June 27th, 2009
As Trevor Timmins announced the Montreal Canadiens’ 1st-Round Pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the crowd at the Bell Centre began to rise to their feet. When Timmins finally got to the name of the prospect being selected – Louis Leblanc – his words were barely audible compared to the cheering of those in attendance.
Louis Leblanc was, at the time, a special pick. He was not only viewed as a potential #1 centreman, which the Habs would need quite soon, as long-time captain Saku Koivu was set to be a free agent. Leblanc, however, was more than just a centreman: he was a French-Canadian centreman. Born in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Leblanc would serve to be a symbol of the Canadiens respecting their provincial heritage, and the team’s Francophone identity, in particular. To be a French-Canadian player for the Habs is considered special, and to be a French-Canadian superstar in Montreal would make you deified across a province that has always looked to protect their culture – and their language.
That idea of a French-Canadian superstar had been present in years long past, with the likes of the Richard brothers, Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur, and Patrick Roy all leading their teams to Stanley Cups. The hope was that Leblanc would be the next in line, ready to lead the Canadiens to their first Cup since 1993. But just a few months prior to the Draft, another French-Canadian superstar had been linked to the club: Vincent Lecavalier.
Lecavalier was with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had been stuck near the bottom of the standings in the 2008-09 season. Despite the team’s poor play, Lecavalier himself could hardly be blamed; he had just come off a 92-point season with Tampa Bay, and had led the league in goals the year before with 52. He was squarely in the prime of his career, and had just signed an 11-year contract with Tampa prior to the campaign, but even that wasn’t going to quiet any talk of a trade as the Lightning’s season got worse and worse.
In January of 2009, rumours began to pop up about a potential trade between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens involving Vincent Lecavalier. Despite talk of a trade, the month, and year, would go by without a deal being made. Two different packages were reported to have been in play for Lecavalier, with all manner of names being discussed, including Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Carey Price, and P.K. Subban. Regardless of what the actual package offered by Tampa GM Brian Lawton was, no deal could be reached, and Lecavalier would stay with the Lightning until 2013, when his contract was bought out by the team.
But what could have happened had Bob Gainey and Brian Lawton struck a deal? Would Lecavalier have become a hero in Montreal to join the likes of “The Rocket”, “Le Gros Bill”, and “Saint Patrick”? Would the Habs even draft Louis Leblanc, knowing they had their new French-Canadian star? And how would Tampa Bay fare in their re-build with the pieces they would acquire?
WHAT IF THE MONTREAL CANADIENS ACQUIRED VINCENT LECAVALIER?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: Well, obviously, the two sides would actually have to agree on what was being given up for Lecavalier in order for such a deal to take place. The original deal, leaked soon after the offer was made, was a package of Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Josh Gorges, and a prospect (believed to be P.K. Subban) in exchange for Lecavalier. The second package proposed comes from a tweet by Jeff Marek, who stated that Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton wanted Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, a 1st-Round Pick, and one of either Subban or Ryan McDonagh. Assuming those were indeed the packages offered, let’s take a look at the players discussed:
- Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins were in the middle of their fourth full year with the Habs, having become regulars in the 05-06 season. In 2007-08, Plekanec managed a career-high 69 points, second on the team behind Alexei Kovalev. Higgins also managed a career high of 52 points that year. Partway through the 08-09 season, both were well off the pace of the previous year.
- Josh Gorges had just wrapped up his first full season with the Habs, having been traded in 06-07 from San Jose. He had managed no goals in 62 games in 07-08, but did have an even plus-minus rating. (The deal, incidentally, saw Gorges and a 2007 1st-Rounder – used on Max Pacioretty – go to Montreal in exchange for Craig Rivet and a 2008 5th-Rounder, used on Julien Demers.)
- Carey Price was arguably the most important piece in Montreal’s system. Having already proven himself to be a top goalie at the Junior and AHL levels, Price would play the 2007-08 season as the NHL team’s #1 netminder, posting a strong .920 SV% in 41 games of work. He was the goalie of the future for a couple of years, and he was now swiftly morphing into the goalie of the present.
- Max Pacioretty, as mentioned, was taken with San Jose’s 1st-Round Pick in 2007. In 2008-09, he was bouncing between the Habs and their AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. He still held plenty of promise, being only 20 years of age at the time the deal was being discussed.
