When the Montreal Canadiens made it to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, it marked the first time they accomplished the feat since 1993, the last time the team won the Stanley Cup itself. As such, fans should be slightly forgiven for getting carried away the way that they did (I'm not talking about the hooligans that decided to riot in downtown Montreal following every other Habs victory and besmirch the good name of actual die-hard Habs fans, just people who started to actually believe that the team was good enough to win it all again). Those same fans should be grateful for the lengthy playoff run this year as there are no guarantees that the team will even make one at all next year.
One gets the sense that through the first two rounds, the Habs caught lightning in a bottle and that that degree of success cannot be replicated no matter how strictly they follow that game plan again, how hot goalie Jaroslav Halak gets in the future (that is, if they decide to keep him, but more on that later). Congratulations to head coach Jacques Martin for making something big out of almost nothing at all, an eighth-seeded team that needed its last game of the regular season (an overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs) to even make the playoffs to begin with. True fans should never forget that fact and brace themselves for another up-and-down season next year. It's healthy to believe in the general sense, but very unhealthy to believe another championship is just around the corner for a team that, even taking into account its two series wins this spring, is still mediocre.
Sure, they've got skill up front and a relatively deep defensive corps on the back end. But, aside from the behemoth that is Hal Gill, they still lack size in both areas.
Forward Scott Gomez, who bookended the Habs' playoff run with his two goals this post-season (one in the first game against Washington and his second and last against the Philadelphia Flyers in game five of that series), is still not the big center this team needs. He disappeared throughout the Philadelphia series only to reappear in the final game and tease Habs fans with a potential comeback and get them thinking falsely that he is a top-end player. Rest assured, all due respect to him, he is not. Top-end players do not just show up when it is convenient for them. He would be an above-average second-line center on most other teams, but his salary-cap hit of $7,357,143 (up until 2014) makes that kind of impossible from happening.
Michael Cammalleri, who may well end up still leading the league in goals by the time they're all said and done, is still one of the streakiest players in the entire league. Personally, I believe he is a core part of this team no matter how streaky, but facts are facts. Facts point to him not being able to score at the same pace during next year's regular season.
Andrei Kostitsyn may never live up to the potential that had him drafted above such current superstars as Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, and Corey Perry in the first round of the 2003 draft. For whatever reason, he probably only had two other decent games in the playoffs after he netted a hat trick in the team's second game against Washington. With decreasing interest in the games being played and the ice time to go with it, he ended his playoff run with just the three goals and five assists in 19 games.
Meanwhile, Tomas Plekanec, who led the team in scoring during the regular season with a career-high 70 points, went cold during the playoffs with a meager four goals and 11 points. There is little explanation to be had for that fact. What is for sure is that general manager Pierre Gauthier has his work cut out for him this summer.
According to hockeybuzz.com, the Habs are $1,249,560 over the salary cap, which means the team cannot bring back the exact same team next year, which includes soon-to-be unrestricted-free-agent Plekanec. He will surely be looking for big bucks in order to not be tempted to sign with another team, but does he deserve them? Considering his 70 points are just one more than his previous career-high established in 2008 (when he scored 29 goals compared to 25 this year) and that the following season he dropped back down to earth with a mere 39 points, it stands to reason that he is not worth anything above $4,000,000. If he is looking for anything more than $5,000,000, Gauthier should not take the risk that he won't have another average year next season. Chances are he will, however much money he signs for and whichever team in the league he signs with.
Furthermore, goalies Halak and Carey Price are set to become restricted free agents and each will be looking for raises (justified or not in the case of Price; most certainly justified in the case of Halak, whose cap hit is currently a paltry $750,000). The general consensus is that Price will eventually become better than Halak, but that the Habs can't afford to get rid of Halak after his incredible other-worldly performance in rounds one and two.
The only way to keep both, one would have to think, is to let Plekanec leave, and to not re-sign fellow future UFAs in forwards Dominic Moore (who was so instrumental in the two playoff upsets), Glen Metropolit, and Mathieu Darche and defensemen Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Probably for the best in at least most of those cases, but the choice does end up becoming Plekanec or Price. One would think that in layman's terms that translates into again barely squeaking into the playoffs next year or missing them altogether in order to build a stronger team well into the future. So does Gauthier do what's best for the long-term health of the organization or appease the rabid fan base that will be hungry for another long playoff run next year that, whatever the decision ends up being, it still may not get? The obvious choice is clear. But hockey is a not-so-obvious sport. Case in point would be what happened with the Habs these past two months.
Bob Gainey has received a lot of credit for the success the team enjoyed this past spring, but, when it all comes down to it, the Habs weren't built to win it all. One can argue that they weren't even built to make the playoffs. Don't get me wrong; there's a solid group of players in place right now. However, solid isn't good enough. Unfortunately, whatever Habs fans take away from these past playoffs, it never will be. It's been 17 years since the Habs last won the Cup. In all honesty, however hard it may be for some people to hear (and me to say), it may take that long for the team to get back to just the third round again.