There were plenty of positives in the 2013 NHL campaign for Canadiens fans, even if the team only played 53 games this season. The team went from 15th to 2nd in the East, from 28th to 4th in the regular season standings, although NHL wide standings mean nothing in a year where the two conferences are essentially separate leagues. The Habs had a 37 goal swing in regular season 'goal differential' (includes shootouts and empty netters), and the team won more games than they lost at home, which was a highly welcome turnaround from 2011-12 as well. In general, fans should be pleased with the overall picture this shortened season gave the team.
(Side note: There were some members of the media on Twitter chiding Habs fans who left the Bell Centre early in Game 5 considering how much improvement the Canadiens had made for the year, but I can't fault fans for walking out frustrated considering that the year featured only 65% of the home games most seasons bring... especially when it ends the way it did).
The team has a core of young talent to build around, and more young talent in the pipeline. Michel Therrien installed a puck possession system that provided the best shot ratio results we've seen from the Canadiens since the 1990s. There's good reason that Laura Saba wrote this piece about the Canadiens championship window reopening. But the way it all ended this year must give some pause about how the promise of this season may never fully be realized.
Luck Can Taketh and Never Giveth
We've talked about luck a lot on this website, meaning anything from the ups and downs in individual performance that you can't totally control, to bounces, to referee decisions, to injuries. There is so much about hockey that isn't remotely predictable from year to year. Every April-June, the Stanley Cup is rewarded in a series of best of 7 matchups involving 16 teams to start with. Making it to the dance can be dependent on those factors we can attribute to luck. The Los Angeles Kings were a dominant possession hockey club last year but they didn't clinch a playoff spot until a week left in the regular season. Five points seperated them from Calgary and six from Dallas that year with the team reaching the shootout 15 times. If Jonathan Quick doesn't post an outlier .929 SV% that year (his previous career high was .918) they probably don't reach overtime and a shootout that many times in the season and all of a sudden the Calgary Flames play Vancouver in Round 1.
We saw such a scenario play out this year, although with a shortened season we're more likely to see less relation between standings points and possession results. The New Jersey Devils were the top possession club in the Eastern Conference but finished in 10th place, well outside a playoff position. The Maple Leafs were the worst possession club in the East but got the fifth seed and a rare playoff appearance that they're trying to make the most of.
Luck doesn't have to even out over a single season, and it certainly doesn't have to from year to year, either (sorry, Colin). Just because the Canadiens had a great team foiled by injuries at the wrong time, ran into a hot goalie this year and had more calls go against them than for them doesn't mean that we'll get a playoffs where the Habs' opponents get hurt, we have the hot goalie and get the majority of calls. That'd be fantastic to have happen but it's just as likely we'll have a repeat of this year's playoff frustration. Ask San Jose Sharks fans about 'next year' and how playoff luck works. Ditto Washington Capitals fans (now watch a San Jose-Washington Cup Final materialize).
We could be good every year going forward and never win, and maybe never even get out of the Eastern Conference to have a shot at it (at least Vancouver had their shot). The best team doesn't have to win the Stanley Cup. Indeed, the Presidents Trophy winners only win it about 25% of the time (more than any other position, by the way). All you can hope for is that the team continues to put the best team they can out there year after year.
The Promise of Youth Doesn't Always Materialize
Carey Price showed from his formative years to be an elite goaltending prospect, a top end player at a position that is nearly impossible to develop. This past season he had some inconsistencies, and it finally ended in him with a sprained MCL. The Canadiens are paying Price $6.5M a season and can't afford him to be anything less than above average. It's awfully early to discount Price rebounding to the form that we saw from him in 2010-11, but you can't discount the fact that he suffered an injury that could become a long term hindrance to his performance. What if Price's knee injuries prevent him from being the goalie he was paid to be?
This may be seen as an unreasonable assumption, and quite frankly, I'm not assuming the worst here. I'm offering a possibility that could play out based on recent events. We saw a playoff series that had Lars Eller, Max Pacioretty, Brian Gionta, and Carey Price all go down to injury. All of those are key players that the Canadiens need in order to compete to the best of their abilities. What if Price has knee issues going forward? What if Pacioretty can never be healthy by season's end? What if Eller's concussion is only the beginning? What about other key players that didn't get hurt this year? Chances are, one of them might not be ready next year to help the team. Or the year after.
This isn't meant to be completely depressing. The point I'm trying to make is simple: Even if Marc Bergevin never wins a Stanley Cup, it might be something that is completely out of his control. He could make all the right moves, make good decisions with his roster based on the information he has at the time and still come out of it a 'loser'. It's the same problem that faces every team. There are a lot of good to great teams that don't ever win the Cup. The St. Louis Blues made the playoffs every year for 25 straight years without a Finals appearance. The Sharks have been a top team for almost the entirety of the 21st century but haven't made the Finals yet. The Canucks have won five straight division titles (and 6 of the past 7) and two Presidents Trophies without a Cup win. And the Capitals have won five of their last six division titles, making the playoffs each year, without a Finals appearance.
That doesn't make any of their managers failures. Sometimes, the prize just doesn't happen no matter what you do.
So What Do You Do About It?
My main takeaway from this blown opportunity is simple: give the team the best chance it can to win the Championship EVERY YEAR. If, come trade deadline time, the team is performing well in the key indicators, and has good health, don't be afraid to add to it. Don't pass up a chance to acquire a Jay Bouwmeester simply because you currently have six defesnemen you like playing already. If the team has the ability to acquire a good player near the end of the season, they should take that opportunity. Being afraid of salary cap implications in the long term isn't a very compelling excuse for me.
My other takeaway is also simple: Don't change what works a majority of times just because those things didn't work in the last few games of the season. The Canadiens biggest problems during the year can be boiled down to two disciplines: penalty killing and goaltending. Carey Price had a below average year, mainly from March until his injury in Game 4. He'll have to make some adjustments and re-evaluate what makes him a successful goalie this offseason. The coaching staff similarly will have to improve a penalty kill that went from the only good thing about the team's play in 2011-12 to the only real bad thing about the team's play this past year.
The things that went wrong against Ottawa that didn't go wrong for most of the other 48 games need to be examined but not dwelled on. The worst outcome from this year would be to overreact to the last five games. If Bergevin was going to try and re-sign Michael Ryder after 48 games, he should still try and re-sign him after 53. If he was going to keep David Desharnais around after 48 games he should give him another go in 2013-14. If his UFA wishlist was a certain 5 players before the playoffs that list should still be the same 5 players today.
Whatever decisions Bergevin was going to make about the future shouldn't be much different today than what they were two weeks ago. The only new information that the playoffs might have provided that should play a factor in these decisions is any updates or changes to a player's health. Even the coaches shouldn't be judged too harshly for decisions they made in the playoffs. The playoffs were merely 5 games out of 53 to make evaluations and judgments on.
The Canadiens may have missed their best chance at winning the Stanley Cup in spectacular fashion this season. Or maybe in four years, after a lot of frustration, the Habs finish without home ice advantage but have everyone healthy going into the playoffs and march all the way to Stanley #25. I for one, don't believe this was their only chance at it in the coming 3-4 years, but you never know what fortune will await the Canadiens in future springs. It's best to make the most of every chance they get.