The 2013 Montreal Canadiens were not favoured to do much of anything. Speculated to miss the playoffs by many pundits, or just scrape in (as I had predicted for them), they surprised with a dominant run over the Eastern Conference, finishing 2nd only to Pittsburgh. They showed a promising future and delivered the concept that perhaps the best was yet to come, rather than that they were merely overachieving such as in 2008. The playoff exit was a bitter pill to swallow, but there is much to be excited about.
The Six Best of 2013
With that in mind, we will examine the team’s six best players over the course of the 2013 season. Given that I have also gained a reputation as a pessimist, I would be remiss if I did not also share my concerns about the future of six members of the team who are on next season’s roster.
No. 11 Brendan Gallagher
Brendan Gallagher was doubted from the moment he was drafted by many observers, citing the size issue as an impediment to his chances to playing in the NHL. The actual result of his NHL debut silenced his critics and surprised even his supporters as his rookie campaign stole headlines in Montreal.
Gallagher's 15 goals this season tied with Pacioretty for the team lead (not including Ryder's combined total), which is a notable accomplishment for a rookie playing under 14 minutes a game. He was not only one of the team's best sources of offense, but a player who often helped define the game when he was on the ice. A fearless attitude around the net saw him earn the ire of about every defensemen and goaltender he played against this past season and allowed him to draw a number of penalties. It was observed in the later points of the season that the best player on the line of Pacioretty-Desharnais-Gallagher was Gallagher himself, and his veteran linemates seemed to look to him to spark things. His playoff debut was just as impressive as his regular season play as well, collecting two goals in his first two playoff games. It is not hard to argue that after Pacioretty, he is the team's best natural goal-scorer under contract.
One does have to worry about Gallagher’s durability in the NHL over the long term. He missed three games recovering from a concussion and there were more than a few attempts to take his head off this season by opposing players. No doubt he will be become better at protecting himself and being aware on the ice, but the league’s tendency to ignore hits to the head that do not cause massive injuries is not going to be good for Gallagher’s long term safety on the ice.
Right now, the only way for Gallagher to go is up. He is responsible at both ends of the ice, he is fearless and has a natural scoring instinct. With two years remaining on his rookie contract, the Canadiens have arguably one of the best bargains in the NHL.
No. 14 Tomas Plekanec
He is the man who can never quite get his due in Montreal or in the NHL at large. Tomas Plekanec has been Montreal’s de facto number one centre since Saku Koivu was let go in 2009 and for the moment, the job is his by the merit of his skill and drive.
While Plekanec began the season shooting the lights out with 15 points in his first 15 games, he predictably slowed down as that level of production is outside of his regular pace especially with his defensive responsibilities. He continues to be the team's leading centre for top matchups and that is of much more value than most appreciate. Tomas Plekanec also marked five straight 20-goal seasons in the NHL before the 2011-12 team collapse, and was paced for a 6th 20-goal season over a full season in 2013. As was demonstrated by the injury to Eller in the post-season, Canadiens are in need of at least two scoring centres with strong two-way ability to take on the better teams in the NHL. One should not forget though the impact he has provided on the penalty kill for the last several years either, even with the rather disappointing dip the unit took this past season.
The only real concern regarding Plekanec is his offensive numbers may continue to stagnate or even regress. He has not scored or been paced for more than 57 points since his career-high of 70 points in 2010. This is not his fault, as of the 2010-11 Plekanec’s defensive duties increased to the point of facing the toughest matchups for the team for three seasons in a row. The issue to consider though, Plekanec rarely dazzles with his moves but his game is simple, effective and typically goes under-appreciated. While his best scoring seasons are likely behind, the Canadiens are far better off with Plekanec than without him, barring a hugely lopsided deal being negotiated by Marc Bergevin.
Considering his day-to-day contributions to the team, it is a rather scary thought at present to imagine him missing for a significant portion of time for Montreal.
No. 27 Alex Galchenyuk
It is not hard to look at Alex Galchenyuk and imagine him leading the Canadiens in scoring in a year or two and then to follow that trend for many years to come. The rookie who had played a total of 8 games of junior hockey in the 2011-12 season has excited the Bell Centre in the way only teammate Subban can match.