- Finally, the Lightning had asked for one of P.K. Subban or Ryan McDonagh. Both blue-liners had been selected in the 2007 Entry Draft, McDonagh in the 1st Round, and Subban in the 2nd. McDonagh was a more physical, defesinvely-minded D-man, while Subban was more known for his playmaking skill.
Now, while I do tend to try and stick to the facts in this section, once in a while, I have to throw some of my own opinion out there, and this scenario calls for a bit of a hot take: I don’t trust Brian Lawton one bit on that second deal, which, as Marek tweeted, was straight from his own mouth. I just don’t see a trade happening in which Montreal gives up their anointed goalie of the future in any deal; sure, the Habs had Jaroslav Halak on their roster, and he was proving to be quite effective at the NHL level, but he didn’t have anything near the reputation of Price, who had already shown to be a budding star.
To look for the most comparable trade in recent memory, one doesn’t need to look far, considering the Lightning had traded another top centreman less than a year ago. Brad Richards, a Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2004 as playoff MVP, and former 90-point player in 05-06, was traded at the deadline to the Dallas Stars. Richards, along with goalie Johan Holmqvist, were traded to Dalls in exchange for Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern, Mike Smith, and a 4th-Round Pick in 2009.
To recap those pieces:
- Jussi Jokinen was in his third year with Dallas, and had twice put up more than 40 points. His rookie year was his high mark at this point, with 55 points in 81 games. He had also developed a reputation as a shootout specialist.
- Jeff Halpern was never going to be a top-line player for any team, but could regularly put up 40 points, as well as providing some good defensive work ethic. He had received votes for the Frank Selke Trophy on two occasions by 2008, but never got close to being nominated.
- Mike Smith is really just part of a goalie exchange for Johan Holmqvist, but it could be argued that Tampa Bay got the upgrade, here. While Holmqvist had been disappointing as a starter for the Lightning, Mike Smith had been a decent back-up for Dallas, putting up a .912 SV% in his rookie year. With Marty Turco still with the Stars, it was unlikely that Smith would supplant him any time soon.
- The 4th-Round Pick in 2009 would soon be traded to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for the rights to Brian Rolston, who then shipped the pick to Edmonton in a package deal for the rights to Kyle Brodziak. Edmonton would finally use the pick on Kyle Bigos, who never made an NHL impact.
To sum up, the Stars gave up a somewhat solid prospect, a two-way forward with a permanent NHL third-line spot, a good back-up goalie with starter potential, and a mid-round pick for a player who wouldn’t be out of place as a #1 centre on a good team. Naturally, the pieces given up for Lecavalier would have to be better than what was given up for Richards, given the value increase. Using some (poorly) educated guesswork, and looking at the Richards package, I would imagine that the original trade offer – Plekanec, Higgins, Gorges, and Subban for Lecavalier – would have been the more likely deal that was agreed upon; of course, had Brian Lawton not leaked those names to other teams in the hope of getting something better, there’s a good chance that this would end up being made.
On January 3rd, media outlets across the city of Montreal are buzzing. Multiple sources are reporting that a trade has been worked out between the Montreal Canadiens and the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning, with Vincent Lecavalier being the primary piece in the deal. Eventually, the news is broken by RDS that Lecavalier is indeed joining the Habs, with multiple young players going the other way: centre Tomas Plekanec, multi-purpose forward Chris Higgins, blue-liner Josh Gorges, and defensive prospect P.K. Subban. While the package was certainly large, one player in particular stood out; Subban was in Ottawa for the 2009 World Juniors, and was a highly-valued player on the Canada team that would go on to win the country’s fifth straight gold medal.
Even despite the high price paid, Montreal fans – especially Francophone fans – rejoiced. Vincent Lecavalier, a man born in the city, was coming home to play for the Habs. For the first time in years, the team was now led by a French-Canadian star, restoring the tradition once upheld by the likes of Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Across the city (and the province), the trade was already being hailed as the first step in turning the Habs into a Stanley Cup winner once more. Armed with a true #1 centre, and a star goalie in the making in Carey Price, belief was spreading that as soon as this year, the Canadiens could appear in the Stanley Cup Final.
