When the Montreal Canadiens punted Brian Gionta and Josh Georges the team not only dumped their most recent captain but two thirds of their most visible leaders. On and off the ice in good seasons, bad stretches of team play, and when coaching came complete with three rings, a master of ceremonies and a big top, these two were a constant part of the equation on the positive side.

When Gionta inked his deal with the Buffalo Sabres, one of the most scrutinized captaincies in the NHL in one of the most intense media markets in the world. The question of who can replace him is a separate one than who should replace him. This isn’t a franchise at the bottom of the well that needs all the publicity it can get. There’s no freshly drafted future of the franchise who has oodles of talent and no bad history to trot out before the media.

Many will point to the flashiest player on the roster in situations like this and say yep that’s the guy!. In which case you’re looking at two or three players, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk lead that race. Probably in that order. An argument can be made for David Desharnais, who likely lands the francophone vote as well.

Taking a look at each of those candidates many list Subban as the front runner, he’s dynamic, he’s fast, strong, he can score almost at will, he’s young, he seemingly adores the media. On the negative side he’s still got holes in his defensive game, is prone to blowing his top on the ice, and is about the living definition of lightening rod.

Max Pacioretty has been the goal scorer in Montreal for the past few seasons, he’s a bigger body, has a blistering shot and elevates his game against rivals, and at 25 he has years and years ahead of him on the ice. On the negative side not only is he not a local franophone he’s yet another American, has failed in every season of his career to play a full slate of games, and a lot of the penalties he takes can be construed as the “selfish” variety.

Brendan Gallagher is young, smooth skating, possesses a quick shot, willingness to go anywhere for the puck and plays much bigger than his size. From the other perspective, he’s developing a reputation much akin to that of Alex Burrows and Steve Ott, and putting the C on that type of player says things about your franchise. There’s also the notable divisions that have been evident on this team in the last three or four years including the one along age lines.

Alex Galchenyuk has oodles of skill, is a solid powerplay contributor, and may turn into an elite forward. On the negative side you’ve got everything that can be said against Pacioretty and much of what can be said against Gallagher in addition to having the ill grace to have a Russian father.

Skill wise, no one could really fault a choice to honor any of these men. But in a market like Montreal, or any of the other original six markets, it isn’t just about skill. That’s why if I were passing the C along to its next guardian, I’d also consider what their on ice temperament is like, how well respected they are by players around the NHL, and of course looking carefully at where I think the teams window is.

For that reason the obvious choice is none of the above. While giving the captaincy to at least two of those named above would not be a mistake, that doesn’t mean a better choice can’t and shouldn’t be made. That better choice is Tom Plekanec.

At multiple points this season a matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens was unthinkable. Carey Price was injured, Steven Stamkos was injured, and the teams downfalls were predicted at those points and others. Yet here we are, the oldest club in the NHL is facing off with a team that while significantly less steeped in history has etched their names on Lord Stanley’s Cup more recently.

Atlantic Division

To date this has hardly been the NHL’s fiecest rivalry, by virtue of geography, history, and games played against each other the two teams can probably count at least five or six teams with whom they have developed a higher level of passion about. The two teams enter the series very evenly matched. The Lightning finished with 101 points in the regular season and 38 regulation or overtime wins. The Habs take the second season stage having finished the year with 100 points and 40 ROW’s.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Bolts finished 2nd to the Boston Bruins in the division despite losing Stamkos for an extended period and an irreparable rift between General Manager Steve Yzerman and then captain Marty Saint Louis. This years team is not the old style “We’ll win 6-4” rendition that many fans were familiar with. Cooper’s team finished the regular season 9th in goals for and 11th in goals against.

Best players:

Steven Stamkos is hands down the biggest name in the series, but Eric Brewer must hit household name status for the Tampa Bay Lightning to make a deep run. He’s a key cog defensively, and the road doesn’t get easier if they make it past the Canadiens.

X-Factor:

A lot of how well the Bolts do in the post-season this year will rest on the shoulders of Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. The two rookies have played remarkably well this year but neither has played a single NHL playoff game and they will be facing a team who knows how to get under peoples skin.

Montreal Canadiens

Finishing third in the division this season has to be at least a little bit of a disappointment after winning the division in the lockout shortened season last year. Given the injury to Price, and the need to further reinforce their offense at the deadline by acquiring Tomas Vanek, it is actually something of an accomplishment. As they enter the playoffs, the Habs are a bit oddly constructed. Of they guys who spent all season in the “CH”, two of the top four scorers are defenseman (Subban & Markov), and only two players finished the year with 20 goals or more, Pacioretty and the woefully under appreciated Tomas Plekanec.