Galchenyuk's entry to the NHL could arguably have not gone any better. In his 2nd NHL game, he scored his first NHL goal. In his 4th game, he set up fellow rookie Brendan Gallagher for his first goal. He would mark 12 points in his first 18 games, but go through a drought of only 4 points in his following 16 games. As questions were raised about whether or not he needed to take a seat in the press box or that he had come up too soon, he silenced his critics for the rest of the season. Scoring 12 points in the last 14 games of his season, Galchenyuk finished the year flying high and he carried it through into the playoffs. Galchenyuk picked up 3 points in 5 games and was one of Montreal's best on the ice in the series. Despite averaging a little over 12 minutes a game this season, Galchenyuk finished 5th in rookie scoring in the NHL and lead all rookies in even-strength scoring with 26 points on the season. He is an elite prospect with the potential to be the best forward the Canadiens have seen in over 2 decades.
The question going in to next season is where will Galchenyuk play? Will he come off the wing to try out at centre or will Michel Therrien look to maintain the chemistry he found with Eller? It is in the Canadiens interest to see if Galchenyuk can be the elite centre they have sought, but with Plekanec, Eller and Desharnais the 1-2-3 centres, a decision needs to be made.
In years past, it was not that hard of a concept for someone to become Montreal’s best player because of the lack of quality talent on the team. Today with players like Subban, Carey Price and Pacioretty, it is a much harder battle to be the team’s best player in a given year. Galchenyuk could conceivably become that player in the future for a span of seasons.
No. 67 Max Pacioretty
Max Pacioretty is the first power forward the Montreal Canadiens drafted since John LeClair. While he is not in the form of a Shayne Corson or Milan Lucic, one should appreciate the value of Pacioretty being a "modern" power forward.
Discussions of power forwards often evoke the image of hard-hitting, pugilistic players who can also score 30 goals in a season. Pacioretty is of a more modern style, he possesses the size and strength of a power forward and has demonstrated an ability to drive the net, but tends to focus more on using his skill than force. While using this style has been debated, you can hardly argue his overall scoring pace. He has led the Canadiens in scoring for the last two seasons after first recovering from a broken neck to lead the team in 2011-12 and then missing only 4 games after having his appendix removed this past season. The recent revelation that he tried to play through a separated shoulder in the playoffs should relatively close concerns he is too ‘soft’. His tendency to recover from injuries in a seemingly miraculously amount of time is also a nice bonus for a team that seems to have had a black cloud over it for about 5 seasons health-wise. When you have a player who can drive play with his ability to execute zone entries with his speed, elevates the scoring chances of any line he plays on and is just 24 years old, you have an outstanding asset.
The concern at the moment was Pacioretty seemed to stagnate in the later part of the season. He became more tentative and was not the regular force he had been earlier in the season and the previous two before that. He seemed almost laid back at times, waiting for rookie linemate Brendan Gallagher to get things going and avoiding driving the net as often. This does fall a bit on Michel Therrien though, as Pacioretty fell into a rut, Therrien did little to challenge his best winger. I do not think this will be a long-term issue for Pacioretty, but it will require Therrien to be more flexible with breaking up his go-to pairing of David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. While we should not consider Pacioretty someone who is a lazy player, sometimes players must be challenged when falling into bad habits.
Pacioretty is at present the best scoring winger the Canadiens have. He is 24 years old and he seems to walk away from any injury the universe cares to throw at him. He is also one of the best bargain cap hits in the NHL for a 30-goal capable forward in his prime at 4.5 million a year for the next six years.
No. 76 P.K. Subban
Does anyone remember when it was discussed that Subban’s comparables were Michael Del Zotto and Dmitri Kulikov? That was an interesting moment. But after all the drama around Subban’s contract negotiation he did what not nearly enough people believed he could do, he stepped forward as what he truly is, a Norris-quality defencemen.