FROM MONTREAL’S PERSPECTIVE
2009: The Canadiens go into the meat of the schedule with a renewed sense of optimism, as they now have a former league-leading goal scorer in their line-up. The optimism shows on the ice, as in their first game following the trade, the Habs defeat the Florida Panthers 6-5, with Andrei Markov providing the shootout winner. In his first game on home soil, Vincent Lecavalier would be given a lengthy standing ovation by the Montreal faithful. He would not score, and would take a two-minute minor for tripping, but it was only one game, and Habs fans were hopeful that he would return to form soon enough.
As the season goes on, the fuzzy feelings surrounding the Lecavalier trade would give way to disappointment as the season rolled on, and Montreal found themselves tumbling down the standings. Throughout January and February, the Canadiens would manage three different losing streaks of three or more games, with wins coming few and far between. The topper to the manure sundae would come in late February, when a story broke that the Kostitsyn brothers, Andrei and Sergei, were close with a local Mafia figure. (Though controversial enough on its own, some figure in Montreal media were speculating of even worse stories to break, even going so far as to call the day “the darkest day in Habs history” – which, in retrospect, make the Kostitsyn news somewhat underwhelming considering even worse rumours were being thrown around.)
With Montreal now in danger of missing out on the playoffs entirely, the Habs’ front office pulls the trigger on a coaching change, as Guy Carbonneau is fired, and GM Bob Gainey takes the interim job for the rest of the season. Gainey is unable to get the team back on track, and thanks to two losing streaks of six and four games, respectively, the Canadiens finish outside of the playoff spots, claiming 10th in the East with 91 points. Needing an experienced head coach, the Habs turn to Jacques Martin, signing the former Ottawa and Florida bench boss on June 1st.
At the 2009 Entry Draft, which is held in Montreal, the Habs select bruising winger Zack Kassian of the Peterborough Petes with the 13th Pick. Kassian had a breakout year in the OHL, scoring 24 goals and 63 points in 61 games, while adding 136 penalty minutes.
Also of note, a major trade that happens in the OTL is nixed this time around. Having acquired a #1 centre in Lecavalier, and having traded Chris Higgins to do so, Montreal no longer needs (or is able) to make the trade with the New York Rangers that makes Scott Gomez a Hab. As a result, they keep prospect Ryan McDonagh, but still lose Doug Janik to Detroit in free agency.
2009-10: With the disappointment of 2009 now in the past, Habs fans were looking forward to the team regaining their stride in the upcoming campaign. After all, they had an experienced coach in Jacques Martin, as well as a new captain in Vincent Lecavalier, who would get a full season to prove that he was the same player that stood amongst the league’s best for a time in Tampa. Though the team would lose players like Alex Tanguay and Alexei Kovalev in free agency, Montreal would act quickly to replace them, signing the likes of Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta. Gionta was signed in the hopes that he could rekindle the magic that Lecavalier had with another small winger, Martin St. Louis.
Any hope the Habs had for the 2009-10 season would be tested quickly, as Montreal would follow up a pair of season-opening wins with a five-game losing streak. As time went on, the losing streaks would be more frequent than the wins, as the Canadiens plummeted in the Eastern Conference standings once more. Though Lecavalier did his part, putting up 70 points, nobody could match his production on the team. The one saving grace for the Habs seemed to be the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, who would steal a few games (and the starting job, for a brief time) with a solid .924 SV%. Though Carey Price managed a respectable .912 SV%, he was no longer the fans’ first choice, as Montreal supporters clamored for the former 5th Overall Pick to be dealt out.
Montreal was out of the playoffs, and how. The Habs would finish 13th in the East with 78 points, which was also good enough (or bad enough, if you prefer) for 4th-last in the NHL. The abysmal regular season would lead Bob Gainey to retire as GM, with assistant Pierre Gauthier being promoted to take his place. His first major move as General Manager would anger the fan base, as Jaroslav Halak was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. Despite immediate calls for his job, the Canadiens would not relieve Gauthier of his duties so soon after he was hired.
Montreal would have the 4th Overall Pick in 2010, using their selection on centre Ryan Johansen of the Portland Winterhawks.
