The Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of an historic collapse, made worse by the early promise of a competitive season, with exciting results out of the gate in October and November. Yet some disturbing signs started emerging in December, solidified by poor performances in January. Now, after one last desperate attempt to cling to hope, it finally appears as though the team is completely broken, and has resigned itself to mediocrity.
As the passionate fans venture deeper into the stages of grief, it is inevitable that some will enter the anger stage full throttle, and lay a strafing of blame across everyone and anyone. But there are a few members of the team who should not have to bear the brunt of fan hate.
The NHL rookie, in only his third season of professional hockey, won the backup goalie position almost by default in training camp, and by mid-November was put in an impossible position as the starter. This squad proved last season that it desperately needed Carey Price to win games for them; and needed him often.
Price's performance was so stellar last season that it earned him recognition throughout the NHL, awarded both the Vezina and Hart trophies — something not done by a goalie since Jose Theodore 13 years earlier — and was voted the best player by his peers.
Despite the heroic effort, nothing was done to correct this unrealistic over-reliance during the off-season, and when Price went down in November, no further corrections were made. Condon was handed the keys to the runaway truck and asked to hold it on the road.
To expect a repeat of last year's performance from a rookie goaltender was irresponsible, and to blame him for this season turning out the way it has is illogical. Looking at the cumulative save percentage chart below, you can see the plight of a promising goalie who was in way over his head, lost complete confidence in his abilities, and came crashing back down to Earth.
The quiet and stoic 37-year-old veteran, and longest current serving member of the Canadiens, has also had a difficult season. Fans are growing restless with an increasing number of mental errors by the defenceman. But should he be blamed?
"We want to manage his ice-time," Michel Therrien stated on January 14th of his most senior player. "This is a marathon, and we want to make sure that he has gas left in his tank at the end." A sensible statement regarding the aging veteran, who is still a tremendous asset to the Canadiens if used correctly.
However, since that statement, Andrei Markov has played over 20 minutes in 12 of 15 games. These appear far from "managed" minutes, and hardly a significant decrease over the past two seasons. In other words, Markov is still deployed as a top-pairing defenceman, despite conventional wisdom stating that he needs to play a reduced role and have his spot alongside P.K. Subban granted to a younger player.
Markov cannot be faulted for this situation. He doesn't choose his deployment, and as the seventh-oldest defenceman in the league, and a lifelong Canadien whose name is right up there with the greats of this historic organization, he deserves our respect as he winds down his career.
Both Mike Condon and Andrei Markov are professional athletes, paid well to play a sport, and understand that with the good times there comes praise, while with the bad times there comes blame. But these players are not to blame, and they should not be made to feel at fault directly for the way their seasons have gone.
No proud athlete is wired to give up, nor willing to accept defeat. However they are part of an organization that has failed them, and their poor performances are a direct result of that, as their confidence and their willingness to fight have gradually been ground down and depleted.
General Manager Marc Bergevin said it best in his last public outing: "It's on me."
Yes it is, and it should have never have come to this.