchcock – on the market, there might not be a better time to find a top bench boss.
That is, if that’s what you think you need. But no coach in the world is going to make Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais bigger and more difficult to play against. No coach is going to be able to reinvigorate the aging legs of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin or coax scoring out of a bottom six group of forwards that simply cannot provide it.
Whatever the Canadiens do, they need to upgrade themselves at forward, particularly at center. Even though Plekanec is very good on faceoffs and plays a responsible game, he disappeared offensively during these playoffs, as did Desharnais. And in the absence of any help on the free agent market and trades being too difficult to make, the time is now for either Therrien or his replacement to make Galchenyuk a full-time center. Perhaps he won’t be the bona fide No. 1 guy for a year or two and that might mean the Canadiens take a step backward, but they’re never, ever going to know whether Galchenyuk is capable of doing the job unless they give him the chance and stick with him for an extended period of time.
Under director of player personnel Trevor Timmons, the Canadiens have some promising prospects on the horizon, one of whom is goalie Zach Fucale, who might have to be dealt in order to get help elsewhere in the lineup. Nikita Scherbak has the size the Canadiens need and scored 82 points in the WHL this season. Michael McCarron is playing center for the Oshawa Generals and gives them an enormous presence at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. His skating and foot speed aren’t even close to being at an NHL level at the moment, but if he works on that he might become one of those guys who is a better pro than he was a junior.
(As far as the draft is concerned, if 6-foot-4, 200-pound center Nicolas Roy is still available when the Canadiens are picking, they should take him. Full stop.)
Perhaps the Canadiens can wait a little bit for these guys to develop. Max Pacioretty and Subban are just 26 years old – Subban actually turns 26 today – and Price will be 28 in the summer and all three are under contract to the Canadiens for at least the next three years.
But the one who comes up in three years is Price and in the hockey world, that’s hardly an eternity. All three are in their primes and Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher are approaching theirs. The Canadiens have a good, solid farm system, but little on the way that will address their most immediate needs.
So if they want to get over that hump, they’re probably going to have to do it with a new man behind the bench and by trading some of their promising youth for players who can help them now. Even then, the Canadiens might have to take a step backward in the short-term to go forward in the long-term.
But changes are needed. Teams often falter when they look at their roster and begin to believe they're better than they actually are. That often leads to them not making difficult decisions that carry some risk, but will make them better. That's what this situation looks like to these eyes. If their goalie wasn't the best player on the ice most games, the Canadiens would have been life-and-death to make the playoffs. And without a bold move, they're going to be in the same situation again next season.