2010-11: After all of their expectations for 2009-10 were utterly crushed, few Montreal fans had any excitement for the 2010-11 campaign. Vinny Lecavalier was underperforming somewhat, and the goalie that many wanted to be the team’s new starter had been shipped off to St. Louis. Though he was feeling the heat from the locals, Carey Price would do what he could to try and win them back, as he was given the bulk of games by Jacques Martin. With the team in front of him being awful at times, Price’s play was enough just to keep the team in the playoff race, as his .923 SV% in 72 games of work earned him some Vezina Trophy consideration.
As mentioned, however, the team in front of Price was nowhere near playoff-quality. Vincent Lecavalier would go through some injury troubles, managing only 54 points in 65 games. Sadly, his point total was enough to lead the team, as nobody else on the team could crack the 50 mark at all. Though Mike Cammalleri did miss games as well (67 games, 47 points), Brian Gionta (82 games) and Andrei Kostitsyn (81 games) didn’t have that excuse despite getting top-line minutes. All in all, Carey Price’s heroics kept Montreal in the playoff race, but they couldn’t quite make it to the post-season, finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference with 88 points.
The Habs would have the 12th Overall Pick in 2011, selecting blue-liner Ryan Murphy of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.
2011-12: Fans in Montreal were beginning to get really impatient with their team. For three years running, the team had failed to make the playoffs, and with so much money committed to their captain Lecavalier, fans were beginning to turn on the player that the team had given up so much to acquire. Mike Cammalleri was also given heat by the locals, and responded by remarking that the team was “playing with a losing attitude”. Jacques Martin would be fired mid-season, replaced by Randy Cunneyworth, who was immediately targeted by local media due to the fact that he didn’t speak French.
No amount of change, not even a new coach, could alter the fact that the Habs were going to miss another post-season. They would finish in dead last in the Eastern Conference, and 3rd-worst in the NHL, with 76 points. Pierre Gauthier would be axed from the GM role, and Randy Cunneyworth would be demoted to assistant coach, then fired a day later; Marc Bergevin would take over as General Manager, while Michel Therrien would take over behind the bench. Bergevin’s first order of business would be the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, where Montreal would take Alex Galchenyuk with the 3rd Overall Pick.
2012-13: For the Montreal Canadiens, the 2013 lockout-shortened season was a time to start over, a chance for the team to refresh itself after previous failures. There was hope that Vincent Lecavalier would get a “full” season, rather than the 60+ games of the past couple of years, and there was hope that Carey Price would be good enough to make the team a playoff contender. As the season got underway in late January, nerves were tested following an opening-night loss to Toronto, only for the Habs to win six of their next seven. It looked like after all of the failures of previous years, the Canadiens were once again playoff-bound.
As the season went on, nothing much was able to knock the Canadiens off their path to the post-season, as they spent most of the time battling with the Boston Bruins for top spot in the Northeastern Division. They had a strong first defensive pairing in Andrei Markov and Ryan McDonagh, a trio of productive centremen in Lecavalier, David Desharnais and Cody Hodgson (acquired for Zack Kassian the year prior), and strong years from young players like Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk. The one weak link seemed to be, of all place, in goal; Carey Price would play 39 games, registering a mediocre .905 SV%, while his back-up Peter Budaj wasn’t much better with a .908 SV% in 13 games.
Despite the regressed goaltending, Michel Therrien seemed to have the Habs performing well, and their playoff drought was officially over. They would not win the Northeast, but would finish 4th in the East with 60 points, setting up a first-round clash with their long-time Canadian rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs were coming out of their own dark age, and had a young team with a few strong pieces, with speedy scorer Phil Kessel most notable among them. They also had somewhat of an advantage in goal, with James Reimer getting back to the form that had nearly made the Leafs a playoff team two years earlier. All of Reimer’s form, however, deserted him in the post-season, as he would lose three straight over-time games before being benched for back-up Ben Scrivens, who would lose Game Five by a score of 6-3. The Habs had not only made the playoffs, but had beaten a major foe in order to do so.
