Cored Out: The changing face of Canadiens leadership

How a changing of the guard was itself changed.

On September 15, 2014 the Montreal Canadiens kicked off the 2014-15 season with the annual charity golf tournament. They took the opportunity to announce the succession plan to the leadership team, as captain Brian Gionta was allowed to explore free agency, eventually settling on the Buffalo Sabres, while the heir apparent to the captaincy, Josh Gorges, was jettisoned by general manager Marc Bergevin in a trade to those same Sabres. Going into the season, the only lettered player remaining was the team’s longest-tenured player, Andrei Markov, who had worn the A since the 2008-09 season.

The Canadiens announced that there would be no captain for the forthcoming season, but four alternates would lead the team instead. In a nod to the past and a view into the future, the two longest-serving players, Tomas Plekanec and Markov, as well as the two future stars of the team, Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban, would also wear the As on their jersey. It would be the first time either one would wear a letter.

This was not an entirely unprecendented situation, as the team was captainless just four seasons earlier, in 2009-10 when then general manager Bob Gainey introduced Gionta, Hal Gill, and Markov as the three alternate captains following the departure of long-serving captain Saku Koivu.

But for the 2014-15 season, the announcement of four alternates had the clear symbolism of a transition from the old guard to the new, which would be leading the team into the future.

Less than four years later, two of those alternates are gone, one was traded away, and the player who eventually went on to claim the captaincy has been rumoured to be on the move for several months.

The first to go was Subban, traded just after the 2016 entry draft to the Nashville Predators for veteran defenceman Shea Weber. Immediately, the symbolism of passing the torch to a younger generation was thrown into turmoil. The older yet highly respected Weber became head and centre of the leadership group, diametrically opposed to Subban, who marched to the beat of his own drum.

Subban’s out-going personality made him very popular with the fans in Montreal, but put him at odds with the highly conservative tandem of head coach Michel Therrien and Bergevin himself. The coach decried Subban’s risky, and “selfish,” play to the media on more than one occasion, while Bergevin had a very acrimonious contract negotiation with his star defenceman that went to arbitration.

The next to go was Markov. A grizzled veteran of the circuit, he was perfectly content to stay in Montreal at the conclusion of his contract, but he was not willing to compromise on his perceived worth to the team, and wanted a two-year term on a new contract. Because Montreal was primed for a playoff run, Bergevin did not trade Markov at the deadline, and was prepared to head into the off-season willing to risk losing Markov to free agency. Both parties worked during the summer on a deal, but were unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension, and Markov decided to return to Russia.

The tragedy of not coming to terms with Markov was that he was a mere 10 games shy of playing his 1,000th game as a member of the Canadiens, a feat that has not happened since Bob Gainey did it in 1985-86.

The 2018 trade deadline made another casualty as the team was spiralling downward with playoffs no longer in the picture. Bergevin decided to deal Plekanec, who was on his last year of a lucrative contract, to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Plekanec may have been a soft-spoken leader, but he was a shining example to younger players in his steadiness and constant defensive reliability, a characteristic that endeared him to each coach who had the benefit of Plekanec in his lineup.

Trading Plekanec was mainly business, as he had value for a playoff team, and Bergevin would feel the heat if he didn’t start planning for the next season. Plekanec returned as a free agent to the Canadiens on a new one-year contract. The opportunity to play his 1000th NHL game in Montreal may have been a powerful incentive to return to the team that drafted him.

One has to wonder, however, where he fits in the lineup, whether his leadership position has been tempered, and whether he has much of a future with the team beyond this personal-milestone-setting season.

Only Pacioretty truly remains from this original leadership group, but he too is facing an uncertain future with the organization.

Captainless for only one season, Pacioretty was named the team’s 29th captain in September of 2015, almost one year to the day that the leadership core was first introduced. Ever since assuming the mantle of captain, however, Pacioretty has been a lightning rod for fans to channel their anger at the departure of Subban, and blamed for the change in the team’s fortunes after they missed the playoffs for a second time in three seasons under Pacioretty’s guard.

The latest trade rumours proved difficult for him on a personal level, as one would expect. It appears as though Pacioretty’s days with the Canadiens may be coming to an end.

As the alternates left, other leaders stepped up.

Weber, of course, inherited one of the alternate roles, before dresssing for a single game, and there were even debates as to whether he should take the C from Pacioretty, given years of experience as captain of the Predators and Team Canada in international competition. Status quo was maintained, but Weber appears to be well-ingrained in the team’s fabric for many seasons to come.

Another player stepping up to the forefront of the leadership group has been Brendan Gallagher, who plays a hard-nosed game and almost never appears to take his foot off the gas. He proudly wears an A, and his reputation, especially after last season where he was one of the few true contributors to the team, is quickly on the rise.

Going forward it will be Weber and Gallagher who comprise the team’s leadership core, along with Carey Price, each one representing an exemplary veteran presence for their particular specialization. It’s not so much a symbolic handover to the future anymore, but rather a present-day role model group, representing the values that general manager Marc Bergevin claims to hold to the highest standard: integrity and character.

Despite showing those traits in abundance, it still may not be enough to keep Pacioretty in town. In the end, as it was with Markov and Subban, it boils down to a question of money. Leadership expectations, and its value, appear to be mutually exclusive discussions with the man in charge.

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