The ancient Romans had a term for "horrible year." An "annus horribilus" is a year that isn't just bad...we're not talking people forgetting your birthday or breaking a toe...it's a spectacular disappointment in every way. It's how Queen Elizabeth II defined 1992. That year, two of her children got very publicly divorced, her heir, the Prince of Wales got separated after his wife's tell-all book mortified the family and his own embarrassing conversations with his mistress went public, the Royal Family was forced to pay income tax and Windsor Castle burned. That's an annus horribilius.
The Montreal Canadiens had an annus horribilus in 2012. Andre Markov got hurt in the first game of the season and was out for months. Max Pacioretty was suspended for a hit on Kris Letang, which affected the former's mindset toward physical play long afterwards. The power play was in the basement, so the team traded for Tomas Kaberle who'd later have to be bought out. GM Pierre Gauthier fired coach Jacques Martin and appointed Randy Cunneyworth, whose inability to speak French sparked protests from the most disgruntled purists, as interim. Mike Cammalleri was traded in the middle of a game. The team was eliminated from the playoffs in March and then owner Geoff Molson fired Gauthier. The only silver lining in that horrible year was the opportunity to draft third overall. The team chose Alex Galchenyuk that June.
This season has been another torturous year for fans and, very likely, for the players who just want to win. This time, though, it feels like more than an annus horribilus. No, this year is a maledictus anno. A cursed year. If 2012 was a collection of unfortunate events, 2016 is the year in which everything the team touches turns to garbage. It's really almost unbelievable.
It started right from training camp. GM Marc Bergevin needed size and scoring up front, so he traded for Zach Kassian and signed Alexander Semin. Kassian promptly ended up embroiled in scandal after his early-morning companion crashed his truck into a tree, injuring the player who then ended up in the league's substance abuse program. Semin lit it up in training camp, but when the season started he regressed to the mean of his most recent years in the league and stopped scoring. He was waived and released. The off-season was instantly a bust.
Then the injuries hit. Carey Price, the heart and soul of the team and its best player, first went down at the end of October. He re-injured himself after a brief return and has only been seen since while wincing in pain as he tried to skate. Brendan Gallagher who plays every shift as though it's his last, missed six weeks after breaking his fingers blocking a shot. Ten days after Gallagher's injury, the team's plunge to the cellar began. Coach Michel Therrien, rather than simply replacing Gallagher on the hot line with Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty, decided to mix up all the lines and in the process broke any chemistry there had been in the early part of the season.
When the steep decline began in early December, Therrien blamed "puck luck." As in, the Canadiens didn't have any. While it's a cheap excuse on the surface, it has to be admitted there was a grain of truth in it in this case. The team consistently outshot opponents in the early part of the decline, but couldn't put a puck in the other net to save their lives. Sometimes they'd meet a goalie who stood on his head. Other times, they'd hit four posts in a game, all of which bounced out. They missed breakaways and deflected pucks into their own net. A defenceman misfired on a clearing attempt and it ended up directly on the stick of the sniper in front of his net on more than one occasion. Every mistake seemed to end up as a goal against, while their greatest efforts failed to produce results. Eventually, they lost confidence and started thinking too much about every play, which we know in hockey is the kiss of death. The losses piled up.
Pacioretty, the new captain who had in September talked about how he was honoured to follow in the tradition of the great Jean Beliveau, lost his temper and swore in a very un-Beliveau way about the team's performance in a post-game scrum. It wasn't his finest moment, but might have been redeemed if he'd stepped up with passion and a few goals. He didn't. He has 15 points in the 34 games since the slide began on December 3. Eleven of those points came only after Brendan Gallagher returned from injury. When the team looked to the captain to lead it through adversity, Pacioretty put up four points in 13 games.
On December 19th, all-time great Canadiens player and Hall-of-Famer Dickie Moore died, casting a pall over long-time fans who remembered him helping wreathe the franchise in glory. Modern Bell Centre fans accorded his memory 49 seconds of silence.
In mid-January, Galchenyuk and Devante Smith-Pelly were called on the carpet in Bergevin's office to explain why a gathering at Galchenyuk's place resulted in an early morning incident with police in attendance and an alleged domestic assault by his girlfriend. The press, looking for something other than another loss to talk about, exploded.
P.K. Subban, always a lightning rod for criticism, appeared on video in a profanity-laden pump-up speech in early January. A few days later, he ranted and swore in a post-game media scrum about the fact he's not paid to score goals. For a guy who makes nine-million dollars a year, that statement was more than a little controversial.
In the midst of all the drama, other players went down to injury and young players like Charles Hudon and Sven Andrighetto got called up, only to be relegated to fourth-line minutes and demoted again, even when they performed well. The coaching staff took heat for poor personnel decisions and a system, including a moribund PP, that clearly fails without Price to support it. They allowed former first-round pick Jarred Tinordi to languish in the press box for 30-plus games. In response, Bergevin publicly defended the coaches, saying they won't be going anywhere this year. He dumped Tinordi instead, in a go-nowhere trade that brought goon John Scott in return. The move shamed the franchise because it appeared Bergevin co-operated with the NHL brass in taking Scott just to keep him out of the All-Star game, which spectacularly backfired. Since that decision and the open support of his coaching staff, the on-ice product has only gotten worse.
As the season winds down, Therrien has called out Subban for a loss against the Avalanche. Subban fell down late in the third and the Avs scored the winning goal on a blown 3-on-3 right after. The coach's ill-thought-out comments turned the spotlight once again on the Habs for negative reasons. Of all the players who could have been targeted for failure; David Desharnais with 133 minutes of PP ice time and five points to show for it, Dale Weise, playing in the top-six for most of the year with 25 points in 55 games, Therrien chose to admonish his best player.
All of those things might stem from bad luck or frustration at losing or the logical result of missing the team's backbone for the majority of the year. There are signs, though, that the awfulness of this season is more than just those normal problems. This may, in fact, be cosmic.
For example, just when it seems the year is a write-off and some players can be jettisoned before the deadline in exchange for picks or prospects, two possible guys who could be moved in Desharnais and Tom Gilbert get hurt and can't be traded. Desharnais, in particular, has been one of the most durable Canadiens up until now, missing only four games since the 2012-13 season.
Last weekend, the Canadiens held their annual open practice for fans, at which they tossed souvenirs into the most supportive crowd they've seen since October. A puck thrown by Subban accidentally hit a month-old baby in the head. It's the second time a Subban-launched puck hit a kid in the crowd. That's not bad luck. That's the universe kicking you in the ass while you're down.
Even the Habs PR team is cursed. They stupidly allowed fan tweets to appear in the team's official Twitter timeline, completely opening themselves to abuse by trolls and haters. Naturally, they were caught out, mortified and forced to apologize.
This season has lurched from one disaster to another in a way that's hard to match without an evil eye trained on the team. Worst of all, just when it seems the Canadiens will drop low enough to snag a great lottery draft pick, they suddenly string together three wins to sabotage their own tank. It's obvious, by now, that they won't make the playoffs. And it appears they'll acquire just enough points to scuttle the draft lottery as well.
It may be a coincidence, or it may not, depending on what you believe about hockey gods and Forum ghosts, that the hallowed old rink that saw so much of the Canadiens legend born, closed twenty years ago this spring. Whatever mystique the team had back then, that made other teams believe the Habs were always a threat because of their charmed existence seems long gone since they moved from the Forum.
Whether bad luck, leaf fans with voodoo dolls or angry ghosts, something is wrong here. This isn't just an annus horribilus. This is a full-blown maledictus anno. This is the kind of thing a team might take a long, long time from which to recover.