MONTREAL - Back in the spring of 2006, the Canadiens began their playoff series on the road in Carolina against the Hurricanes: tailgaters in the parking lot, flowers busting out all over and the best press box spread in the game.
It started wonderfully: In Game 1, the Habs beat up on Martin Gerber en route to a 6-1 win. The Hurricanes struck first, but the Canadiens responded with a power-play goal from Francis Bouillon, with assists to Michael Ryder and Chris Higgins.
Alex Kovalev would get a pair that night, Radek Bonk and Sheldon Souray would also score, and Cristobal Huet would stop 42 of 43 shots while Gerber blocked only 15 of 21.
Game 2, with rookie Cam Ward replacing Gerber after the latter surrendered three goals on 13 shots, did not go much better for the Hurricanes: They took it to a second overtime, but Ryder scored the winning goal at the 2:32 mark, with assists from Higgins and Saku Koivu.
The Canadiens were riding high coming back to Montreal with a 2-0 lead but — well, you know the rest. While allegedly attempting to lift Koivu’s stick, Justin Williams caught Koivu in the eye, causing a serious injury that would require retinal reattachment surgery and the removal of a cataract that developed after the surgery.
Without Koivu, the Canadiens lost four straight games, with all their losses coming by a single goal, as Ward gained confidence en route to a Stanley Cup ring and the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Ryder would pick up two more assists, your humble columnist would gain five pounds off the pulled pork and the desserts in the Carolina press dining room, and another promising playoff series would turn to ashes for Montreal.
Erik Cole was on the Carolina roster then, but he played no role in the victory or in the Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup run. He was wearing a neck brace at the time, courtesy of a crushing hit from behind by Brooks Orpik that left him with two broken vertebrae, drew a three-game suspension for Orpik and left Cole’s career in jeopardy.
Cole was out of the lineup, but he was always around the Hurricanes room, a source of inspiration to his teammates and an insightful, articulate interview for visiting reporters. I remember thinking at the time that it was remarkable that a guy in a neck brace could be in such a cheerful mood.
Fast forward a mere seven years and the well-spoken Cole has been swapped for Ryder, whose default interview mode is SHM — or Standard Hockey Mumble.
While the Canadiens may have lost the interview wars, from his perspective GM Marc Bergevin won this deal in every other way. (Which is not the same as saying that Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk lost — clubs have different needs and it’s entirely possible this is a win/win deal.)
As Bergevin himself said in a conference call Tuesday, no GM has a crystal ball. From a player standpoint, you never know how a trade is going to work out — sometimes not for years. The only safe thing you can say is that both players are coming off career-high 35-goal campaigns and that Ryder is off to a better start this season.
But the Canadiens get a player who clearly wants to be here while giving up one who appeared to want out. While Cole is the better skater and the better all-around player, he was off to a terrible start, he was bothered by a nagging lower-back injury and he seemed disinterested.
Whether that goes to Cole’s post-lockout comments hinting that he might retire because he was unhappy with the CBA, or whether his back was bothering him or some other factor came into play, you can be absolutely certain that Bergevin did not make the deal because Cole can’t get along with P.K. Subban, as some have suggested. For Bergevin to pull the trigger on a deal for that reason is unthinkable.
Instead, Bergevin is looking to the future. From the Canadiens perspective, the best part of the deal is that it frees up cap space — from the $4.25 million cap hit for Cole this season to zip for Ryder next year, because he’s on the final year of a deal that pays him $3.5 million.
Once again, Bergevin has performed impressively. Everyone knew he was a capable judge of hockey talent, but where Bergevin has excelled is in the business side of the job, making solid decisions (like holding Subban to a two-year bridge deal) that will give him flexibility in the future.
And to make that future a little brighter, Bergevin also picked up a third-round draft choice in the deal and helped to reset the team culture by dealing an apparently unhappy player for one who can say, with complete honesty, “I’m just happy to be here.”
Not a bad day’s work.
Ryder has been pencilled in at Cole’s most recent spot on the right wing of what has been the Canadiens’ best line of late, with Lars Eller at centre and Alex Galchenyuk on the opposite wing. Ryder arrives during what is a huge week for the team, with the game in Toronto Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Bell Centre Saturday and the Habs in Boston Sunday.
Ryder will be wearing his old No. 73 jersey, while young Brendan Gallagher goes to No. 11 — a fitting switch, given that the hard-working Gallagher is very much in the mould of Claude Larose, Yvon Lambert, Saku Koivu and Kirk Muller and not at all like Scott Gomez, who tarnished the number during his regrettable tenure here.
And although players always talk as though it doesn’t matter in the least, Ryder should be chomping at the bit to get at the Bruins, with whom he won a Stanley Cup.
So here we are, seven years after that series against the Hurricanes. Ryder is back in town. So is Frankie Bouillon, repatriated from the wilds of Nashville. Koivu and Souray are among the league leaders in plus-minus for the Anaheim Ducks. Former Hab Muller is coaching the Hurricanes.
And Erik Cole, the guy who once wore a neck brace with panache, is with the Dallas Stars, where one Bob Gainey serves as senior adviser to the hockey department.
Around and around and around we go …
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