Rabid Habs

Top 10 Storylines Heading Into Habs Camp

Marc Bergevin Photo - Lisa Gansky

Poolside, General Manager Marc Bergevin dips into the refreshing water, momentarily escaping from the oppressive heat. The position of general manager affords very little downtime.

Despite there being  65-plus days before the puck is scheduled to drop, launching the 2015-16 NHL season, there remains countless hours of preparation. His work seemingly never ends. However, Bergevin, having signed the final piece of his Canadiens puzzle and can now relax… Or can he? The 2015-16 NHL season will feature multiple story lines.

Looking at the Canadiens specifically, Rabid Habs Magazine counts down the top 10 stories heading into the Habs training camp.

10 – Can a rookie crack the opening night starting lineup?

Although there is not necessarily an open position, rookies and prospect players within the Canadiens talent pipeline will have an opportunity to push, not only for a job within the final 23-man roster, but for immediate playing time.

The Habs were challenged to produce offence on a consistent basis last season, therefore the organization must consider all options while working to close this deficiency.The once tried and tested strategy of labeling lines “scoring”, “checking” and “energy” has been replaced with a need for 12 forwards with the best combination of skill, speed and size. The game is faster today than at any other point in its history. The NHL has become a game of transition and those teams who can effectively move the puck through three zones with speed create scoring chances and force the opposition to defend extended zone time.

Players such as Sven Andrighetto, Christian Thomas and Charles Hudon will push Devante Smith-Pelly and Brian Flynn for a roster spot. As teams continue to put time and distance between themselves and the former fourth line enforcers, opportunities will become more readily available.

Further consideration includes the salary cap. Each player on an entry level contract helps to provide the organization with payroll flexibility. Replacing a player like PA Parenteau and his $4-million dollar salary with a rookie on an entry level contract could help the Canadiens land a rental player at the deadline, should the need arise.

9 – Will Tokarski retain the backup position?

Following his strong, albeit brief, appearance in the 2014 NHL playoffs it appeared a certainty that Dustin Tokarski would be the perennial backup behind Carey Price. In addition to his strong play, Tokarski’s contract term, dollar and status made Peter Budaj expendable.

Fast forward a full year and there is once more a chance that the backup position might be an open competition. Mike Condon could push Tokarski and force the Canadiens to rethink the organizational depth chart. Should the competition be close, I believe that Tokarski will retain his position.

Further, Tokarski has one year remaining on his existing deal and may be provided every opportunity to showcase his skills. However, working against Tokarski is a lack of size and a series of fundamental flaws – most notably his positioning. Tokarski fights to stop every puck and his athleticism has helped to propel him to this point in his career, but in terms of sheer talent, I believe that Condon has more upside. This could be a position that is hotly contested at training camp.

8 – How will the defence pairings be arranged?

In 2014-15 Andrei Markov had one of the most up and down seasons in recent memory. His performance in the regular season placed him among the top 10 defencemen in the league in many significant categories. Markov logged huge minutes and was a contributor at even strength and on the specialty teams. Paired with PK, they enjoyed a successful run, managing the most the minutes, while shutting down the opposition’s top lines and generating offence from the back end.

Unfortunately, Markov’s postseason play left much to be desired. At 36, the General is no longer capable of logging 26+ minutes per game over a full season. Ideally, Markov would slide onto the second pairing with Jeff Petry, where his minutes and the match-ups would allow him to establish a reserve, to be opened during the playoffs.

I believe this was the plan last year as Alexei Emelin opened the season alongside Subban. Unfortunately the minutes and match-ups proved to be too much for Emelin, who simply was unable to compliment PK’s skill and transition game.

The better match up, in my opinion, would see Nathan Beaulieu align with PK on the top pairing. Markov and Petry would be an excellent second pairing, while a third unit consisting of Emelin and Pateryn could add a physical dimension, complimenting the skill within the top 4. Tom Gilbert is very likely to become the 7th defenceman.

Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t believe the Habs will be in a rush to trade his services. Unless a team is willing to overpay, Gilbert is an excellent 7th, who is capable to fill in on short notice. Tinordi is entering the most pivotal season of his career with the Canadiens. Failure to show progression may result in a trade. The defence will be a unit in flux throughout the season, however the battle for positioning is very likely to start at camp.

7 – Will Kassian become a top 6 player?

No player within the organization may have as much to prove as Zack Kassian. Entering the final year of his current contract, Kassian has every reason to be motivated. This is his third franchise, however, and the time to reach his potential is now.

What should be interesting is the role in which the Canadiens see the rugged winger. Will he become a top 6 player? Will his net presence allow him to establish a role on the power play? There are more questions than answers at this point, however Kassian could very well become a fan favorite, provided he chooses to fully immerse himself in his role and work in partnership with the coaching staff.

To this end, coach Therrien needs to find a way to connect with this player and maximize his potential. A case could be made for Kassian scoring anywhere from 4 to 24 goals. He is certainly the wildcard on this team, with potential to not only replace Prust, but become a top echelon power forward in the Eastern Conference. Of course, having said that, he could also be the latest in a long list of Canadiens who fail to realize their potential under the bright spotlight of the world’s largest hockey market.

6 – Can Semin help restore the once vaunted Canadiens powerplay?

In a word, yes. The combination of skill, specifically his release, combined with the fact that he will be a secondary scoring option behind Max Pacioretty, should help align the stars for Alex Semin.

