After last night's absolute disgrace in New York, I sat there with the TV off, in the silence of my living room, awash in anger and frustration. When the worst of it began to recede and rational thought returned, one question stood out in my mind. What is this team playing for?
If you asked any of the players on the team, they'd almost certainly tell you they're playing for a chance to win the Stanley Cup. I'm sure, in their minds and hearts, that's what they believe. The reality is, however greatly they'd like to win the Cup, the team as a whole doesn't have the ability to do so. After blowing two vital games on the weekend and looking listless, disorganized and confused while doing so, the likelihood of the team's missing the playoffs altogether is increasing. If this team does make the playoffs at all, can anyone imagine it beating Washington, New Jersey, Philly, Pittsburgh, Buffalo or any of the other teams that will finish ahead of Montreal? Me neither.
What's incredible about this is the same issues of defensive zone confusion, softness up front, underachieving youngsters and a perceived lack of effort on many nights that we saw for the last several years...bar the perfect 2007-08 season...are still there, despite last summer's total housecleaning. It baffles me that what's almost an entirely different team is playing the same depressing, stifling game as last year's version. It doesn't make any sense because the overhaul was so thorough. Bad habits and bad attitudes were jettisoned in favour of hardworking heart-and-soul guys like Cammalleri and Gionta. There are only two possible conclusions. Either the coach is really bad and is failing to properly use the assets the GM has given him, or the team itself just isn't good enough and the similarities we see to last year are there because, well, this is what bad teams look like.
I started thinking about the contenders for the Cup this year. Pittsburgh. Washington. New Jersey. San Jose. Chicago. Then I started to think about who, on this edition of the Canadiens, would make any of those teams. Andrei Markov could do it. Tomas Plekanec could contribute, as could Cammalleri and Gionta. Gomez could play a role, but only if he were granted a couple of very strong wingers. Metropolit, Moen and possibly Hamrlik could possibly fill a small role killing penalties or providing fourth-line energy on a contender. The rest of the Canadiens wouldn't cut it. The entire Canadiens fourth line, as well as Pacioretty, D'Agostini, O'Byrne and Mara would have been cut from a contender in training camp, if they were even invited to be there at all.
The Canadiens have too many players that are either one-dimensional or no-dimensional. The drop-off after the top-tier of players is much, much too steep. After Markov and Hamrlik on defence, the rest of the top-six would be ranked 6-10 on a contender. Gomez, Gionta and Pouliot can score. Plekanec and Cammelleri can too, as can Andrei Kostitsyn when he's healthy and his head's in the game. Moen and Metropolit try like hell and sometimes knock in a hardworking goal. But Laraque, Lapierre, D'Agostini, Pacioretty, Mara and most nights Sergei Kostitsyn do absolutely nothing. They don't hit, they're not particularly great defensively, they don't fight and they don't score. That's too many non-contributors for an NHL roster. Gorges makes good decisions in his own end most of the time, but gets pushed around. Gill kills penalties well, but handles the puck terribly; he's huge and never hits. Spacek knows where to pass the puck, but can't hit the net to save his life and, at 35, is looking at deteriorating further from here. O'Byrne is big but doesn't know how to use his size to be scary. This is a team of two solitudes: players who can and players who'd like to, but can't pull it off. There are not enough of the former.
This is what happens when you build a team of middling draft picks and free agents. You get players not good enough to go higher in their drafts and players other teams let walk for some reason, to whom you have to pay a premium that ties up your cap and keeps you from improving.
So, what are the Canadiens really playing for? It's not the Stanley Cup, because they don't have a chance of winning it. If it's for the playoffs, that's not good enough. There's a pretty decent chance they won't make it, and if they do, they'll scrape in in eighth place again this year and end up getting humilated by whichever contender wins the conference. They can't be playing for pride or for each other because they'd show more passion if they did. They're not playing for the money or for the fans because they get the money anyway, and the fans will still fill the Bell no matter what they do.