Best Players:

Carey Price has finally emerged as the type of goalie that Montreal expects every netminder who pulls on their jersey to be. 59 games played and a career high .927sv% coming as part of a matched set with a career low 2.32 GAA. Subban needs to continue to show that unlike some other recent Norris winners he can get it done in the part of the ice his position was named for.

X-Factor:

Secondary scoring, secondary scoring, secondary scoring. It is a given that the Tampa Bay defense is going to be all over Pacioretty and Vanek, what the other players due to generate goals will determine if the team ends the year with gnarly playoff beards or assertive stubble.

The Montreal Canadiens are only lacking one thing to keep them from being a top team in the NHL.

They have a goaltender in Carey Price who is more than doing his part. A .929 sv% is more than many teams can hope for from their starter. Doing it in 15 of 18 games, which is on pace for a 69 game season, is a level of play well above satisfactory. The fifth overall pick int he 2005 draft class is playing like you would expect such a high pick.

The vastly under-appreciated Josh Gorges and Rapheal Diaz are the top rearguards for a penalty kill that is near the top of the NHL. Up front are Brandon Prust who while he has a very lengthy fight history is more than just a puncher, and Tom Plekanec should be on everyone’s Selke short list. The four are key portions of one of the better short handed units in the NHL.

Did you know the Montreal Canadiens have the 2nd ranked power-play in the NHL? Well, they do. Who leads them in goals on the man advantage? Some guy named Tom Plekanec, three goals, seven points. Norris winner P.K. Subban leads the team with nine total points.

With a team that has a top penalty kill, a killer powerplay, and a goalie playing stellar hockey you have to look closer to find the problems. They are getting scoring from a number of sources, even if more than one of their top players is not at the top of their game. If the issue isn’t the on ice talent, and the team categories seem to say they are not, one must look further.

The team’s leadership is not openly incompetent, but that doesn’t mean they are the right mix to produce top results. When you look at the fact that the Canadiens are a top five team in fighting majors, and built around a stout, (mostly) mobile defense, and playing with a touch of snarl you have to wonder what Michel Therrien is doing behind the bench of this roster configuration. A certain vocal, and perhaps belligerent segment of the fan-base believes the team should have a Francophone as its head coach, winning cures all ills.

As a coach Therrian could have a higher ceiling than many believe. The Pittsburgh Penguins for example exiled him before pulling things together and charging full tilt towards the promised land. He was also fired by the Canadiens in the past. Despite trips to the finals in both the AHL and NHL he’s never won. This might have something to do with the way he deploys top assets, like P.K. Subban. It almost certainly has something to do with a lack of follow through, this is after all the coach who promised savage retribution after the famous Kyle MacLaren hit on Richard Zednik, and then produced nothing.


While coaches aren’t the only ones who can inject consistency into a team, they have the most sway. And consistency is that one thing the Canadiens need to be a successful team both before and after the middle of April this year.

With the deadline looming, and about a bakers dozen games left for many team, it is time to take a look at what we know about all the teams in the NHL.

Pittsburgh: We know Ray Shero likes to make deadline trades, we know health is sorta returning for this team. We also know that with a current cumulative cap hit higher than next years cap, and Morrow’s decline and questionable health that this is likely a one shot deal for the guys currently in uniform.

Montreal:  It’s kinda hard to figure out why more people aren’t excited about his team. They are fifth in goals for, ninth in goals against, there only real bad component is their penalty kill. While we’re at it, Tomas Plekanec deserves way more attention than he gets, if he could drag the penalty kill into respectability, or even just score a shorthanded goal or two he’d be on my Selke shortlist.

Winnipeg; We know this team needs desperately to buy quality defense at the deadline. Adding offense wouldn’t hurt at all, but the backend needs to come first they are one of just two top eight teams in the east to allow triple digit goals already.

Boston: This team needs an attitude adjustment. They do not have the raw focus or hunger they did in their Cup winning year, what body they add isn’t the solution, the size of the fight in that dog is.

Ottawa; Clearly this is a team made up of undercover superheros, or at least the guys left on the ice. They might not go to far this year, but oh man this team has some good young talent and might even lead the conference if they were healthy. A cheap rental forward who can add to the scoring would be nice, but this team could easily produce an upset or two.

Toronto: The fact that no real changes have been made to this team since Brian Burke was fired, and it has just about locked up a playoff spot means he shouldn’t have too much trouble landing his next GM job, and probably trading for Kadri, Gardiner, and Grabovski or pennies on the dollar.

New Jersey: The Devils have spent all season proving last season wasn’t a fluke. How they’ve done this is anyones guess. They are winning right now even without Kovalchuk, It would not surprise me if they became sellers at the deadline, but in a very limited sense.

