When the Canadiens ended their dreadful 2011-12 season in last place in the Eastern Conference, they had a lot of lineup holes to fill if they were to have any hope of improving. They were weak in the bottom six, short a couple of second-line wingers and they needed at least one solid, stay-at-home-style defenceman. Then Marc Bergevin came on board as GM, and the job of filling those holes fell to him.
It was a daunting task, and only one of many facing the Habs' new boss. He was also responsible for revamping the front office, planting the seeds of a new team culture, drafting the best player possible in the highest spot the Habs had chosen since 1980 and re-signing the team's future corner stones. Through all of that, it appears Bergevin does have a plan for the Canadiens. He wants a front office with experience and smarts. He wants players with character and skill.
The front office part seems to be going well. The on-ice part of the plan is harder to achieve. Unfortunately for those who want to see an immediate turnaround in this team, the fix is going to take more than one season. Bergevin certainly acquired character in his free agent signings, but the remaining skill the players have is questionable.
He addressed the need for veteran D by bringing Francis Bouillon back to Montreal. Bouillon has defied the odds by playing tough NHL defence for 12 seasons, despite standing only 5'8" tall. This year, however, he will turn 37 years old and is coming off a series of groin injury and concussion problems. On the plus side, Bouillon's contract is only for a year, as he's obviously a place-holder who'll give the prospects in Hamilton a chance to develop.
On paper, Bergevin has beefed up the bottom six forwards with the signings of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong. Both players are tough, in-your-face types, of which there's been a serious shortage in Montreal in recent years. Both also come with questions. Armstrong played only 79 games in his two seasons in Toronto because of a series of injuries. Prust has been traded three times in the last four years, which usually means there's a younger, better player behind him. The four-year contract is the longest of his NHL career, and one wonders whether he'll be surpassed by a Habs prospect before that term is up.
If Bouillon, Armstrong and Prust stay healthy, which, at the moment, is a big "IF," then they will improve some of last season's weaknesses. They'll make the team a fair bit rougher around the edges and bring a no-quit attitude to the room. They will not, however, score many points, and this is the biggest problem the Canadiens will have again in the coming season.
Last year, David Desharnais did an admirable job centering the team's two best wingers in Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. The trio was the Habs' best in terms of offensive production. Tomas Plekanec, on the other hand, who entered the season as the number-one centreman, ended up with more linemates than Hugh Hefner has bunnies. He also was given the majority of tough defensive assignments up the middle and his stats reflected both of those facts.
Going into this season, we assume Brian Gionta will be ready to take his place back on Plekanec's right side. If he stays healthy (and, again, that's a big IF, considering the injury problems he dealt with last year, his size and his aging body), he will bring some skill and consistency to that line. The problem is the left side, and it seems as though Bergevin and Michel Therrien have decided to play the inconsistent Rene Bourque there.
Having scored 58 and 50 points in the two years prior to last season, with 27 goals each year, there's an argument to be made that Bourque has the goal-scoring ability to play second-line minutes. Last year's 18 goals and 24 points, along with his -19 in the plus/minus category are the other side of that argument. Plekanec plays a vital role defensively, and therefore, so must his linemates. If a guy is going to be non-committal and lazy, it's going to cost that whole line in terms of effectiveness at both ends of the ice. Bergevin's decision to give Bourque another chance and hope Therrien gets more consistency out of him than he showed last year is risky.
On one side, if Bourque turns it around and he and Gionta are able to put up the 25 goals apiece of which they're capable, Bergevin looks like a pretty smart guy. On the other side, if Bourque continues to play the sulky hockey he did last season, it leaves the top six forwards short a man. That, in turn, leaves the team not much farther ahead than it was last year.
Bergevin is taking a fairly conservative approach right now, trying to patch the holes with cheap pieces that all come with some degree of risk. By giving guys like Bourque and, it would appear, Scott Gomez, a second chance under a new regime, he's hoping they'll save him the cost of trading assets or spending money he can't afford to replace them. This is marking time until the new wave of home-grown talent...so much of which had been squandered by previous management regimes in exchange for expensive quick fixes...is ready to take over.
What that means is the team we saw lose its way to worst in the East last season probably won't be markedly better this year. But, you might argue, there's no way the bad luck of injuries will strike again. Andrei Markov will start the year healthy and Gionta will be back. That's true, of course, but injuries happen every year. Maybe a new coach will make a difference. Perhaps Bourque will make a comeback and give the team two real top lines again. All of this is possible, but it's also strictly based on hope. The lineup, as constituted on paper right now, will be a little bit tougher and hopefully better organized on the ice. It won't score many more goals or prevent a whole lot more than it did last year. And it won't suddenly develop a power play or win shootouts when it didn't do so in the last season.
It looks like, unless something dramatic happens and Shane Doan finds his way to Montreal, the Canadiens may still struggle to win enough games to grab a playoff spot. This is the time when all of us who wished for a proper rebuild from the draft are seeing that wish come true, but it's also the time for patience because it's not going to happen in the coming season.