It's been a long time since Canadiens fans have been able to see the potential for success in their immediate future. Through the late '90s and early 2000s, Saku Koivu was the only legitimate top-tier player the team could boast. Even he, after his unfortunate injuries and illness, was more suited to being a second-line player, but he was forced by the absence of better talent to take on a role too big for him. As the '00s drew to a close, Andrei Markov had replaced Koivu as the team's homegrown best player. Again, there was little star power to back him up.
Occasionally, there has been some hope for a young player or two to take the team to the next level. Jose Theodore's Vezina and Hart-winning season in 2002, coupled with his miraculous playoff performances against the Bruins was impressive enough to have us believe picking Carey Price with the fifth overall choice in 2005 was redundant. The emergence of Mike Komisarek as Andrei Markov's defence partner and Chris Higgins' 27-goal season on Saku Koivu's wing got us all excited around 2008. Then Komisarek bolted to the leafs and Higgins lost his ability to score. This has been the story of the Habs since their last Stanley Cup in 1993.
Poor first-round drafting and iffy asset management have really hurt the team's ability to build anything better than a mediocre lineup with only an outside chance to get past the first round of the playoffs. The list of players the Canadiens have missed in the draft (Giroux, Perron, the whole 2003 first round) or failed to retain (Streit, McDonagh) have had fans in a lather for years. Not to mention the busts they did draft (Fischer, Chipchura) in the first round.
Now, though, for the first time in two decades, the Canadiens have several very promising players with star potential either just entering their primes or about to in a couple of seasons. Carey Price has turned out to be the kind of goalie a team needs to backstop a championship. He'll play a very important role in whatever success the Habs have in the playoffs this year, and for several years to come.
In front of Price, P.K.Subban is going to be good. Really, really good. His hat trick last night just underlined the explosive offensive potential he's always had. His apprenticeship in the Hal Gill/Perry Pearn School of Defence has been an important ingredient in the development of a young star we've witnessed all season. Many people cursed Martin for hobbling Subban, but it's turned out the coach knew best. The kid has always known how to put up points. He had to learn to guard his own end at the NHL level, and he's doing that really well. His first pass is a beautiful thing, and his shot is world-class. Now his D is catching up to his O, and he's going to be a better player for it. Subban might not win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, but there aren't many rookies who've become the team's de facto number-one defenceman and survived it as well as he has.
Then, up front, there's the emergence of Max Pacioretty. If (and, despite recent promising health updates, there's still an "if" here) he returns to the lineup with the same level of ability he had been exhibiting before his injury, he will be the kind of player the Canadiens have not developed in decades. He's got size, speed, strength and hands, and, at 22, he should still be on the upside of the developmental curve.
Those three players give the Canadiens a level of strength in all three of goal, defence and forward they haven't had in a long time. The trio are in similar stages of development and should be hitting their peak performance years around the same time. Add to them a strong young veteran core featuring one of the best two-way players in the league in Tomas Plekanec and stellar stay-at-home defenceman Josh Gorges who should both be around as the kids develop, and you have something to build on. If Gauthier decides to keep Andrei Kostitsyn after this season, I think it would be a good thing. AK is set to put up another twenty goals this year, and has proven that, given the right centre, he can contribute. He's got size and a massive shot, and even if he's not the smartest player on the ice, he's fine if he uses the skills he does have.
The veteran experience in Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov (who will likely be re-signed) give the developing youth a path to follow and guidance when they get into trouble. Hal Gill may be re-signed as well, just because of his influence with Subban and in the room, along with his PK ability, and that will add to the team poise and work ethic we're starting to see emerge every night.
And those are just the sure things. Lars Eller is emerging as a big centre with speed, vision and great hands. At 21, he's in a position to become the kind of pivot who can play with Pacioretty to both their and the team's advantage. Ryan White is showing grit and tenacity and the ability to forecheck the hell out of an opponent. He's also got everyone's back and looks like he could help round out the bottom six. Teams don't win Cups without at least one Ryan White. David Desharnais is proving small can be mighty, and showing his ability to succeed in every situation. Martin has used him on the PK as well as the PP, which, in Martin-speak, is high praise. Benoit Pouliot has undeniable skill and looks tantalizingly close to learning how to use it every night. The kid needs to be more confident in himself, and if he does, he could be invaluable. Yannick Weber has been overshadowed by the brilliance of Subban, but he's quietly put up ten points in his 39 games, with very little PP time, and he's a plus-one. He's also improving all the time on the defensive side of the game. Even Aaron Palushaj has shown NHL speed and has a tenacity and nose for the net that makes him look like he'll have an NHL career.
There's hope in the minors too, in Louis Leblanc, Jarred Tinordi, Danny Kristo, Brendon Nash, Alexander Avtsin, Andreas Engqvist, Brendan Gallagher and others. Any or all of them could be NHL players and add to the developing talent already playing for the big team.
With all the injuries the team has faced this year, and with the dreadful season Scott Gomez is having, the kids have stepped up to move beyond the learning phase. They're taking the team over and emerging as the kinds of players who know how to play to win. This is the first time in nearly twenty years that we can look at this team and believe in it. It might not contend this year, but it will. If the young players stay healthy, it will. And games like the one against the Wild might not happen once every four years anymore.