Great Expectations: Habs Hangover Season Preview Edition

When the Hangover burst into cinemas in 2009, it was a revelation. It exceeded any and all expectations. It launched the careers of Zach Galafinakis and Ken Jeong, and propelled Bradley Cooper into an A-list actor. So naturally, after this epic run, news quickly spread that Hangover 2 was in the works. Excitement spread immediately; fans could not wait to see how it would top the first. Alas, while the movie was a financial success, it was ultimately disappointing (and led to a slightly better but also disappointing third movie).

The Montreal Canadiens just finished their most successful season since winning the Stanley Cup in 1993. They finished the regular season with 100 points. They rolled to the Eastern conference finals, highlighted by an emotionally charged and electric 7 game series victory over chief rival and Eastern conference powerhouse, the Boston Bruins.

So naturally, after this epic run, fans can’t wait to see how the Habs will top last season. Will they win their division? Will they score more than 100 points? Will they make it back to the Eastern Conference finals? The Stanley Cup finals? Will they lift Lord Stanley’s Cup over their heads and hang a 25th championship banner in the rafters of the Bell Center?

Well there is one guy out there that wants to pull back on the reins of Habs nation and say: “Whoa there, big fella!” He’s pretty important to the overall success of the Habs. He writes an effin’ amazing blog. He has won the last four fantasy hockey leagues he’s participated in, but let’s face it…realistically, I actually matter as much as one of P.K Subban’s farts. But Marc Bergevin, the man I was actually alluding to, does matter…he matters a lot. He went out of his way after last year’s epic run to quell expectations entering this season: “The fact that we went to the conference finals doesn’t mean that we start ahead of everyone else on October.” – He’s right, but fans tend to get playoff goggles.

Bergevin had a busy off season; vets like Gionta, Gorges, Briere, Bouillon and Vanek were let go to make room for PA Paranteau, Tom Gilbert and a slew of young prospects. Most fans rejoiced with the increased roles that would open up to our young roster players, and prospects. We need to take a moment and respect the players we released. While Gionta, Gorges, and Briere were clearly on the downside of their careers, they brought certain intangibles to the table and a winning attitude. Fans tend to take ‘experience’ for granted, and while there is an argument that young players won’t get experience as long as the old guys are around, you still can’t discount the stability that veterans bring to the locker room. That said, the Habs have a good mix of veterans and young players coming into this season and should be able to build off last year.

However, there are still some burning questions as we enter the season. Questions that – depending on how they are answered – will go a long way to shaping what direction the Habs’ season will take.

Here are my top 5 issues/questions facing the Habs as they enter the 2014-2015 season.

1) The Center Conundrum?

One of the main talking points of last season was David Desharnais’ effectiveness as the teams #1 center.
One of the main talking points of the off-season was about trading Tomas Plekanec.
One of the main talking points of the preseason was moving Alex Galchenyuk to center.

All three points are connected, with the general consensus being that it is a matter of time before Alex Galchenyuk ascends to the #1 center spot. So what happens to David Desharnais? It is well documented that Max Pacioretty is happier when he’s lined up with his best bud. Does Desharnais even have any value when he’s not playing with Max? Keeping Pacioretty happy is a key component, because he was proven to be somewhat surly and defensive when his effort is questioned and whenever he or Desharnais are struggling. So if Desharnais is required to appease Max (and frankly he’s a tough piece to trade as his value is so closely tied to Pacioretty), that leaves us with Plekanec and the true X-factor when it comes the center position: Lars Eller. Most people will agree at this point that Plekanec is a better player than Eller and you would get no argument from me. However, we can’t overlook these factors: Eller is 6 years younger; he makes 3.5M dollars less annually; he is signed for the next 4 years versus 2 years for Plekanec. He is also bigger and stronger than Plekanec. On the other hand, Plekanec has the experience, the higher hockey IQ, and is a two way force who warranted some Selke consideration the last couple of years.

Fearless Prediction:

I think this season remains status quo with Galchenyuk resuming his role on the wing, and Desharnais, Plekanec, and Eller manning the top three center spots. I predict that Eller and Galchenyuk will both have strong seasons. Next year – with Pleks entering the last year of his contract – we should see a changing of the guard down the middle of the Habs line up.

2) Can the kids step up?

Speaking of Galchenyuk, he will be needed to up his game to a new level this year. The same goes for Gallagher, as well as new edition Jiri Sekac. On the blue line,Nathan Beaulieu and Jared Tinordi will be expected to earn full time roles and contribute nightly. Dirty little secret about the Habs last year was that they were the worst corsi team in the playoffs and had the fifth worst corsi in the entire league. Having Beaulieu and a big body like Sekac to replace Gorges and Gionta should help. Ultimately, the skills of Galchenyuk, and the drive of Gallagher can help take the Habs to another level. The “young G’s” are only 20 and 21 years old respectively; both these kids still have a long way to go before hitting the peak of their potential. If the Habs are to maintain last year’s pace and/or take the next step, both kids have to take a step forward in their careers and (cross our fingers) stay healthy. (Galchenyuk has a dicey injury history, and Gallagher is always at risk of being shillegaghed by opposing goaltenders – Gangs of New York style).

