Monday, June 30, 2014

No Trade, Bad Grade

Four years ago, just after the Habs' Tomas Plekanec had signed his current long-term contract, I asked him about whether the no-trade clause included in the deal made him feel more secure about his future in Montreal. He had, after all, spent the previous couple of seasons as rumour-mill trade bait. This is what he said:

"Well, first of all, 'no trade' clause doesn't mean much. If somebody asks you to leave, I don't think you'll want to stay, right? And, obviously, if your name is in all the rumours, it's not a great feeling."

This is the position in which Josh Gorges finds himself today. The partial no-trade clause he agreed to as part of his four-season contract, designed to protect him from having to play in an undesirable city, has come back to bite both him and the Canadiens in the butt. As Plekanec so succinctly put it, nobody wants to stay where he's not wanted.

In Gorges' case, without the no-trade clause, Marc Bergevin could have made discrete inquiries and arranged a trade that would best work for the team. Gorges would have been shocked and disappointed, but would have adjusted as so many players before him have done. As it stands, Bergevin apparently had a trade worked out, but was obliged to request Gorges' permission. Gorges refused to give because it was allegedly to the leafs, who are on his no-trade list.

So now, we have Gorges hurt and angry on one side and Marc Bergevin looking for another trade (for whatever reason...that's another issue) to which Gorges will agree on the other. Unfortunately for Bergevin, once that "we don't want you" genie is out of the bottle, there's no putting it back. Gorges, as a guy whose intrinsic value is in his unwavering dedication to giving everything for his team, can't help but find it tough to live up to his own standard when he knows Bergevin wanted him gone. When that genie escapes, the GM has virtually no choice but to trade the guy, and all his colleagues know it. If Gorges might have brought back a top-six winger or other valuable player for Montreal, his value will now be lower as the vultures know Bergevin has got to move him.

Then there's the impact on the rest of the team. With captain Brian Gionta's status in limbo, there's pressure on guys like P.K.Subban and Carey Price to take on more of a leadership role. Not to mention, Gorges and Price are very close off the ice and the move will undoubtedly be felt by Price, especially in the way it was handled.

Really, in the end, no-trade clauses do more harm than good for many players. In the old days, when hardly anyone had them, guys could convince themselves they were going to a team that wanted them, rather than being discarded by the one letting them go. These days, when they're asked to waive a no-trade clause there's no hiding from the fact the team they've bled for wants to ditch them.

Tomas Plekanec was right.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wilted Flower

Guy Lafleur is at it again. Unsatisfied with his status as hockey legend and Quebec hero, the former Canadiens star periodically enjoys expressing his opinion of the current incarnation of his old team. Quite often, the opinion is negative and hurtful. In 2008, he talked about the team being composed of "four fourth lines." In 2009, he said long-time captain Saku Koivu should have been traded years ago and should just go away to Minnesota to play with his brother. In 2012, he slammed the idea of the Habs hiring Patrick Roy as coach because he's too volatile. Now he's ridiculing Max Pacioretty and Tomas Vanek, claiming they're not ready to 'pay the price' to win in the playoffs and the team should let them go. All this, of course, is coming from an official Canadiens ambassador.

Nobody is denying Lafleur's right to speak his mind, and, as a team legend, his opinion carries weight and attracts comment. He's often lauded for his fearlessness in sharing his thoughts so freely. Where he's wrong, however, is in failing to recognizing the responsibility that comes with influence. When Lafleur says Vanek and Pacioretty failed to rise to the occasion in the post-season, it's not just the public hearing that. Inevitably, those players will hear it too. And, unless Lafleur actually talked to them and understands where they were coming from, he's being reckless with their reputations.

Pacioretty is 25 years old and is just emerging from his first real playoff experience with 11 points in 17 games including two series-winning goals. He's a streaky player, as are most goal scorers. He's also a career Canadien coming into his own as a go-to winger, on a very cap-friendly long-term deal. He took 55 shots in the playoffs, with an unfortunate 9.1% shooting percentage. He was involved, even if the goals weren't going in. This is a guy who is dedicated to training his body and giving back to the city in which he plays. While he may have some issues with confidence, it's all part of his development.