I want the Canadiens to really play for the Cup. The "make the playoffs and anything can happen" strategy just isn't realistic with this team. They don't have what it takes to make a real run. So, what we're looking at is a mid-pack team with no shot of winning anything. In June, it will have another mid-round draft pick that will take three or four years to make the third line or bottom-pair defence on yet another mid-pack edition of the big team.
I believe the only way to really build a competitive team is through the draft. Teams either need to choose can't-miss prospects in the top five, or they need to be extremely shrewd and wise in choosing later in the draft. Trevor Timmins' mid-round picks are neither shrewd nor wise. Andrei Kostitsyn isn't the worst player to come out of the 2003 first round, but he's not in the top ten either. Carey Price is struggling to find consistency in the NHL, Kyle Chipchura is playing a support role in Anaheim, David Fischer is stagnating in college, Ryan McDonagh is still in college too and will be a Ranger if he ever develops and Max Pacioretty is struggling to keep up on the third line in Montreal. None of those first-round picks are the kinds of players that raise a franchise above the ordinary. On the contrary: they're the kinds of players that make a team ordinary.
Since Timmins has never pulled off a first-round coup, or any coup, with the possible exception of PK Subban, the Canadiens are obviously not going to develop into a contender with him guiding the selections. This is a team in need of some bedrock and without stealing a gem in the middle of the pack, it's going to have to find a way to get a can't-miss top-five pick. There are two ways to do that. They either have to trade for one, or get into a position in which they'll be able to draft one on their own.
Trading for one will not be possible. The teams that are in the running for those high picks regard them, and rightly so, as their own hope of rising above mediocrity. Those picks are worth their weight in gold and only a very serious overpayment will pry one lose. Frankly, the Canadiens don't have the kinds of pieces a desperate team would need if it were to give up its lottery pick, and Brian Burke has already parted with all of his.
I hate the idea of a team tanking for years, like the top contenders this year have done, in order to become a powerhouse based on top-five picks. I also hate the mediocrity continually drafting in the middle of the pack creates. I think there's a happy medium somewhere in there, in which a team with a lot of good pieces finds itself at the bottom one year and manages to draft a piece than can really make a difference. Philly did it with a lottery finish three years ago. They landed van Riemsdyk, who's going to be a really good NHL player. A smart trade for Braydon Coburn, the maturation of their 2003 picks Richards and Carter and the wise plundering of the stripped-down Predators for Hartnell and Timonen and the Flyers were back to respectability within a year.
The Canadiens have to do something similar. The team we're looking at next year is the same team we're looking at now, with the possible addition of PK Subban instead of Paul Mara, and perhaps a new bottom-six forward instead of one of the goalies and maybe Ryan White instead of Matt D'Agostini or Maxim Lapierre. Any changes between now and next year, based on the long-term contracts Gainey has signed with players last summer, will be mostly cosmetic. They need a draft homerun who will make an impact on the team right away, and the only way to get it is to finish really low in the standings.
No team of NHL players with any pride would ever lose games on purpose. But the Canadiens lose even when they're trying. Stripping the lineup down to its core essentials and filling the rest with Bulldogs should happen before another year of hopelessness has passed. I would keep Markov, Gorges, O'Byrne, Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, Cammalleri, Gionta, Metropolit, Moen, Pouliot, Pacioretty and the goalies. The rest of them I would trade for whatever they might bring. What Gainey did last year; letting the old guys go and replacing them with similar new guys, didn't work. So, it's time to take it down to the bare bones and build from there. It might take three years before the team is ready to compete. But if we keep going like we are now, we're looking at another ten years of mediocrity. I'd rather the pain of one bad finish than ten heartbreaking ones.
At least, in a stripped-down situation, when we ask the question "what are they playing for?" we can answer "the future." Right now, they're playing for nothing. It makes me unhappy to say this. I love the Habs and I don't want to see them be a bottom feeding team. But I can't stand the pointlessness of it anymore. There's no plan. There's no direction. I don't see Gainey doing any more than tread water, and I don't think any other person in his position would be able to do more either. You just can't develop a team in the NHL today without top-end, cheap young talent. I'm going to catch hell for this, I know. But I think the Habs need to play for the future.