20 years ago, the Montreal Canadiens entered the 1993-94 season as reigning Stanley Cup champions. Goaltender Patrick Roy was the biggest star the team had seen since Guy Lafleur. He had the fans hearts, he had the dressing room, and he owned the ice. The two-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner and two-time Stanley Cup champion was 28 years old, and ready to dominate the league once more.
The Canadiens had an extremely strong forward core of young veterans led by captain Guy Carbonneau, one of the best defensive forwards in the game. That core also included 26 year old superstar Vincent Damphousse, acquired in a trade the year before and coming off of the best season of his career, where he neared 40 goals and hit 97 points. Also among them was gritty two-way forward Kirk Muller, also coming off of a career year where he hit 94 points.
Behind the immediate core were high scoring winger Brian Bellows, heart-and-soul defensive stalwart Mike Keane, and up-and-coming power forward John Leclair.
On defense, the Habs were equally strong, boasting an extremely deep top-five of Eric Desjardins, Mathieu Schneider, Lyle Odelein, Patrice Brisebois, and J.J. Daigneault. This is the kind of depth that most teams dream of, a great combination of puck movers and shutdown guys, all between the ages of 23 and 28.
Guy Carbonneau, at 33, was the elder statesman on the team, the only core player over 29. The future was bright in Montreal, until it wasn't.
A burst appendix in the first round limited franchise goalie Patrick Roy from playing every game, and his .930 save percentage wasn't enough to win a hard fought series against the Bruins. Over the next few seasons Carbonneau, Roy, Muller, Desjardins, Leclair, Schneider, Odelein, Keane, and later Damphousse were all traded for minimal return. The team imploded in on itself, and the franchise was pushed into the worst stretch of its existence.
Fast forward to this year, and the storied Canadiens are finally beginning to claw their way out of mediocrity. A stunning rebound from a last place finish in 2011-12 saw the Canadiens win the final Northeast Division title to ever be awarded, and place second in the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens now boast one of the deepest forward cores in the entire NHL, though we can't yet say that Les Glorieux are back.
Goaltender Carey Price has had great and poor seasons, and though he has the skills to do so, many doubt that he can emerge from the enormous shadow cast by Patrick Roy. After two years of being the team's MVP, Price was the weak link last year in a well oiled machine.
The forward group boasts nine players capable of 20 goal seasons, including star forward Max Pacioretty, who could conceivably score double that, and 19 year old Alex Galchenyuk, whose ceiling is so high that it's not yet in view.
Backing them up are two-way centers Tomas Plekanec and Lars Eller, and scoring wingers Brian Gionta and Brendan Gallagher.
The defense today has not yet built itself into the deep group of 1993-94, but it boasts a better top defenseman than that team could dream of in reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. Subban's elite defensive play is nearly unmatched in the NHL, and his offensive game, though highly focused on, is just the icing on the cake. After Subban there are veterans Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, who sub in well for Schneider and Odelein, though Markov is much older. The defense becomes thinner after them, but young prospects like Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu offer a tantalizing look at what could be a bright future in Montreal.
Let's just hope that this time that bright future isn't dismantled.