Vanek is 30, and has had the misfortune of playing for some terrible teams through his career. Still, in his previous 36 playoff games, he scored 20 points. His post-season this year was statistically better, with 10 points in 17 games. Even so, there's no comparison with his regular-season stats, which put him at 0.83 points per game, versus his 0.59 PPG in the post-season. In terms of his involvement for the Canadiens, he had 28 shots, with a strong 18% shooting percentage. One can't help but think if he'd taken more shots, he could have made more of a difference. He admitted as much himself after the team had been eliminated. He's also said all along he plans to hit the open market for the best contract he can get this summer.

These are two different players, at two different points in their careers, with two very different motivations. For Lafleur to lump the two of them together shows his lack of subtlety and understanding. A more thoughtful critic might remember that in his own first real playoff run of 17 games, he contributed only 8 points. He might think about how he felt when people complained about his lack of expected production in the early years, and how they said he might be a first-overall bust. Then, maybe, he'd consider what it would have been like for him if team icons like Jean Beliveau had chosen to dump on him in the press, and perhaps feel a bit of gratitude that he didn't have to deal with that.

Thomas Vanek likely won't be in Montreal very long after July 1, and Lafleur's comments probably won't affect the big pay day he's looking for. Max Pacioretty will be at Habs training camp in September, and he'll be asked about Lafleur's opinion of him. He'll think about how he recovered from a devastating injury as a Canadien, and how he always pushed himself to get better and get back in the lineup to help his team. He'll remember having a breakout year and almost cracking the forty-goal barrier, he'll consider the money he left on the table when he signed his contract, and he'll think about the work he's done every year to improve mentally and physically. While he's staring blankly over the field of microphones in his face and telling the media he can't help what other people think, and that he was doing the best he could in the playoffs, he'll probably be wondering too. He'll wonder why a guy who had such a great, honourable career would throw a fellow player under the bus like that.

Guy Lafleur had nothing to gain by making those comments, save a bit of a media furour and his name topping the sports news again. In his callous disregard for the fact that Pacioretty and Vanek are now in the position in which he once found himself...real people playing a tough game in the public eye...he did himself no favours. Nor is he helping the all-too-brief careers of players who could only be hurt by the things he said. It was thoughtless and those players deserve better from one of their own.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Painful Lessons

Well, folks, very few of the Habs die-hards among us would have thought the dramatic seven-game triumph over the hated Bruins in the quarter-finals of these playoffs would have ended in...this. After the gut-wrenching, heart-stressing Boston marathon, not many could picture those Canadiens quite so easily tamed by a team to which we'd paid little attention all year.Yet, here we are. We have to admit, four games in, the Rangers aren't lucky. They're a good team. They're probably better than the Habs are right now.

The New York defence is better, man-for-man than the Canadiens. Their coach has them playing a sling-shot style breakout, in which their defenceman gets the puck deep in their zone and then fires it hard up ice to wingers in motion. Those forwards are getting behind the Habs D and leading to countless odd-man rushes and breakaways. The Canadiens defence, in contrast, is chipping the puck up to stationary forwards who flip it along the boards or through the middle, leading to giveaways and one-and-done attack.

The Rangers coaching is better. Alain Vigneault is using creative counters to the Canadiens attacks, as was so deftly illustrated by Sportsnet's Justin Bourne earlier in the series. Their special teams are better too, underlined by the killer short-handed goal they scored in Game 4 and their aggressive attack at their own blueline on the Canadiens' anaemic power play. Habs, on the other hand can't score on the PP and have given up four PP goals and a SH tally against.

Both the Rangers and the Habs have an undersized Francophone veteran in the lineup. The Canadiens have Daniel Briere. The Rangers have Martin St.Louis. One of them will be in the Hall of Fame. Guess which? The Rangers team speed is as good or better than the Habs. They're better on the boards and they're making better use of their opportunities.

The loss of Carey Price was devastating mentally for the Canadiens. The goalie is the unquestioned leader on the team; the guy who stood up in the second intermission of the last game against Boston and inspired the team to bring it home, and the guy who walked the walk on the ice. Yet, his loss isn't directly responsible for the position the team finds itself in now. Price's puckhandling might have helped with the Habs struggles to get out of their own end, and perhaps he might have stopped one or two of the breakaway chances that beat Dustin Tokarski. It's unlikely, though, that he would have stopped all of them. And, perhaps Price might not have stoned St.Louis in close more than once like Tokarski did. The goaltending isn't the issue. It's everything else.

