Montreal's two longest-serving players, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov, are remarkable for a few reasons. One is the simple fact that they've survived in a market that so quickly calls for change when things aren't going well. The two have played on Habs teams that have experienced both moderate success and dismal failure, and carried on with the team all the while.
What's notable is how these two players have endeared themselves for so long. The word "underrated" invariably comes up when discussing the careers of either, and both are capable of being productive and responsible even at this stage in their careers. Need offence? Put Markov on the power play, or Plekanec on the top line. Need defence? Throw either out on the penalty kill, or in the dying minutes of a big game.
That versatility is a defining feature of their games, and those same values were nurtured in captain Max Pacioretty, who has become an excellent two-way player.
But while the strategy of coaching responsibility into the games of the team's premier players has met with some success, at other times the team has stifled itself by trying to force the proverbial round peg into a square hole.
Alex Galchenyuk wasn't a top-line centre until injuries put him there, mostly because he wasn't viewed as being defensively responsible. P.K. Subban is saddled with similar criticisms as a defenceman; he's "too risky." Lars Eller? Didn't score enough. David Desharnais doesn't produce enough for his ice time.
To a degree, all of these statements are true. But from another perspective, they are evidence that the organization doesn't have proper expectations for its players based upon the roles they should be fulfilling.
The term "role player" is one that's thrown around with impunity in hockey circles, and usually it refers to a skater lower in the depth chart. A solid penalty killer, a shot blocker, or somebody of that ilk. But what if I said Phil Kessel was a role player? Or Erik Karlsson?
Brought into Pittsburgh to provide supplementary offence, Phil Kessel led the Penguins in playoff scoring and was proof positive that he wasn't the issue in Toronto (a perception held by few outside of the Leafs' fan and media reach). He thrived in a market that asked him simply to do what he does best.
Karlsson, meanwhile, is in a market that can't afford to have him do anything else. The Senators are content to let him flow all over the ice, creating plays that many wouldn't try even on a video game console. It's the right thing to do with a player that embodies the concept of the offensive defenceman.
It's perplexing that that same team capable of identifying what they have in Karlsson — the absolute best defenceman in the game right now, and possibly the best skater — can't figure out what to do with Mike Hoffman. If I'm a Senators fan, I'm praying this is rectified by new head coach Guy Boucher.
The Hoffman saga is one Montreal needs to study and reflect upon. Are the players where they should be? Are they filling the roles that suit them?
Players like Pacioretty, Plekanec and Markov are exceptional for their versatility, and it makes them stand out from their colleagues. Their teammates shouldn't be asked to play to that same standard: hoping for Lars Eller to score 25 goals from the third line was unreasonable. Asking Desharnais to score 25 from the top-six is just as far-fetched.
Montreal needs to learn from their conference rivals, and from the Stanley Cup champions. A player like Desharnais doesn't need to be all things in all situations, and that goes double for true stars like Subban and Galchenyuk. They need to be put in situations where their skills are put to their best possible use, and if the team sees fit to do so, the Canadiens could have an extremely speedy return to Cup contender status.