The Canadiens were faced with another Original Six match-up in the second round, as they would face the New York Rangers. While the Leafs had a goalie who hadn’t been tested in the NHL post-season, the Rangers had one of the best of the current game in Henrik Lundqvist, who had won the Vezina Trophy the year prior. To everyone’s surprise, Lundqvist would fumble his way through the first three games, losing all of them before finally winning Game Four with a shutout. The damage had been done, though, and with Montreal’s Game Five win, the Habs had taken down another tough opponent. They would face the heavily-favoured Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Final, which proved to be one test too many; the Penguins would sweep the series en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
After so many years of misery, fans in Montreal were ready to believe again. They may have needed over-time for several of their playoff victories, but they had shown resilience in the face of tough challenges from Toronto and New York. Losing against Pittsburgh was pretty much inevitable considering the Pens’ talent, so there were few complaints from the Montreal faithful. The team would have the 28th Pick in the 2013 Draft, selecting Regina Pats winger Morgan Klimchuk.
2013-14: The Canadiens had, for the time being, broken their playoff duck. But advancing to the post-season in a half-season was one thing; replicating that feat in a full season would be something else entirely. This year, the divisions would be changed up, with Montreal being placed in the new Atlantic Division alongside Boston, Buffalo, Ottawa, Toronto, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Western Conference migrants Detroit. The playoff format was also changed, as now, the top three teams in each division would make the post-season, as well as the two highest-ranking “wild card” teams.
Montreal was not prepared to sit back and rest on the laurels of the previous season. First among those to step up their game was Carey Price, who would have the best season of his career with a .927 SV% in 59 games. In front of him, young players like Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Johansen would become key players on the team, with Johansen cementing himself as the new #1 centre with 33 goals and 63 points. Not even Johansen would lead the team in goals, however, as the honour would go to Max Pacioretty, who scored 39 over the course of the regular season.
The Habs weren’t flukes. They would go on to a 2nd-place finish in the Atlantic Division with a remarkable 111 points. This would put them up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that they had acquired Vincent Lecavalier from five years earlier. The series would be a heated one, with P.K. Subban in particular getting under the skin of a few Montreal players. To their credit, the Habs were unwilling to give in to his antics, and stuck to their game plan, eventually winning the series in a four-game sweep. This would set up a clash with the Habs’ long-time playoff adversaries, the Boston Bruins. The series between the Canadiens and the Atlantic-winning Bruins would go the full seven games, but thanks to goals from Dale Weise, Max Pacioretty, and Danny Briere, the Habs would win Game Seven, advancing to the Conference Finals once more.
The Canadiens were set to square off against the New York Rangers, the same team they had defeated in the Conference Semis the previous year. The Rangers were gunning for the Stanley Cup, and had acquired Martin St. Louis in order to give them a better chance at the Cup Final. The Canadiens knew they needed a full team effort if they wanted to advance, but Ryan McDonagh had decided that he would put in a team effort all on his own. The first-pairing blue-liner would have the series of his life, potting 10 points in the series, and shutting down all of New York’s top scorers. His efforts, however, went for naught, as New York would hold on for a testy seven-game series victory.
While there was still a buzz thanks to another deep run for the Habs, there was also disappointment. Despite Ryan McDonagh’s best efforts, the team around him seemed to disappear late in the post-season, squandering a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers. Some blame was put on Carey Price for his poor performance in Game One that led to Dustin Tokarski getting the rest of the starts, but even more blame fell on the shoulders of Vincent Lecavalier, who had played all 18 games in the playoffs, and put up only 5 points. He had been dropped well down the depth chart, and talk of a buyout was swiftly getting louder. Marc Bergevin would not commit to buying out the captain, a decision that was rumoured to be out of fear of riling up Francophone fans.
Montreal would pick 26th Overall in the 2014 Entry Draft, selecting Russian winger Nikita Scherbak of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades.
2014-15: For two straight years, the Montreal Canadiens found themselves on the cusp of a Stanley Cup Final appearance, barely unable to break through. Fans wanted more, and the fact that the team was unable to sign many impact free agents (only getting Tom Gilbert on a two-year deal) had a few fans concerned that the team would be about to tumble down the standings once again. Most of the blame for the Habs’ precarious position was placed on Vincent Lecavalier. Now in year six of a monstrous $7.7M/year contract, Lecavalier had been declining year after year, and was now pencilled in as the team’s third-line centre. With his contract on the books, the team was stuck with little room to do much in free agency, and would have to rely on a bargain or two to keep them competitive.