If you had to name the Canadiens MVP this season, the discussion begins and ends with Subban. He was a force in the majority of the games he played and made his defensive partners better. He supercharged the power play when he partnered with Andrei Markov, finishing 3rd in the league in power play points with 26. His 38 points overall led the league in defensive scoring and was a new career high, despite only playing in 42 games this season compared to his career high being 36 points when he played 77 games in his rookie year. Subban's qualities are obvious in each game he plays as there is not much he can not do. He excels in any situation on the ice, even strength, power play or the penalty kill. Having just turned 24 years old, it is reasonable to argue he will only get better for the next several years given his meteoric rise in the NHL since he debuted in the 2010 playoffs. You can wager this will not be Subban's last Norris nomination and if he were to win, it may not be the last time he wins the prestigious trophy.
He is a unique player on the ice as he does things so few players in the NHL can attempt to do. His trademark move on puck retrieval of holding off a forechecking player while handling the puck one-handed is so routine you do not worry he will lose possession when he does it. As for his one-timer, it is easily one of the most dangerous point shots in the NHL. And of course, there are always his end-to-end rushes, while he is not as frequent with them as before, they are now far more likely to gain the zone for the Canadiens.
The primary issue around Subban after this season is not even matters directly within his control. The coaching staff at present does not seem to trust their Norris Trophy Finalist with the kinds of minutes you expect a No. 1 defencemen to play. Subban was started off on soft minutes to begin the season and the staff seemed hesitant to make him the ice time leader for the majority of the season. He finished 36th among defencemen for average time on ice per game by the end of the year. His playoff time on ice was not much improved, as he was 21st among defencemen for average time on ice through the 1st round of the playoffs. Subban also suffered a strange career low in average time on the penalty kill, averaging more than a minute less per game than either his 1st or 2nd NHL seasons at a mere 1:27 per game. It is somewhat strange that a player who was one of the team's better penalty killers as a 1st and 2nd-year player was kept from playing significant minutes on the unit. Hopefully this issue resolves next season, but at the present time the coaching staff seems to be underrating their best player for the 2013 NHL season, which is perplexing. While he is guilty of going for the big hit too often, that was about the most marked flaw in his own game this season and something he will correct in either being more restrained with his hits, or just be better at timing them.
Whatever amount Subban’s next contract ends up being valued at, it will likely be well worth the investment to retain the best defencemen the Canadiens have had since Chris Chelios. He is the best player on the team, and is among the best defencemen in the whole of the NHL.
No. 81 Lars Eller
The young centre who has spent three years in the shadow of the Jaroslav Halak trade has moved well beyond it now, cementing himself as a core member of the Canadiens.
While Eller does not have the ‘big centre’ size most seem to desire (see 6’4" or above), one should not scoff at his solid 6’1" frame. While not one to throw a big check, Eller is proficient in using his size to protect the puck and work along the boards in the opposing zone. His two-way play has grown a great deal in the last two years where he is beginning to approach the territory where he may be able to match Plekanec’s defensive forward contributions to the team. His offensive skills also were on display this season as he would register a career-high 30 points in 46 games, which suggests his offensive talents are stronger than many suspected they are. The height of his offensive skills is still up for debate given the sample size of his season, but it is a positive sign he has more to offer than was previously suggested by his play.
There are no real concerns sitting around Eller, although he does need to carry his offensive outbreak this season into next year it will become an issue of how much more his offensive upside can grow in his mid-20s. The other concern is his deployment. Lars Eller needs to become the No. 2 centre for ice time for the Canadiens and no longer trail David Desharnais. While his ice time had high points during the season, he too often trailed Desharnais, who is a less versatile option down the middle lacking Eller’s defensive presence and puck protection skills. Michel Therrien needs to respect that in the best interests of the future of the team, Eller should only come second to Tomas Plekanec for ice time among centres. Another bonus is with another year left on Lars Eller’s contract of 1.325M per season, Montreal will enjoy cap savings on one of their better assets for next season.
While he has not reached the heights of Max Pacioretty or P.K. Subban, his fellow 24-year old teammates, you can consider Eller to be a member of the team’s core considering his progress. One should hope Marc Bergevin sees the value in Eller’s contributions and extends him in the near future.
Photography supplied by Getty Images and USA Today.