The Montreal Canadiens have experienced so many remarkable moments in their 105-year history, they tend to blend together like a kaleidoscope of glory. The bursts of bright colour, though, show best against black...the absorption of all light...and the Canadiens have had their share of those moments too. In illustration, let us take a stroll back in time to June 30, 2009.
The Montreal morning dawned in a coolish, damp haze of moody cloud. It smelled like there'd be rain, and the day would fulfill that promise. Hockey fans woke up with a sense of anticipation that belied the weather. Their beloved Habs were about to become the first NHL team to celebrate 100 years, and the following day, NHL free-agent signing day, would set the tone for how that Centennial team would look.
The Canadiens were coming off a miserable season in which they'd barely scraped into the playoffs, the coach had been fired and the team slumped off to the golf course in early April, swept in the first round by the hated Bruins. So, July 1, 2009 beckoned with the hope of renewal. That would certainly come, as we now know, when general manager Bob Gainey completely overhauled the lineup, signing six free agents and letting veterans Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev walk. All of that activity, as momentous as it was, would still end up being an aftershock to the events of June 30.
A few minutes after three o'clock that afternoon, as the ragged cloud overhead began to gather for the coming rain storm in Montreal, Gainey and New York Rangers GM Glen Sather signed off on a trade that would be on the list of the worst in Canadiens history. The centrepiece at the time was Scott Gomez, whom Gainey believed would make a better top-line pivot than the departing Koivu. Despite his outrageous salary and declining production, Gomez was supposed to provide a scoring option up the middle which the Habs had been seriously lacking.
Now, of course, with the clarity of hindsight, we know the real key to that trade was defenceman Ryan McDonagh. At the time of the trade, he was a #12 overall pick heading into his junior year at the University of Wisconsin. Habs head scout Trevor Timmins, was over the moon to get the kid in the 2007 draft, but wasn't consulted when he was added to the deal for Gomez as a throw-in prospect.
Canadiens fans have had more than five years to let the wound heal, as other prospects have grown into NHL jobs and the dreadfully overpaid, unproductive Gomez...and Gainey...are long gone. In New York, McDonagh has become a young stud at both ends of the ice, playing solid defence and contributing on key goals as well. He's developed into the kind of strong leader Timmins predicted he'd be, and has been rewarded by taking on the Rangers' captaincy this season.
In the aftermath of most trades, even the bad ones, teams and their fans do move on after a while. Watching McDonagh perform in New York should, by now, inspire nothing more than a twinge of regret and a sighed "if only." It's not quite as easy as that, however. Losing McDonagh has had deeper consequences than Gainey or Timmins or anyone else could have known at the time. Losing McDonagh has changed the path of P.K.Subban, and not for the better.
The Habs picked McDonagh, a lefthanded, well-rounded defender, in the first round of that 2007 draft. Then in the second round they took Subban, a righthanded, flashy D with tons of potential, rapidly improving what had been seen as his suspect play in his own end. The pair were meant to grow into the NHL together, giving the Canadiens a solid top-two on the blueline for years to come. The McDonagh trade broke up that dream, but it also left a big hole in the development of the Habs' defence.
Now, instead of having two young, defensive studs sharing the bulk of the load, allowing a veteran like Andrei Markov to slide back to the second pair with more manageable minutes, Subban, like the cheese in the song, stands alone. He's the only young, established star the Habs have on the blueline and they depend on him disproportionally, when compared with teams like Chicago or, yes, the Rangers, who can share responsibility among their young D-men.
At this point, if Subban were to be injured, there is literally nobody in the system who can do what he does. There's no option to trade for someone who can fill his role if he went down for a long time either, because the team couldn't afford the cost. He is the only choice the Canadiens have to play those big minutes, including special teams, against the best opposition. That fact increases Subban's value, but there's an unfortunate, insidious consequence to that fact, too. As long as Subban is, in effect, untouchable, he faces very few repercussions for his mistakes.
Take the Jan.6 game against the Lightning, for example. After taking one unfortunate penalty in a close game, Subban later proceeded to make an exceptionally heedless and impulsive decision that cost his team a chance at the win. When he reached across to the Tampa bench from his own spot on the Habs bench to slash a Bolts player, he ended up in the box again and the Lightning scored the winner on the subsequent PP. By any standard, that second penalty was stupid and selfish, which, in a game reliant on smarts and teamwork, was deserving of a wake-up call from his coach. Michel Therrien, though, did nothing. There was nothing he could do. The Canadiens were still down a couple of goals and trying to mount a comeback. Subban was the best offensive option on the back end. So, Subban just went right back out as though nothing had happened.
Imagine for a moment that Lars Eller had committed that foul. Or Max Pacioretty or Jiri Sekac. If one of those guys had abandoned his senses and made a play like that to cost his team the game, he'd be collecting splinters in his backside while Therrien fumed. The thing is, they wouldn't do that. Those guys keep their destructive urges in check. Apologists for Subban argue the Lightning player should have had a penalty for an illegal hit on Markov. They say Subban should be forgiven because he's mercurial, governed by his powerful emotional response to in-game situations, and his emotion is what makes him great.
You know what? His emotion does make him great, but his indiscipline costs the team. When the Canadiens were down, Pacioretty pushed up his level of play and scored a goal, exhorting the bench to follow his example. He tried to channel his passion into a productive result on the ice, rather than a destructive one off it.
This is where the loss of McDonagh is keenly felt. With a strong, skilled contemporary pushing him to be be better, Subban would face consequences. In that alternate universe in which Gainey had never thrown a prospect into the Gomez trade, Subban would sit while McDonagh led the Canadiens comeback attempt against Tampa. In the big picture, McDonagh would be challenging for the captaincy, forcing Subban to raise his level of consistency at the same time. Without that temperate influence, the young player who's top dog by default can lose perspective and start rationalizing his errors instead of thinking before he makes them.
Subban's current contract is also a consequence of the McDonagh trade. Because of his cheese-stands-alone status, Subban's team of negotiators could demand the world and get it. The Habs had no choice.
A trade in hockey is like the proverbial stone cast into the water. Ripples spread, sometimes dissipating quickly, but at other times they widen until you can see them from miles away. It's too late now to undo the McDonagh trade. He's another team's captain and star young player. Still, we can acknowledge the consequences of that move have been more far-reaching and, perhaps, more subtle than we could have imagined on June 30, 2009.
It rained in Montreal that day, which ended in thunder and lighting. Looking back, it was fitting.