Rabid Habs

What’s Next for the Habs?

After being eliminated in six games by the Rangers, millions of fans are wondering what’s next for their beloved Habs. Was this a fluke? Can they repeat it as soon as next year? Do they have what it takes to go all the way? I will try to answer these questions in the next paragraphs.

Was this a fluke?

Unlike 2010, I can say with confidence: no. In 2010 our magical run was a product of Jaroslav Halak becoming a cult hero and clutch scoring from Mike Cammalleri. All that magic ran its course when they faced a team with good defense and a group of forwards not afraid of crashing the net in the Flyers. However, this 2014 run was a whole different story. In their 10 Wins these playoffs, Montreal had 7 different scorers for their Game Winning Goals. A multitude of players contributed in their own ways: Weaver with his blocked shots, Weise establishing himself as a bottom 6 player in the NHL, Brière keeping his playoff reputation alive, Pacioretty producing when it matters most, Subban playing excellent hockey, etc. This team won, and ultimately lost, as a team. On many occasions during these playoffs, Montreal had every line contribute a goal, this shows the kind of depth that they had and why they went so far. One thing is for sure, Montreal proved a lot of ‘experts’ wrong and showed that you can go far in the playoffs even if you don’t have the biggest team. The Canadiens and the Rangers are a testament to that with players like Zuccarello, St-Louis, Gallagher and Desharnais all playing important roles on their respective teams.

Can they repeat it as soon as next year?

Yes and no depending on what happens this off-season. If Markov and Vanek both re-sign with Montreal, I’d be inclined to say yes. If Markov doesn’t comeback that leaves Montreal with a huge hole to fill and while he isn’t getting any younger, his solid positioning has helped Montreal a lot since becoming a Hab. Bergevin would either have to replace him from within with a prospect like Nygren or Beaulieu. Short term, the team would be affected by them making rookie mistakes but in the long run it’d be beneficial for both the players and the team. However, Markov is still a solid #3 defenseman and his experience is irreplaceable. Another option would be to go the Free Agent route. The market is pretty thin, there are guys like Mark Fayne, Anton Stralman and Matt Niskanen but none of them are as good as The General in my opinion.

Another factor is Vanek. No one can argue that the star forward didn’t have the most impressive playoff performance but it’s hard to deny the value he potentially brings to this team. He’s a top 30 forward in the league and arguably a top 10 LW’er. Vanek is what he is though, a guy who won’t produce entirely on his own à la John Tavares but a guy who has a great shot, some good puck protecting skills, excellent vision and world class deflection skills. Even when he’s not playing good teams are matching their top lines and defenseman against him so he doesn’t produce. That explains why guys like Eller and Bourque were so productive in the playoffs, they were facing weaker competition. Also, when Vanek is on his game, he has enough talent to exploit situations where he has extra coverage and make a play to a player left uncovered.

Players of his caliber are rarely available and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him. For one he never played his natural position since joining Montreal. Therrien played him on the RW although he previously mentioned in his stint with the Islanders that he was more comfortable on the LW. Also, despite being one of the hottest lines going into the playoffs, the coach in a panic move decided to dismantle the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Vanek line in the second round against the Boston Bruins in spite of the fact that the trio was dangerous in the series against the Lightning. Without Pacioretty and Desharnais, Vanek struggled to find chemistry with other teammates and quickly found himself in the role of scape goat from certain fans for the elimination of the Canadiens against the Rangers. It’s still interesting to point out that his ‘disappointing’ 10 pts in 17 playoffs games ranks him in 4th on the team in scoring ahead of Plekanec, Desharnais and Gionta (it’s worth noting that these three spent considerably more ice time on the ice than Vanek). It’s also one less point than Pacioretty and Gallagher who have gotten no heat from the media.

One thing that’s gone over some people’s heads is that the presence of Vanek in the line-up leaves no choice for other coaches to put their best players against him. That allows players like Bourque and Eller (who both had very productive playoffs) to face weaker competition. For example, in the game where Bourque scored his hat trick, he was matched up against the Rangers’ fourth line and their bottom pairing guys or their second pairing (32.71% of the time was against the Moore/Klein pairing). On the other hand, in that game Vanek was facing either their 4th line or the line consisting of Richards, Hagelin & St. Louis and on defense he was facing the Rangers’ top pairing or their second pairing. (Source: dobberhockey.com). Vanek easily could have went from zero to hero if Lundqvist didn’t make that ridiculous save in game 7 on the Canadiens’ best scoring chance of the game.

Some of Vanek’s detractors will take a shot at his compete level. They’ll argue that an individual with that kind of attitude is bad for the team and that you can’t win championships with players like that. A recent example, Marian Gaborik (who was benched under John Tortorella), is the playoffs leading scorer and he was once labeled as that kind of player unjustifiably. A team is composed with 23 individuals; none of them are the same. You can’t expect all of them to be intense like Gorges before getting on the ice, or for them to be as tenacious as Gallagher… Vanek had 69 pts this season. That kind of production is not easily replaceable. There’s nobody on free agent market or in the organization among the Tricolore’s prospects that can bring what the Austrian forward brings. Montreal had a record of 22 – 11 – 3 (including the playoffs)with him in the line-up. Danny Briere said during the final meeting with the media that the team gained a lot of confidence when Bergevin pulled the trigger on the Vanek deal and that he really hopes he comes back next season. Pacioretty & Desharnais also admitted that Vanek brought their game to a whole new level offensively and that they learned a lot from playing with him.

Following his comments when the players cleared their lockers, it’s hard to be positive about seeing Vanek in the bleu blanc rouge uniform next season but one can hope that the intensity from the Bell Centre crowd and a potential lucrative offer could be enough to persuade him to stay with the Canadiens.