Any hope that Lecavalier would return to form would soon be crushed. The former 1st Overall Pick would play only 62 games, notching only 22 points. In addition to some injury troubles, he would a few games as a healthy scratch, a testament to how far he had fallen since being acquired by Montreal. His replacement on the top line, Ryan Johansen, had filled in well, setting a new career high with 71 points, while Johansen’s line-mate Max Pacioretty would put up another good year with 37 goals and 67 points. By far the best player on the team, however, was goalie Carey Price, who had recovered from his playoff failure of the previous year by putting up a remarkable .933 SV% in 66 games, earning not just the Vezina Trophy, but also the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
As was the usual in recent years, the Habs had qualified for the playoffs, finishing 2nd in the Atlantic Division with 106 points. This would pit them against the aging Detroit Red Wings, who were finding life in the Eastern Conference somewhat difficult. With so many of their key players over thirty years of age (including Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg), the Red Wings looked to be in tough against a younger Montreal side. Despite their perceived disadvantages, the Wings would actually win Game One in Montreal, then, after dropping the next three, would come back from 3-1 down in the series to win it in seven games.
The Habs were knocked out at the first hurdle, and there was now discontent amongst the fan base. Many in the fan base now believed that Vincent Lecavalier HAD to go, as he was too much of a liability. He has missed the playoffs entirely due to injuries, and was still eating up a huge chunk of the salary cap for such poor production. Once again, however, Marc Bergevin would not buy him out, which now had fans and media thinking about Bergevin’s place in the front office.
Montreal would have the 25th Overall Pick in 2015, selecting forward Jack Roslovic of the U.S. National Team Development Program.
2015-16: Pressure was mounting on the Habs, and Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien in particular, to get in another good playoff run before the team imploded, a possibility that was looking more and more likely by the day. In the early parts of the season, debate would rage on as to who was meant to be the team’s true #1 centre, Ryan Johansen or Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk had shown some potential, but not quite enough to take the top-line spot. Johansen had the playmaking ability, but wasn’t completely reliable defensively, which got him into a few off-ice scrapes with coach Therrien. Vincent Lecavalier was nowhere to be found in the centre discussions; he was injured far too often, and when he did play, he was a disappointing shell of the man who once led the league in goal-scoring.
From December on, GM Bergevin would begin to reshape the team, preparing for the future instead of going for it now. Zack Kassian, acquired for Brandon Prust in the off-season, wouldn’t get a chane to play for his team following an impaired driving incident, and was traded to Edmonton for goalie Ben Scrivens. Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise were traded out for Philip Danault and a 2018 2nd-Round Pick (eventually used on Alexander Romanov). Finally, both Johansen and Lecavalier would be traded out; Johansen would be traded to Carolina for Seth Jones, while Lecavalier would join the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a 3rd-Round Pick in 2016, used on Carsen Twarynski.
The Habs had well and truly given up on 2016. They would finish 14th in the Eastern Conference with 81 points, and now had more problems to deal with on their roster. Though Galchenyuk had been anointed their #1 centre of the future, he was still not clicking with coach Therrien. The players that had been traded away fared better with their new clubs, as Johansen would put up 34 points in 42 games with the Hurricanes, while Lecavalier did pick up his goalscoring, registering 10 goals and 17 points in 42 games before being bought out at the end of the season. Lecavalier’s departure also left a void in the captaincy; much to the chagrin of hard-line French-Canadians, American Max Pacioretty would be made captain in his place.
Montreal would have the 8th Overall Pick in 2016, selecting Alexander Nylander from the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
2016-17: The Canadiens were in a rough place. Not only had they angered extreme Francophone fans by trading away Vincent Lecavalier and making Max Pacioretty captain in his place, but their poor finish had angered the general fan base as well, with many calling for Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien to be removed from their jobs. While Bergevin would stay put, Therrien would indeed be sacked mid-season, as a stretch of one win in nine games would be his undoing. In his place would come former Boston coach Claude Julien, who was actually in his second go-around with the Habs, having started his coaching career with the team in the early 2000s.