It's big forwards who play small and little guys who are more easily controlled when they crash the net. It's an aging Andrei Markov who looks drained. It's an overworked P.K.Subban, who's trying to do it all and who's partnered with a guy who'd be a borderline 4th defenceman on a serious contender. It's Alexei Emelin on the second D-pair when he's not hitting and doesn't have the hockey IQ or mobility to be more than a hitter. It's a PP that goes 1-for-9 in a game and a coaching staff that continues to play the same people in the same situations with the same results, while guys like Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk have strong games and aren't given opportunities to help the team. It's the Rangers best players being their best while the Habs best guys are MIA. Yeah, we're talking to you, Pacioretty and Vanek.

Even though it hurts a lot to see this opportunity to play for the Cup slipping away, the good thing about this unexpected playoff run is it's giving management the opportunity to evaluate the team under fire and recognize the holes in the lineup. Marc Bergevin surely sees Brian Gionta is done and Andrei Markov needs to play fewer minutes with a better partner if he's to return. After watching Therrien's by-the-gut style coaching get trumped by Alain Vigneault's actual strategic approach, Bergevin must be thinking about the direction he wants his staff to go. He must know young defencemen like Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi need regular-season experience so the likes of Francis Bouillon, Doug Murray and Emelin aren't the team's go-to help in the playoffs. And he's got to see that, while he's on the right track to look for character in his players, that character has got to be wrapped up in bigger, younger, faster bodies. It's a process.

The Habs have made us very proud this post-season, and it would be amazing if they somehow found a way to grope back into this series. Deep down, though, we're probably not expecting it. Management will have to take the good from this run, use it to make the team better and hope like hell this opportunity wasn't the best shot they'll have to get this far for a while. The Rangers are a good team, and they, so far, deserve to win this series. Next time, if Bergevin has learned this year's lessons well, the Habs will be the better team. If we're honest even if they were to make the Finals this year, they'd have an awfully hard time compensating for their weaknesses against either Chicago or L.A. When they're in this spot again, we want the Habs to be ready for anything and the lessons learned this year will be part of that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Rough Ride

Oh, but the Canadiens bandwagon is a desolate vehicle today. The empty seats are littered with discarded tissues, pieces of broken heart and leftover shards of I-told-you-so. Its once-shiny tricolour paint is chipped and the weathered, grey same-old is showing through. Rain drips from its roof, running tear-like down its windows. The clipping pace it used to keep has slowed to a desultory crawl with two flat tires. Those still aboard, even the natural optimists, speak in hushed tones of what might have been.

The team that came out flat-footed against the Rangers to start Game One, probably due to an emotional hangover from beating the hated Bruins in a hard-fought seventh game, was not the same one we saw in Game Two. This team, still absorbing the devastating news of Carey Price's injury, came out and did all the things that allowed it to beat Tampa Bay and Boston. Only this time, Henrik Lundqvist lived up to his all-world reputation and Dustin Tokarski looked like was starting his first-ever NHL playoff game.

The Canadiens are facing a level of adversity with which they haven't had to deal in this post-season. Previously, if they poured on the heat and controlled possession, something would go into the net. Not this time. Having failed to take advantage of their infrequent power plays, their lack of 5-on-5 scoring is exposed. The power-forward version of Rene Bourque has sunk back into his usual rut. P.K.Subban is playing lots of minutes, but seems to feel he's got to do everything himself, while his exciting end-to-end rushes are low-percentage plays that rarely end in a goal. Thomas Vanek is going to hit the free-agent market in July, and Marc Bergevin likely won't be first in his line of suitors.

The Rangers present an issue the Canadiens have not yet faced in these playoffs: a defensive corps better than their own. The Tampa defence wasn't as good, plus they were missing their starting goalie. The Bruins were missing top-four guys Dennis Seidenberg and Dennis McQuaid. If the old adage that defence wins championships is true, the Rangers have the advantage in this series and the Canadiens don't have an answer. Ryan McDonagh (pause for weeping, gnashing of teeth and abuse of Bob Gainey voodoo dolls) isn't as dynamic as Subban, but he's strong, positionally sound, smart and a threat offensively. Dan Girardi is a solid shut-down guy as well, but better in most areas than Josh Gorges. Anton Stralman's biggest challenge is his difficulty in dealing with big, net-crashing forwards, which isn't a major issue when facing the Habs. He's also eight years younger than Andrei Markov. Marc Staal is big, strong and a former first-round pick. He's leagues ahead of Alexei Emelin in every sense. Kevin Klein is younger and bigger than Mike Weaver, and John Moore for Nathan Beaulieu is a wash.

