NHL Handicapping: Can Canadiens Keep Up Winning Ways?
by Trevor Whenham - 2/28/2013
The Montreal Canadiens are the biggest positive surprise in the Eastern Conference of the NHL this year. We have gotten so used to them being perfectly average in recent years. They may or may not make the playoffs most years, but they certainly aren’t a real threat to do anything once they get there. This year, though, they have the best record in the conference, and they are playing like an entirely different squad than what we are used to — or what we expected heading into the season given the team they had on paper.
The question for bettors is whether they can keep it up. Can this team be a serious contender this year, or will they fall back to earth in the second half of this abbreviated season? Let’s take a look
GM Marc Bergevin
The Canadiens keep making the same types of mistakes with general managers. They either hire franchise legends to fill the role — Gainey, Serge Savard, Houle — of guys who haven’t proven themselves ready for the responsibility — Andre Savard, Gauthier. Finally this offseason, though, they broke that mold and finally got a guy with a track record. Bergevin was in the league as a player until 2004, and then he worked his way through the Chicago Blackhawks organization as an assistant coach and then assistant general manager. He was a guy heavily in demand who would have been snapped up by another team if Montreal hadn’t taken him — something you couldn’t say about most past hires.
Bergevin has done an outstanding job in a short time. First, he brought in a strong staff of hockey people, and he didn’t worry if they were Habs’ faithful. Guys like Rick Dudley, Scott Mellanby, and Martin Lapointe give Montreal a deep, professional hockey operations group for the first time in eons. Bergevin has done some great things — cutting loose Scott Gomez and his ridiculous contract, not caving in to P.K. Subban’s contract demands and ceaseless whining, bringing in Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong to add toughness, trading Erik Cole for Michael Ryder — much the same player, but far more cap friendly -- and drafting Alex Galchenyuk with the third pick in the draft and then keeping him with the team. Bergevin has been aggressive and intelligent, and it has had a huge impact on the team. They believe in their direction and they have strong chemistry. It makes them far more dangerous than they have been in years.
One of the moves Bergevin made was getting rid of Randy Cunneyworth as coach and bringing in Therrien. Cunneyworth wasn’t a terrible coach, but he doesn’t speak French, and that had become a major distraction for the team in the Montreal market. Therrien had been coach of the Habs once before. He was fired too soon, and then he built the Penguins in a Stanley Cup Finals team. He’s a good coach who has meshed very well with this newly hungry team.
Price is an enigma. He is one of the most talented goalies alive, but he lacks consistency and can be just plain lousy if he isn’t focused. This year, though, he has been ferociously good — a 1.90 GAA and .924 save percentage. He’s a major asset for the team, and he certainly has the talent to keep it up all year.
The team has got an unexpected boost from their new faces this year. Galchenyuk has been excellent. He has 12 points, and he has not played at all like an 18 year old. Interestingly, all 12 points have come in games the team has won, so he has a big role in the team’s success already. Brendan Gallagher, a right wing who was picked in the fifth round in 2010, has been very good as well. Add in the contributions of second-year defensemen Raphael Diaz — second on the team in scoring — and gritty Alexei Emelin, and you have a big factor in the success of the team. Any time you are relying on guys who aren’t veterans it can be scary because they can get worn down by the season more than more established players. Right now, though, these guys are opening a lot of eyes.
Pacioretty, a first-rounder in 2007, had a breakout year last year, with 33 goals and 65 points in his fourth year in the league. It seemed like he was finally scratching his potential. He certainly needed to build on that for this team to keep moving forward. He absolutely has. He leads the team with 16 points in 16 games, and he has been a spark-plug for the team even when he isn’t scoring. Teams need an offensive force to build around, and Pacioretty is proving to be that guy. He’s one of the several reasons why I firmly believe that this team isn’t just a flash in the pan this year. They aren’t likely to win the Cup, but they are going to be much more of a factor than they have been for too long.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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