Considering Julien was a former Stanley Cup winner, it would come as not much of a surprise that the Canadiens responded well following his taking over of the team. One of his biggest changes was with the defensive units, as young Seth Jones would be paired with Ryan McDonagh. The two would provide a solid mix of offensive skill and defensive punch, giving up few opportunities and even fewer goals down the stretch. Behind them, Carey Price was back to his old self, stealing quite a few games thanks to his impressive .923 SV%.
Julien would finish with a 15-8-1 record down the stretch, as the Habs would return to the playoffs with 97 points. They would finish 3rd in the Atlantic Division, setting up a clash with the Ottawa Senators. The Sens had become competitive thanks to the coaching of Guy Boucher, the playmaking of Erik Karlsson, and the strong goaltending of Craig Anderson; in order to win the series, Montreal would have to overcome all of those factors. Julien would put the McDonagh-Jones duo up against Ottawa’s top unit, which worked to great effect, as the pairing only allowed two goals in the series. After both sides earned road splits in the first four games, the Habs would take the next two, winning the first round clash in six games.
Standing in Montreal’s way next were the New York Rangers, who had become a frequent foe of the Habs in recent years. Though the team was aging somewhat (especially goalie Henrik Lundqvist), they still had enough talent for the series to be a tough one. Though Claude Julien had solved the Sens, New York coach Alain Vigneault – who actually faced Julien in the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 – was ready to adapt. Vigneault would do everything he could to avoid having his team’s stars on the ice with McDonagh and Jones. Carey Price kept games close, but the Rangers would eventually close out the series in six games, eliminating the Habs.
After a dark year, the Habs were back to being a competitive team again. The hope was now that this would be permanent, rather than a “dead cat bounce”. Montreal, however, was not prepared to rest with what they had, though. They would make a major trade with the Nashville Predators, getting Jonathan Drouin in exchange for Alexander Nylander and a conditional 2nd-Round Pick in 2018 (dependent on Nylander playing less than 40 games with Nashville). Not only did Montreal have another impact forward, but also had a new French-Canadian star in the making.
Montreal would get the 19th Pick in the 2017 Entry Draft, selecting U.S. NTDP centreman Josh Norris.
2017-18: With the Habs back in the post-season, and Jonathan Drouin added to the cast for this year, expectations were high for another playoff appearance, maybe even a legitimate Cup run. Those hopes would be put to the test early on, as Carey Price would sustain a foot injury that would require the Canadiens to ride their back-ups, Al Montoya and Charlie Lindgren, for a month or two. When Price came back, he would be unable to get back to form, and he would sustain a concussion in February. Not having Price at his best (or even in the line-up at all) would severely hamper Montreal, who struggled to win as a result.
It wasn’t just that the Habs were getting bad goaltending (save for Antti Niemi, who had bounced around the NHL over the past two years before finding a home with Montreal), but their offense lacked any impact. Jonathan Drouin was shoehorned into a centre role, and struggled in his first year as a Canadien, putting up only 46 points in 77 games. So offensively impotent were the Habs that a blue-liner, Seth Jones, would lead the team with 57 points. Jones, Niemi, and rookie Alex DeBrincat (52 points in 82 games) were the only bright spots in a season that seemed to go off the rails following Price’s injury woes.
The Habs were back out of the post-season, but at least this time, they had some excuses, which lessened a bit of the heat on both Marc Bergevin and Claude Julien. They would finish 10th in the East with 88 points, nine out of a playoff spot. Following a few years of being groomed for the team’s #1 centre role, only to fall short of meeting coach Julien’s expectations, Alex Galchenyuk would be traded a week before the 2018 Draft. He would be sent to the Arizona Coyotes, with fellow forward Max Domi going the other way.
Montreal would be slotted 12th in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. They would grab defenseman Noah Dobson, who had been playing in the QMJHL with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
THE CANADIENS TODAY: The Canadiens got their man. At long last, after nine and a half years with the Lightning, Vincent Lecavalier had gone back home. In doing so, Montreal parted with several important pieces, but what mattered was that the team had a #1 centre and captain that the province could get behind. As it turned out, acquiring Lecavalier was more like making a wish on a monkey’s paw, as while Lecavalier proved somewhat effective in his first year and a half with Montreal, his health would decline, and so too would his on-ice play. By the time he was traded in 2016, he would be one of the most divisive figures on Montreal; while hard-liners still supported him as captain, several other fans felt he held the team back by being sub-par.