As a result of the mismatch on D, the Rangers are getting clear looks at the Habs net, while the Rangers are blocking shots, clearing rebounds, pushing the Canadiens to the outside and just generally doing a great job in allowing Lundqvist to see as much as possible. And, when Lundqvist can see everything...well...we've seen the result twice now. The loss of Carey Price is particularly devastating in this sense, because his great positioning covers up for a lot of the defensive gaffes his D-men make.

The Habs did well to possess the puck so much as they (with a few exceptions) busted their butts to defy the bad luck of Price's loss. The truth, though, is sometimes there's a loss a team just can't overcome because the hole he leaves uncovers other, fundamental weaknesses. The Canadiens have been rocked by Price's injury and they've tried their best to get back into the series, only to be frustrated in the Rangers zone. These are mental blows from which recovery will be difficult.

Despite its lighter load, the bandwagon will continue to wobble along for at least another two games. It's particularly tough to watch the wheels fall off because this year, it looked like the Habs had something special. They were healthy (for once), their special teams were working, they were getting unexpected goals from previously-underachieving players, Carey Price was having his best playoffs to date and they believed they could win. They believed in themselves, and made us believe too. Now, with Price gone and little else working like it was in the previous two rounds, the belief is ebbing away. We're forced to accept that sometimes, even a good team can be outmatched. With the Rangers' superior defence it's going to be very tough for the Canadiens to come back in this series, but it should help Marc Bergevin organize his priorities.

Many of the new fans the Habs picked up at bandwagon stops along this playoff road have decided to pack up their stuff and jump off now that things are looking grim. Those of us who've punched lifetime tickets are jumping off too. After all, somebody's got to get behind it and push it uphill.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Credit Report

Now that the thrills of the wonderful Game Seven Habs win over the Bruins have been absorbed, celebrated and wallowed in, the team and its fans must turn their focus to the next challenge presented by the New York Rangers. It's time to get back to business, and part of that is analyzing what worked in the Boston series so it can be duplicated in the semi-finals.

Some of the win factors are obvious. Carey Price was a solid, dependable presence. P.K.Subban played the best hockey he's played since entering the NHL. The supplementary scoring from the third and fourth lines supported the top lines when they struggled for goals. Tomas Plekanec's line kept the David Krejci line from factoring in the series. The special teams were solid. And the resolve and unity displayed by the team in the face of adversity countered the extracurricular commentary and on-ice cheapness of the Bruins. Those are the obvious reasons for the Canadiens' triumph over Boston.

Perhaps overlooked, although he shouldn't be in this case, is the performance of Michel Therrien. The coach has taken a lot of heat in his second stint behind the Habs bench, much of it deserved. In the past, he's refused to give public credit to Subban, and seemed to almost dislike him. He's made strange personnel decisions, like sticking with Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray instead of integrating younger defencemen into the lineup through the year, relegating Daniel Briere to the fourth line even when his play improved, and juggling lines right up until the last couple of games of the season. His bench management has often been suspect as well. He had a long stint of burning off his time out after a second-period icing, then needing it later in the game. He's often watched his team give up a key goal, then come right back with his worst defence pair. And he's messed up last change at home and ended up with his third D-pair and fourth line on the ice against the opposing top scorer.

That was then.

These playoffs are now, and Therrien has been really good. In the series against the Bruins, the rhetoric started before the puck dropped on Game One. Boston coach Claude Julien talked about how much he hates the Canadiens. His players followed suit, talking about hate and their supreme confidence in their ability to beat Montreal. Therrien didn't take the same approach. He talked about respecting the opponent and a commitment to hard work by his players. He didn't rise to the bait and fire back at Julien. In the end, neither did the Canadiens. They took the same high road their coach traveled and declined to fire barbs back at their accusers in black.

Neither did Therrien follow the example of his Boston counterpart and consistently berate the officials from the bench, or talk about the "crap" his poor players have to deal with. Unlike when he took his famous bench minor that possibly cost the Canadiens a playoff series in his last stint in Montreal, this time Therrien left that to Julien, who ended up getting penalized for abusing the refs.

The Bruins, following the example of their coach, seemed to believe their own hype and they got bogged down in a mental, verbal and cheap-shot battle that seemed to exhaust them more than it did the Habs. The Montreal players on the other hand, without getting sucked into that fight, were able to focus on the way they needed to play. That direction came from Therrien.

