Canadiens centre Daniel Brière (48) celebrates Dale Weise’s goal against the Boston Bruins during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series in Boston, Wednesday, May 14, 2014.
Photograph by: Elise Amendola, AP
MONTREAL — It was a brutal road trip: Phoenix, Dallas and Nashville. Brutal weather, so bad that it was actually snowing as the Canadiens charter landed in Phoenix in December of 1998. Dallas and Nashville were merely cold, with driving rain.
The Canadiens lost in Phoenix and Dallas on that trip, before tying Nashville. Alain Vigneault was the coach. The team’s stars were Vincent Damphousse, Mark Recchi, Saku Koivu and Shayne Corson. Depth was nonexistent. The veterans were banged up and the roster was filled with minor-league call-ups.
It was so bad, Damphousse and Recchi called me aside after practice in Phoenix.
“There are guys here who are hurting, they probably shouldn’t be playing at all,” Recchi said. “We’ve got some guys who don’t belong in the NHL. There’s no depth at all.”
If that wasn’t the low point in the history of this franchise, it was one of them. The Canadiens had traded badly, tossing key players like Mike Keane, Éric Desjardins and John LeClair into trades. They were thin as April ice.
What no one knew at the time was how very, very long it would take to rebuild. But if you have been paying any attention at all, you must have noticed that the Canadiens team that has now taken a good Tampa Bay Lightning team and an excellent Boston Bruins team out of the playoffs has arrived.
The Canadiens are back.
Oh, they’ve had their playoff successes since the last Stanley Cup in 1993, but this is different. Until now, most of the series wins have been a combination of a hot goaltender (José Theodore, Jaroslav Halak) and underachieving opponents.
Not this time. This time, with the team that flew past Boston, they’ve arrived — and every general manager since Serge Savard has had a hand in the building of the current edition of the Canadiens. Given that Savard was instrumental in the hiring of GM Marc Bergevin, he gets some credit as well.
On balance, you would have to say that the key acquisitions to the current run were made by Bob Gainey, because the club added Alexei Emelin, Josh Gorges, Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban, David Desharnais and Brian Gionta on his watch — but even Réjean Houle and André Savard made contributions.
In the end, the Canadiens are where they are today in large part because Gainey’s vision worked out, despite his occasional blunders. Gainey sought to rebuild the club from the goaltender out and he did so superbly with Price, Subban, Gorges and Emelin. Without those four players, this team is nowhere.
The one constant through the past three general managers has been Trevor Timmins, the director of amateur scouting, the one responsible for all the draft picks going back to 2003. Timmins has had his misses (David Fisher, probably Louis Leblanc) but his successes far outnumber the failures in a notoriously difficult lottery: Price, Subban, Emelin, Pacioretty, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Nathan Beaulieu and Alex Galchenyuk.
The record is even better than that, because one of the defencemen acquired by Timmins, Ryan McDonagh, will be lining up against the Canadiens beginning Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre. McDonagh, the 12th pick overall in the splendid 2007 draft that included Pacioretty and Subban, was tossed into the catastrophic trade that brought Scott Gomez and his contract from the New York Rangers.
The McDonagh deal points to a key weakness that kept both the Gainey and Gauthier regimes from achieving what they sought: their pro scouting. Gauthier’s specific responsibility was sometimes disastrous. Gainey and Gauthier did a poor job evaluating their own players (McDonagh, Mike Ribeiro) and those on other rosters (Gomez, Janne Niinimaa.)
It’s too early to say much about the drafting under Bergevin except that Galchenyuk was a good pick — but the likable Bergevin has not been afraid to surround himself with people like Rick Dudley and Scott Mellanby and the result has been solid acquisitions like Daniel Brière, Mike Weaver, Dale Weise and Thomas Vanek.
Any idiot in the hockey world could tell you to reach out for Vanek, but it takes some real digging to turn up gems like Weaver and Weise, two absolutely key players through the first two rounds.
The result is that the Canadiens appear to have accomplished what they have been struggling to achieve for the past 20 years: lifting the team into that upper echelon of the NHL with the clubs that have the ability to contend year after year.
We won’t know for certain until we see how this team fares over the next couple of seasons, but with the combination of future Hall of Famers Price and Subban, a raft of fast, talented and big young forwards and a solid defence, it would appear the Habs are where they want to be at last, even without McDonagh.
What Bergevin has done is to take the pile of useful bricks left behind by Gainey and Gauthier and supply the mortar to cement them into a contender. All in all, the process has taken two full decades. There have been successes and setbacks, triumphs and disasters. But if the Canadiens aren’t fully there today, they’re on the cusp.
That’s why I’m picking the Canadiens over the Rangers in six games in this series — because today’s team is so very different than it was when we landed in Phoenix in a snowstorm 16 years ago.
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