Indeed, when Montreal fans look upon what became of the players that were dealt away, they can only wonder what would have happened had they held on to those players. If they had the likes of Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges, and especially P.K. Subban, would they have beaten either Pittsburgh (2013) or New York (2014) in the Eastern Conference Final? Could they have then gone on to the Stanley Cup Final and ended their two-decade Cup drought? Given that they had so much going for them in those years, having a good top-six centre and a dynamic blue-line creator could have been just enough to put the Habs over the top.
As it stands, Montreal is by no means a bad team, but their fortunes rely on one player, and one player alone: Carey Price. Price, at his best, is arguably the top player in the world at any position, but injuries began to take their toll in 2017-18. When he is out of form, the Canadiens as a whole seem to struggle, and what could be a decent team ends up finding themselves out of the post-season, as was the case the previous year.
On opening night against Toronto in 2018, Montreal’s roster looks as follows:
F1. Max Domi – Jonathan Drouin – Brendan Gallagher
F2. Artturi Lehkonen – Alex DeBrincat – Tomas Tatar
F3. Philip Danault – Paul Byron – Jack Roslovic
F4. Charles Hudon – Matthew Peca – Joel Armia
D1. Ryan McDonagh – Seth Jones
D2. Jeff Petry – Victor Mete
D3. Mike Reilly – Jordie Benn
G1. Carey Price
G2. Antti Niemi
There is considerable promise amongst the forward group, but with few natural centremen, Claude Julien is forced to use players who were previously wingers; among the likes of those who get centre minutes in pre-season are Drouin, Domi, DeBrincat, Tatar, Roslovic, and Byron. Again, though, despite the lack of true centres, there is enough skill to make the entire team pretty dangerous on the attack. Whether it’s the scoring of a Gallagher or Tatar, the skill of a DeBrincat or Drouin, or the explosive speed of Paul Byron (who was claimed by Montreal after a highlight clip of his breakaways got the attention of the front office), Montreal has several elements in their line-up that can allow them to keep pace no matter who their opponent is.
The blue line is, in a word, solid. The top pairing of McDonagh and Jones is one of the best in the Atlantic Division, as they have both strength and skill to spare. The second pairing combines the experience of Jeff Petry with the youth of Victor Mete, who broke into the NHL the previous year at the age of 19. The third unit pairs Jordie Benn with Mike Reilly, with Benn providing a stay-at-home presence. Reilly, who got signed to an NHL contract by Minnesota in 2015 after a brilliant season with the NCAA’s Minnesota Golden Gophers, has not shown the same offensive skill that he did in college.
One would argue that the goalie tandem is not so much of a tandem as it is a sure starter and a guy who helps keep the bench warm and cozy, but considering the past season, things could actually be different this year. Carey Price, as mentioned, is normally one of the very best in the NHL, but injuries (and a concussion) brought him back to the land of the mortals, as he put up a .900 save percentage. His back-up, Antti Niemi, was ridiculed after five games of unspeakably horrible goaltending in Florida and Pittsburgh, but he seemed to find his form with the Habs with a .929 SV% in 19 games. If Carey is healthy and in form, the Canadiens are easy favourites, but if he isn’t, they at least have some support so long as Niemi repeats what he did last year.
Finally, let’s address how the bolded players get to Montreal. Firstly, Ryan McDonagh, a Montreal draft pick in 2007, is never traded, as having already acquired Vincent Lecavalier, the Habs have no need to acquire Scott Gomez. Secondly, having given up Josh Gorges, the Canadiens never get one of the two picks they trade to Chicago for Andrew Shaw. As a result, the Habs hold on to the other pick, which is used on Alex DeBrincat. Seth Jones comes to Montreal thanks to the Habs drafting Ryan Johansen in 2010, while Jack Roslovic is drafted in the 1st Round in 2015.
Next week, I will post Part II of this scenario, where I look at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s fortunes, as well as giving a verdict on this hypothetical deal.