In sports, a wild card is an outside factor that has suddenly become included for some reason or another and may influence the outcome of a sporting event. The Montreal Canadiens happen to have two of them.
PENTICTON, BC. – As the tug of war continues between the NHL and the NHLPA to ultimately determine if the 2012-2013 season will start on time, Marc Bergevin and his newly assembled team are conducting business as usual. After adding some much needed grit to a roster often pushed around in the past, Bergevin and newly appointed head coach Michel Therrien didn’t have to make a move for what could prove to be the biggest difference maker in improving over last year.
This past season, Montreal was one of the teams with the most man-game lost due to injuries and the lack of depth cost them immensely. Many players had to step up into roles for which they were either not ready for, or simply incapable of fulfilling, resulting in a domino effect. Who doesn’t remember shaking their head seeing Mathieu Darche or Travis Moen playing on one of the top two lines and on the powerplay, or seeing a defenseman being used at forward?
While impressive for the most part, P.K. Subban became the team’s number one defenseman in only his second season in the NHL, situation made necessary due to the fact that Andrei Markov was lost for most of the season. That’s a lot to put into the shoulders of a young defenseman who, in spite of an exemplary work ethic and an immense talent, still has a lot of learning to do in this league. Markov’s injury also forced rookie defensemen like Alexei Emelin and Rafael Diaz to play more than they would have otherwise, or in situations that they wouldn’t have, exposing a definite lack of experience at the Canadiens’ blue line. Luckily for the team, they could count on All-Star goalie Carey Price, winner of the Molson Cup, to limit the damage on the ice.
Before suffering from his first fluky injury (cut by Carey Price’s skate), followed by his knee injury, Markov was amongst the league’s elite at his position. Not necessarily excelling in any facet of the game, he did everything well and his biggest strengths have always been his vision on the ice and his passing ability. The Canadiens had one of the best powerplays in the league and while the triggerman changed over time, from Souray to Streit to Bergeron, Markov was the quarterback, the common denominator. The team could count on 45 to 65 points a season with him in the line-up.
On offense, there is no denying that the departure of Jacques Martin and his smothering system will be welcomed by many players on the team, but it would be unfair to blame the lack of scoring entirely on the former head coach. An anemic powerplay for most of the season certainly didn’t help but the loss of team captain and leading goals’ scorer in the previous two years, Brian Gionta, had a lot to do with it. True that Erik Cole, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty picked up the offense, but secondary scoring was an issue, especially when trying to find someone to play with Tomas Plekanec. Gomez, well… let’s not even bother to go there.
Since signing with the Canadiens as an Unrestricted Free Agent in the summer of 2009, Brian Gionta has been Montreal’s top offensive threat with 77 goals in 200 games including playoffs, while wearing the Habs number 21. Of those goals, 24 came on the powerplay, playing the role of the much needed right-handed shot on the off-wing at the goal mouth. If only there was a stat to show how many of Gionta’s goals have been scored from the front of the net, in traffic, as the captain certainly is not afraid to get his nose dirty in spite of his small stature.
One aspect often forgotten when talking about the impact of the loss of Markov and Gionta is their experience and their leadership, both on and off the ice. Markov would have been a great mentor for young Subban, and young Emelin might have had a smoother and faster transition to the NHL with a healthy Markov by his side, speaking his native tongue. After a full season without a captain, let’s not forget that Gionta was the one picked to wear the captaincy and while there are other leaders in this dressing room, none were deemed bigger than the one players nickname Gio.
With a more offensive and aggressive system in place under Michel Therrien, with the added grit to the line-up providing skilled players with some much needed protection against intimidation, and with the development of young players both on defense and at the forward position, Habs’ fans should be excited to see this team hit the ice. And with Gionta and Markov healthy, the Canadiens could very well start the season with pocket aces, to borrow an expression from Texas Holdem poker. All that’s left is to keep our fingers crossed in hope for Mr. Bettman and Mr. Fehr to reach a deal for a new Collective Bargain Agreement in time for the season to start.
En français: Le Canadien commencera avec une paire d’As