The other noticeable thing about Therrien in these playoffs has been his affection for his players. Cameras caught him before Game Six, walking the length of the bench, patting every single player on the back and dropping a word of encouragement in every ear. During tense moments in games he's been seen calming players down, and when mistakes were made, he's been there to talk to the offender about it. Knowing Subban was under tremendous pressure personally and professionally in the Boston series, Therrien was unequivocal in his praise and support for the young defenceman. He's been a positive and calming influence, which, in the emotionally-driven playoffs, is sometimes more important than being an X and O genius.

Just as we've seen teams tune out a coach and collapse, we're now seeing a team buy into the message and raise their level of play because everyone believes in the same thing. Michel Therrien has learned from his mistakes and he's now got a group of players who are listening to him, and, because of that, they're winning. Even if he's still a little slow to make adjustments when things aren't working (he probably should have inserted Nathan Beaulieu in the lineup long before Game Six), he's managed something more important at this time of year. He's convinced 30 players, a coaching staff and a GM that they can win the Stanley Cup.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

No More Mr.Nice Guy

Sometimes it's hard to be the bigger person, it's tough to be the nice guy and it's painful to be the good sport. When you invest as much emotionally in the team you follow as most loyal Habs fans do, it hurts when the years pass and all you have to assuage the hurt of another season's futility is the memory of past glory. We try to find the brighter side of playoff misses (Hey! A better draft pick!) and early eliminations (They're building toward the future!), but after a while, it all feels kind of empty.

I would like to think I've been a pretty good sport about the last 21 years of Habs incomplete playoff efforts, the immediate post-Patrick Roy years excepted. I've looked for the bright spots. I've tried to focus on Saku Koivu's heroic return from cancer, and not the bloody eye injury that cost his team a playoff run. I've given credit to better teams, luckier teams, healthier teams and more determined teams.

This year, though, I have to admit I'm sick of it. Sometimes, even the most patient, optimistic fans have just had enough. Watching and listening to the Bruins' behaviour before and during this series is infuriating because they don't take the high road. They take the lowest of the low roads, and they succeed. Then, when they do, they rub it in the faces of their opponents. They boast, they sneer, they talk about how much they hate the opposition. Then, on the ice, they complain about everything and when they score, they thump their chests, flex their biceps and leap into the glass on an empty-netter as though it's the Cup winner. They squirt water from the bench into the face of P.K.Subban while he's trying to play, foul players with their sticks and try to start dumb fights at the ends of games when it doesn't matter. Their fans throw bottles at opposing players and make thousands of racist comments on Twitter when a black guy beats them. The Bruins make few apologies for their crass behaviour, but, rather, revel in it. They expect to win, and they'll do whatever it takes to do so. Most gallingly, it works.

Habs fans have put up with a lot of this in the last 21 years. When the Bruins won on an overtime deflection in Game Seven in 2011, they acted as though they'd swept the Habs and their cockiness knew no bounds. And in the 2009 playoffs when a disjointed Habs team really did get swept by the Bruins, their fans spent the summer mocking Montreal mercilessly. Even in the 2002, 2004 and 2008 Canadiens wins over Boston, the whining, accusations of diving and cheating and the diminishing of the Montreal victories was ridiculous.

With another Game Seven on the horizon and somebody going home on Wednesday night, it's clear anything can happen. A blown offside call, a fluke bounce, an early PP, a key injury...nobody knows what little thing could turn the tide of the game and the series. Both teams have played very strong games, and could do so again. Logically, I'm aware of this. I know the Bruins are better on paper, yet the Habs have given them all they could handle in this series. I concede the Canadiens have shown some very positive signs of being a team on the rise, but this year, I want more.

I don't want to meet Bruins fans' gloating with a polite, "Your team did well." Not this year. I don't just want the Habs to win, I want, for once, the braggarts to go golfing. I want the team that's played the cleaner, more respectful game to walk out with the victory and their heads held high. The Canadiens have played this series the right way, and I want to see them rewarded for that. I want them to come out flying the way they did in Game Six and prove, by their play, that they deserve to win.