A note of caution Habs fans; results might not materialize quickly. Please remain patient. This same service announcement should also be taped to the bulletin board in the coaches office. Semin is a streaky player, but given the proper support and confidence, he could reward Montreal with a dynamite season.

Provided he stays healthy, I fully expect Semin to reach and perhaps even exceed the 20-goal plateau. As many as 10 of these goals could come on the man advantage, a significant boost to an offence that looked so disorganized with the man advantage last season. When something is so bad (anyone recall the playoff PP futility?) there is only one way to go…up.

5 – Will the organization continue to avoid significant injuries?

Unfortunately it is very unlikely that the Canadiens remain the model of health. Injuries arise at the most inopportune time and the Habs’ depth will be tested. One might accurately suggest that the injury bug has already struck, as Pacioretty has reportedly been hit with an injury that has derailed his training and places his status for opening night in jeopardy.

Where the Canadiens can find solace is in the depth that they have established. Although no player within the organization’s pipeline can step in and replace a player of Pacioretty’s caliber, there wouldn’t be the significant drop off in talent that there was just two short seasons ago. So much as we all appreciated players like Mike Blunden, the organization has more skill and more players capable of playing within the top 6.

4 – Can Eller become a 2nd line centre?

Yes, I believe he can. Further, I believe he deserves an opportunity. The organization, under Bergevin’s leadership, appears more capable of forecasting moves and has an eye on issues in both the short and long term future. With Plekanec’s future undecided (he is a pending UFA), Eller may be provided an opportunity to show whether he can or cannot be a dependable top 6 player.

Eller struggled to find consistency last season, however, he became one of the top forwards following the trade deadline, which carried into the playoffs. Eller has proven capable of elevating his play in big games and does not shy away from carrying the puck and creating opportunities. His size and speed create time and space and aligned with players of complimentary skill could help to bolster the Habs offence. The biggest question mark might ultimately not be Eller himself, but coach Therrien and his ability to recognize the potential and reward the play with more responsibility, ice time and PP opportunity. This could be an issue that develops throughout the season, but should kick off at training camp.

3 – What impact will parity have on league standings?

The President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers finished 18 points ahead of the 18th place (overall) LA Kings. Two years ago in this same scenario (1st and 18th placed teams) the clubs were separated by 28 points. The 7th place Senators (Eastern Conference) and 7th place Jets (Western Conference) finished with 99 points. All this is to say that the league is enjoying a parity that provides intrigue and interest across it. It is entirely possible that five or more teams could replace last season’s playoff participants. The playoffs are not a lock and will be contested by all organizations as the season unfolds. Unforeseen pitfalls, most notably injuries, can derail even the most talented of organizations as the margins for error and the difference between wins and losses decrease. The Canadiens should be a playoff team, however, they will need to earn the honour of competing for Lord Stanley’s mug. The playoff picture, once clear in January, is more likely to remain undecided until the very last weekend of the regular season.

2 – Can coach Therrien adjust?

A loaded question… Of course, anyone can adjust. That said, will Therrien adjust? Will Therrien transition away from a grind and trap style of hockey to a game that features skill and flow? Do the Canadiens now have the personnel capable of easing this transition? No greater uncertainty resides within the coaching fraternity than the enigma that is coach Michel Therrien.

I have become a little too emotionally invested in this subject to render an impartial opinion and will only suggest that the future of the Canadiens resides with an unproven bench boss. So much as multiple players within the organization will be counted upon to take a step forward, Therrien will also need to grow and adjust as a coach. The game has changed and those most successful have proven to adjust accordingly.

Not only is the fate of the Canadiens’ season at stake, but future employment is also on the line. I don’t foresee Therrien landing another head coaching job in the NHL (maybe an expansion Quebec City?), so he has a vested interest in making this work. If that means swallowing his pride, so be it. But the simple fact remains, Therrien needs to find a way to get more skill on the ice, at the most critical times during the game. No longer can Emelin lead the team in ice time, if even only for a game. No longer can Desharnais be sheltered with offensive zone starts and first unit PP time. The Canadiens are close and these decisions will determine how this season unfolds. Can Therrien adjust…can a leopard change his stripes…?

1 – Will Bergevin continue to be active via the trade market?

Ultimately the Canadiens will determine Bergevin’s next move(s). The big move could involve Tomas Plekanec, however there would need to be a significant return to make this deal feasible. Should the organization continue their recent regular season success, Bergevin may be a deadline participant. In sticking with the original theme, how this relates to training camp is in the play of our prospects. Bergevin has been quoted on many occasions as having declared that the players ultimately make the decision. Should players like Hudon, Andrighetto, Carr and others push for playing time through steady play in training camp, the organization may ultimately open opportunities via the trade market. Bergevin has proven to be a very active general manager, however, I believe his biggest deal(s) are yet to come as he continues to place his imprint on the organization.

Follow John on Twitter @RabidHabs_CJ.

2 Comments

  1. jd

    August 5, 2015 at 10:07 am

    The answer to most of these questions is dependent on the answer to question #2: Therrien has shown so far that he cannot adjust. He has had almost 3 full seasons and the same nagging problems exist. He is an enemy of creativity, possession and runs a game plan that is boring and inefficient. This will be a frustrating season for Kassian, Semin and Eller because Therrien is NOT the coach to bring the best out of such players. His grinding coaching style will wear this team out and leave them with no energy to advance in the playoffs. It is time for a change for the team’s sake.

  2. Fil

    August 5, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    can a leopard have stripes?