Fearless prediction:

Galchenyuk leads the Habs in scoring and Gallagher leads the NHL in penalties drawn and goaltender interference calls. The Young G’s will notch new career highs in goals and points and continue progressing into premier players in the league.

3) 9 million reasons for P.K. to fail?

P.K.’s contract was a hot button topic this summer. In the end, he will be the highest paid defenseman in the NHL at 9M dollars per year (although with the influx of TV money coming in and the rising salary cap, his contract will be much more acceptable in a few years, but as mentioned – Habs fans tend to be shortsighted). While no one doubts P.K.’s confidence and skill, he will certainly have an extra big target on his back this year, and not only from opposing teams but from the media and fans. Should he struggle even for 2 or 3 games in row, there will be an avalanche of articles, tweets, and quotes about how he is buckling under the pressure of his new contract. P.K. needs to be able to quiet his detractors and take his game to an even higher level. As the Habs’ best player not named Carey Price, he will be needed to excel in every situation of the game for the Habs to mimic any success they had last year.

Fearless prediction:

P.K. finishes the season top 5 in defenseman scoring, top 5 in minutes per game, and becomes the first player penalized for farting on an opposing goaltender. Oh, and he will also be nominated for a Norris trophy.

4) Oh captain, my captain?

Will the lack of a captain hurt this team and serve as a distraction moving forward? Gionta was just named captain of the Buffalo Sabres and with Gorges serving as his back up, the dearth in the leadership contingent of the Habs is noticeable. While some suggested that Markov is the natural leader of this team, it’s been clear that he has no interest in the extra responsibilities that come with being captain of the Habs. P.K. was described as the natural future captain by some, and a “not ready, prima donna” by others. Finally, most pundits seem to agree that the one true leader of this team is in fact Carey Price, but goaltenders are not allowed to be captains per league rules. So in the off-season, the organization named Markov, Plekanec, Subban and Pacioretty as alternate captains and for the second time in less than ten years the Habs will play a season without a captain.

Fearless Prediction:

I should note that the last time the Habs did not name a captain, they went to the Eastern Conference finals. I don’t expect the lack of captain to be an issue at all as these “young vets” along with Markov should be able to guide and lead the Habs’ youngsters and new additions. By the season’s end P.K. will emerge as the one obvious choice to be captain, while behind the scenes Price will hold the most clout.

5) Can the Habs’ stars continue to shine? Can they shine brighter?

Carey Price emerged as a top 5 goaltender in the NHL last year. Max Pacioretty finished sixth in goal scoring with 39 goals. P.K. Subban followed up his Norris winning season by finishing fifth in overall point total for defensemen. They are the Habs’ version of the “Big 3”. Can they continue their success this year? Can they raise their games to the next level? None of them are even 27 years old yet – which is scary when you consider their level of success up to this point. So much is dependent on their play – from the Habs maintaining their top 5 penalty killing unit, to improving the Habs’ 19th ranked powerplay. They are also vital to the even strength game; Pacioretty dominated all Habs’ forwards in both corsi and fenwick 5 on 5 and P.K. led all Habs’ defensemen. Price had the second best save percentage at even strength in the entire NHL. While we mentioned many different factors in play for the Habs to succeed this year, the season will ultimately rest on the shoulders of these three players.

Fearless Prediction:

I already mentioned that I think Subban will be fine and will be nominated for a Norris. Pacioretty will take the ‘A’ on his jersey very seriously and elevate his game to a new level, cracking 40 goals and looking like a force. He will eventually join Galchenyuk to be one of the best center/winger combos in the league for the foreseeable future. While Price will obviously be in discussion again for the Vezina, he will also be in the discussion for the Hart trophy as he emerges as a true leader, and the irreplaceable piece to the Habs’ machine. The Big 3 will have the Habs battling the Bruins and Lightning for the top of the Atlantic division all season.

This season should be very interesting as key teams in the Atlantic division have improved, and Boston still rules the hill. However, led by the Big 3, the emerging play of the Young G’s, and some of the youthful additions to the blue line, they should avoid the hangover, improve on the almighty possession metrics, and contend for a top seed in the Eastern conference.

I hope.

We’ll find out – starting tonight versus the Toronto Maple Leafs!

Let me know what you think on twitter (@wolverine_z) or in the comments below.

Go Habs go!

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