Today, I wore my red Habs sweater out shopping. People were smiling when they saw it, and folks I didn't know made a point to comment and say they were hoping for the Habs too. Even leafs fans told me they're going for Montreal "because they're Canadian," and "because the Bruins are playing dirty." And you know what? It's really nice. It's nice to be a fan of the team that's attracting admiration and support from all avenues. I don't want it to stop, and I don't want to have to pretend to be a silver-lining fan for one more year.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Questions and Answers

Going into the 2014 playoffs, there were many unanswered questions swirling around the Canadiens. How much will GM Marc Bergevin be willing to pay to keep Thomas Vanek? What kind of deal does P.K.Subban deserve? Will Andrei Markov be re-signed or not? Who will be captain if Brian Gionta is let walk away? Now, on the brink of elimination, management should have a very good idea about the answers to those questions.

On Vanek, there's no doubt the man wants his last big NHL pay day this summer. He's 30, and knows from now until the end of his career, he'll be fighting to maintain what he's got, rather than keep improving. He'll want the maximum seven years teams other than Montreal can offer him and he'll want significant coin. The temptation to sign him is significant because the Habs could definitely use his skill. He's able to put up anywhere from 60-80 points a year if he stays healthy. However, at his age, his ability to keep producing at that level will inevitably begin to decline. If he were signed for five years, one could reasonably expect him to maintain his output for three or four years, with a bonus if he can do it for all five. However, Vanek doesn't want a five-year deal, and anything beyond that is risky for the team that signs him. The Canadiens are looking at a window for Stanley Cup contention opening in the next couple of years, and can't afford to have a giant contract with small return on the books then. Of course, Vanek may surprise and be a legitimate producer for the next ten years. There's a better chance he won't, if you look at his compete level in these playoffs, so if he's not willing to sign for five years, he should be let go to Minnesota or whatever other team will commit its future to him.

P.K.Subban, on the other hand, has proven, beyond a doubt, that he's the real deal. He has managed to raise his game significantly when it really counts, and he has proven he can handle adversity by taking the high road in the face of racism and petty garbage like Shawn Thornton's spraying him with water from the bench. He didn't fight back when Michel Therrien benched him for mistakes other players were forgiven, or when Therrien talked about making him a "better person." He handles all the crap that comes his way with dignity and aplomb and still faces every day with a smile. He accepted a low-ball bridge contract last time he was up for renewal, then went out and won the Norris. Subban has more than earned his pay day. The team has the option of signing him for eight years, and Bergevin should grab that option with both hands. Subban is the team's best player and its future and if he wants eight million dollars a year, he's worth it.

Andrei Markov has proven this year and through these playoffs that he's still a worthy defenceman. His game is cerebral and durable, so even if he's not as fast or mobile as he used to be, he still has a lot to contribute. Also, the Habs could use his experience and leadership as young players like Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi learn the ropes next year. Markov has said he wants to finish his career in Montreal, and rumour is, he wants three more years. However, at 35, any contract he signs is a risk for the team. For that reason, Bergevin would probably like to do a one-year deal. Considering the contributions Markov has made over the years and can continue to make, it would be fitting if the two sides can compromise and agree to two years at his current salary. Markov's too smart and too good to fall off steeply in the next two seasons, and he would be a great mentor for the kids.

Brian Gionta is a different story. The playoffs have shown he's really not the same player he used to be. He takes too many low-percentage shots right at the goalie and his speed, which has always given him a much-needed edge, is showing signs of dropping off. If, as it appears, he's becoming a third-line penalty killer, there are guys out there with a size advantage who can fill that need. Gionta has been a respectable captain and has given the Canadiens his all, but his run in Montreal is over.

Now the question is, who should be captain when Gionta is gone? Based on everything we've seen in these playoffs, the answer can only be one person: P.K.Subban. At 25, Subban has punched four full NHL seasons and has demonstrated an ability to raise his game when required. As mentioned earlier, he's the best player on the team, and, if there's any justice, will soon be the highest paid. Most importantly, he's a huge personality. Claude Lemieux said earlier this week that winning starts at the top and it's contagious. In the dressing room, the top is your captain. If you've got a captain who's upbeat, energetic, competitive, durable, classy and dedicated as well as supremely skilled, the other players on the team will be able to look to him for inspiration and example. A team that competes like P.K.Subban is a winning team. He's handled himself with such maturity this spring he's showing he's ready to be a leader. Other captains in the league have been named at younger ages than him, and not all of them have the kind of ability Subban can boast. If you want someone who can give an underachieving teammate "The Look" when needed, Subban can do it. He can challenge any player to be better because he demands it of himself.

It's funny how the playoffs work. You can spend a whole season asking questions, then have them answered in the space of a handful of high-pressure games. The Habs season may end prematurely this week, but management has seen enough to resolve some very important issues.