When Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin addressed the media at the team’s annual golf tournament last September, he preached caution.
“We’re not there yet,” he said.
The Canadiens’ performance in the playoffs indicates they still aren’t there, but they are a lot closer than Bergevin thought they would be eight months ago.
The Canadiens’ loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final was a disappointment after Montreal survived a seven-game series against the Boston Bruins, who were being touted as the best team in the National Hockey League. But the loss also served to pinpoint the Canadiens’ strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the Canadiens’ lack of size hurt them and a team built on speed lost to a bigger team with more speed.
Bergevin is fond saying there are players who get you to the playoffs and players who get you through the playoffs. The GM now has a better idea of which players fall into which category and that will make some of his off-season decisions easier.
Bergevin’s biggest decisions will concern his top two defencemen — P. K. Subban and Andrei Markov. Subban was a dominant player throughout the playoffs and it’s important to make the restricted free agent happy, which means a long-term deal for beaucoup bucks.
The Markov situation is more complicated. Markov will be in 36 in December, and while he was the Canadiens’ top defenceman at times this season there’s a risk to offering him more than a two-year deal. There’s a risk Markov is slowing down, but there’s also a risk he’ll walk if he doesn’t get a deal that makes him happy. Having him back would be a positive, but Bergevin must weigh the cost.
Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon have played their last games in Montreal. There’s a case to be made for signing Mike Weaver, but it’s time for the Canadiens to give young defencemen Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn a chance to play regularly in the NHL. There will be some growing pains, but they will be an upgrade in terms of speed and size.
Thomas Vanek and Brian Gionta are both unrestricted free agents and it’s unlikely they’ll be around next season for different reasons.
Vanek, the prized trade-deadline rental, is expected to get a big-money offer from some team — think Minnesota — but even if he’s open to staying in Montreal the Canadiens won’t be interested. I’m hoping we learn in the next few days that Vanek was playing through an injury in the playoffs. If he was healthy, there will be some serious questions about his desire.
There’s no question about Gionta’s desire, but his salary ($5 million), age (35) and size (he’s 5-foot-7) all suggest the captain can be replaced by someone cheaper, younger and bigger. In a perfect world, there would be a spot for Gionta, but he has been around long enough to know professional hockey is more a business than a game.
There were times this season when it appeared restricted free agent Lars Eller was on the fast track to nowhere, but his playoff performance boosted his stock. There were several games in which Eller was the Canadiens’ best forward. He has now established himself as a centre and was the Canadiens’ second-leading scorer in the post-season with 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in 17 games, one less than Subban, who had five goals and nine assists.
Dale Weise is another restricted free agent who will get serious consideration for a contract. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward arrived as a rental after seeing limited ice time in Vancouver. He used his size and speed to good advantage and the record would indicate the Canadiens were a better team when he was in the lineup. Weise’s absence was certainly a factor in Thursday’s Game 6, which he missed because of — can we say it now? — a concussion.
The most interesting decision facing the Canadiens is how they move forward in goal. They are set in the No. 1 spot with Carey Price, whose six-year, $39-million contract runs through the 2017-18 season. With Peter Budaj signed for one more season at $1.4 million, it appeared the Canadiens were setting things up for Dustin Tokarski to take the backup role for the 2015-16 season.
Tokarski signed a two-year contract extension that kicks in next season with a one-way deal in the second year worth $575,000. But his performance in the playoffs might force a revision in those plans. Tokarski got the nod over Budaj when Price injured his right knee in Game 1 and went on to justify the organization’s faith in him.
The question is: Where does this leave Budaj? He has been the ultimate teammate, a backup who understood the role. There isn’t a classier guy on the team, but this might be another example of business getting in the way of the game. There are teams that will be interested in Budaj as a backup, but the Canadiens might have to eat some of his salary.
Next year’s version of the Canadiens might not get as close to the Stanley Cup as this season’s crew, but there is a solid nucleus of young players and Bergevin and company will be one step closer to his vision of a team built through solid draft choices and development.
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