"Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." Those are the words of famed physicist Nils Bohr, but they can easily be applied to hockey. In the inter-lockout era, the Canadiens finished 6th, 10th, 1st, 8th, 8th, 6th, and 15th. Even The Hockey News, which claims to be the "#1 selling hockey publication in North America" never seemed to get it right, condemning the Habs to the basement of the Eastern conference in '08, and then tagging them for great success in '09. We all know how that worked out. The point is, no matter how many numbers are crunched, there are always factors that can't be accounted for. Few, for example, would have foreseen a last place finish last season, but if one had known that Andrei Markov wouldn't play a game until March, Brian Gionta would suit up only 31 times, Scott Gomez wouldn't score until February, and that Mike Cammalleri would be as unproductive as he was prior to getting traded, one might safely suppose that the playoffs weren't in the team's future. Add in Martin's firing, and Cunneyworth's incompetence, and last place is a little less farfetched. We may not know exactly how this shortened season will unfold, but if it goes downhill fast, here are some of the things that might be the cause.
- Andrei Markov re-injures his knee, or his ankle, or any other part of his body, and misses most of the season.
- After promising rookie seasons, both Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz fail to fill top four roles, and the lack of a big-name signing on defense comes back to haunt Bergevin.
- Michel Therrien refuses to adapt to the new NHL, and management's strange obsession with replacement-level "toughness" translates into a lack of scoring, as the team loses its speed-based advantage that was the key to its success in past seasons.
- Therrien follows in the footsteps of his predecessors in relegating Eller to a mostly defensive role, failing to allocate him powerplay time or giving him linemates that properly complement his skillset.
- David Desharnais is unable to replicate his success from last season, as his unsustainably high shooting percentage regresses to the mean, and/or Erik Cole, now 34, is held back by nagging injuries and tired legs, and the team's first line from last year fails to find success.
- Carey Price is lost for an extended period of time to injury. This one is obvious.
Alternatively, breakout stars, re-energized veterans, good injury luck, and good coaching can push middle-of-the-pack teams into the playoffs. Here's a more optimistic view of how the season might go. This is what likely needs to go right for a playoff birth to become a reality in 2013.
- At least one of Rene Bourque or Tomas Kaberle lives up to his contract. For Bourque, this would mean at least 13 goals, 10 assists in a top-6 role. For Kaberle, this would mean at least 25 points, and a consistent presence in the top-6 and on the second powerplay.
- Carey Price takes the next step in his development, and finishes the year as one of the top candidates for the Vezina trophy. Development from the youngsters on defense and a healthy Andrei Markov would certainly help his cause.
- Alex Galchenyuk, thanks to a tremendous training camp and first five games, earns a top-6 role, which allows for more scoring flexibility through the top-9, gives Eller better linemates, and improves the Canadiens from 19th in goals per game a year ago to somewhere in the top half of the league. This would also take some pressure off of Bourque.
- Enough other teams in the Eastern Conference falter.
Once you get past the elite foursome of the Rangers, Penguins, Flyers, and Bruins, there is tremendous parity in the rest of the Eastern Conference. There is no clear worst team, and there could be an argument for just about any other team collapsing like the Habs did last year. With a conference-heavy rather than division-heavy schedule, the performance of each of those teams will open or close the door to the post-season for the Canadiens.