A miserable 2011-12 season left the Montreal Canadiens with nowhere to go but up. And up they went – way up.
Some expected the Habs to finish out of the playoffs while others had them fighting for the bottom playoff seeds. But a Northeast Division title? Battling with the Pittsburgh Penguins for tops in the Eastern Conference? Not a chance.
Rookie general manager Marc Bergevin has looked more like an astute veteran at the team’s helm and, along with head coach Michel Therrien, seems to be pushing all the right buttons.
Therrien, a questionable move in many eyes at the time, has coached his way to a likely Jack Adams Trophy nomination. Keeping Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher has given the Canadiens depth unseen in many years.
Room for the rookies was made possible by keeping Scott Gomez at home at the start of training camp before using the accelerated buyout. Then, Bergevin cleared more cap space by dealing Erik Cole to Dallas in return for Michael Ryder and a third round pick in this year’s draft.
Add to that his standing firm on a bridge contract for P.K. Subban.
It’s been a pretty memorable regular season for the Canadiens, a few in particular.
P.K. Subban began the lockout-shortened season on the sidelines, watching his teammates enjoy surprising success while his contract had yet to be settled. Then, on Feb. 2, he made his season debut against the Buffalo Sabres – and he hasn’t looked back since.
A four-game point streak to start his year developed into a Norris Trophy-calibre campaign, one that saw Subban close out the year with 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists) in 42 games. The overall total matched his rookie output reached in 77 games. His goals were three shy of his freshman season and his helpers were just two back of last year’s career mark.
But while much is made about his offensive production, the third-year NHLer has been about so much more. Subban has matured as a player, on and off the ice. He has learned how and when to let his vaunted shot from the point rip and his wind-up doesn’t begin three months in advance as often as it used to. Similarly, he’s learning to pick his spots when it comes to laying out the hits.
Add to that the fact Subban has fully embraced management’s focus on the team concept.
And he turns 24 in May.
A season to forget led to a draft to remember.
The Canadiens’ tumble to the bottom of the NHL standings saw them land Alex Galchenyuk at last year’s draft. A knee injury limited him to just eight games in his draft season – two in the regular season and six in the playoffs. Minimal action wasn’t an issue for the Habs, even to the extent that Trevor Timmins, the team’s director of amateur scouting, hinted that Galchenyuk would have been their choice had the Canadiens won the draft lottery and picked first.
The Milwaukee, Wisc., native scored his first NHL goal in his second game and picked up points here and there over the next little while. After hitting a wall in March, picking up just three assists in 14 games, Galchenyuk bounced back in April with six goals and 14 points over the same stretch.
Brendan Gallagher’s strong showing during the 2011-12 training camp that a buzz began as to whether he might just crack the NHL roster.
One season later, he would.
A healthy scratch in the season opener, Gallagher made his big league debut three days later en route to becoming one of the Canadiens’ best players this season. Night after night, the 5-foot-9 178-pound winger bulldozed his way right to the net, willfully taking an endless serving of cross-checks and face-washes. And all with the smile that never seems to leave his face.
The end result? Fifteen goals, 13 assists and a plus-10 in 44 games, garnering him considerable attention as a Calder Trophy candidate.
What kind of player do the Canadiens have in Lars Eller?
That was the question being asked at the start of the season after two years in Montreal during which Eller showed impressive flashes but also left many wondering if there was more to come.
Turns out there was – and how.
Finally with a full-time opportunity at his natural centre position, the young Dane set career highs in assists, points and plus/minus, and has been much stronger on the puck. And if that weren’t enough, there’s been a noticeable increase in the edge to Eller’s game. He’s been getting under his opponents’ skin and hasn’t shied away from being right in the thick of a scrum.
“At some point in your career you have to define what kind of player you’re going to be and make some decisions. I feel that’s where I’m at in my career right now,” Eller said following an impressive performance against the New York Rangers in February.
His decision is clear – and the questions are no more.
No one could have predicted the remarkable bounce-back season the Canadiens enjoyed this year. But even less predictable was the success of Peter Budaj.
A seven-game winning streak? Relieving Carey Price in Boston and helping the Canadiens rally for a shootout win over the Bruins?
No one saw that coming.
But Budaj has been the perfect backup for Montreal, understanding his role behind an undisputed No. 1. And while often backups get the weaker starts, that hasn’t been the case here with outings against the likes of Boston, Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Toronto.
His first two starts weren’t the easiest, his team struggling defensively in front of him. Budaj’s third nod, against the Flyers, set him on that winning stretch, earning him a two-year contract extension.
That’s good news for him, Price and the team.
How much did Marc Bergevin want Brandon Prust on his team? So much so that he had Michel Therrien and director of player personnel Scott Mellanby visit the gritty winger’s off-season home in London, Ont., on July 1.
A few hours later, Prust was a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Known more for his fisticuffs when he was with the Calgary Flames (and Phoenix Coyotes, briefly), Prust developed into the ideal bottom-six grinder with the New York Rangers, under the guidance of John Tortorella. Not only is he undeterred by and able to hold his own against just about anyone out of his weight class, the 29-year-old is a go-to guy on the penalty kill and for energy shifts. And, if a boost is needed, he can slot into the top six.
Prust finished with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 38 games, three shy of last year’s total. It projects to 30 over an 82-game regular season, one better than his career-high campaign in 2010-11.
He quickly became a fan favourite in Montreal, willing go through a wall for his teammates. Heck, he almost did a couple of times in trying to chase down a puck.