New York Rangers: We know this is either the Eastern Conference’s best bad team or worst good team.  We know time is running out on the current off ice leadership for this team. We know in order to get this level of under-performance elsewhere in sports you’d have to threaten professional cycling with accurate testing and jail time for violators. We know that if the Islanders and Devils make the playoffs and the Rangers don’t the angst in Blue Shirt nation will be legendary

New York Islanders: We know John Tavares should be getting way more attention than he does, he is after all over a point per game, second in goals, and seventh in points. If the Islanders make the playoffs, he has to be on the Hart shortlist. We know that Brad Boyes would be a frickin’ idiot to sign anywhere else next season given that he has more points in 34 games this season, than in 65 last year.

Carolina: With several games in hand their current 10th place position is deceiving, we know however they need to win those games. We know that Cam Ward isn’t nearly as irreplaceable as the faithful would have you believe. We know that Jeff Skinner (signed to a big endorsement deal by Dewey, Slewfoot and Diver) will probably not like the attention he receives night after night from top defenses.

Washington: We know that Adam Oates deserves a boatload of capital for turning the ship around on the fly without the benefit of a training camp, stable goaltending, or a team with any confidence in itself. He’s also got Ovechkin back to a point per game by using that weird thing called logic and letting him play more minutes. We also know that this team still isn’t built right and that problem still resides at a higher level than Oates.

Tampa Bay: We know that Yzerman is just as good at constructing a defense as he was at fighting.

We know he needs to fix that if he’s going to make it to his fourth year as general manager. He’s clearly good at identifying offensive talent, so swapping some of the current stable to rebuilding or needy teams for a veteran defenseman or two shouldn’t be completely impossible.

Buffalo: We know Terry Pegula can’t be pleased with the state of his hockey team. We know that with next years realignment no one with an ounce of hockey sense would pencil this team into next years standings about sixth place without major changes. We know if they blow up the team right they could have a pretty good chance at drafty both Seth Jones and Connor Mcdavid.

Philadelphia: We know the keep defenseman healthy the same way The Real World finds the mentally unbalanced to film every season. We know that no to long ago the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals, and have regressed further and further every year. WE know this is another team that’s due for some administrative housekeeping even if the health problems make things look worse than they are.

Florida: We know that last year despite an absurd amount of injuries the team went toe to toe with the eventual Eastern Conference champions. We know that this year, another absurd amount of injuries and dramatically poorer goaltending from the guys not named Markstrom have lead not to the Southeast division title but once again to the eastern conference basement. We know they have a couple more solid prospects in the pipeline. We know there is tons and tons for Dale Tallon and company to do.

The perennial powers in the Eastern Conference are mostly living up to their potential. It is the bubble teams, and the wild cards that are making life so interesting.  I doubt anyone outside the Francosphere predicted the Canadiens would lead the Eastern Conference at any time, and yet they do. Predicting the Capitals as a basement dweller might have been a little easier, but it still counts as a surprise.

Washington Capitals: We know Adam Oates is a first year head coach. We know he didn’t get a real training camp to break everyone in. We know if McPhee fires him the general manager is probably writing his own pink slip at the same time. We know Mike Green still can’t stay healthy to save his life.

Buffalo Sabres: We know that after hundreds of reminders as to how long he’d been in place Lindy Ruff who still has five years left on his contract is no longer the Sabres head coach. We know the team’s identity is still unknown even to the men on the roster. We know they desperately need to improve at faceoffs. We also know we’re not going to see major changes to way the team plays until the general manager departs and someone else brings in the right mix of talent and attitude.

Florida Panthers: We know that part of last years division championship was a perfect storm of divisional woes. We know that no team in the east has scored less. We know that some of their youngsters are starting to come along. We know the teams goaltending woes are a real big part of why they aren’t performing better despite the emergence of Huberdeau.

New York Islanders: We know that John Tavares is really god damned good. We know that Brad Boyes appears to have a pulse again. We know those two and Matt Moulson aren’t enough to save the team from god awful goaltending and substandard defense. We know Vishnovsky is very unlikely to stick around past the end of the season and tutor the teams young defenders.

Winnipeg Jets: We know the Southeast divisions least south or east team is not great offensively, but that their defense is worse. We know the Jets are somehow worse at home than on the road. We know that if only two of your top five goal scorers have a positive +/- 200 foot hockey probably isn’t happening.  We know that the last time a goaltending tandem let a team to the Cup without either of them having a save percentage north of .900 was probably before most of the roster were allowed to cross the street by themselves.

Philadelphia Flyers: We know that this team is unbareably burdened by eight no trade and no movement clauses. We know this team has more ability that it is showing.  We know the goaltending has again, been reminiscent of the 1980s. We know the tether for the front office and coach have got to be pretty short.

Tampa Bay Lightning: We know if the team could transfer 10% of the talent from their top forwards to their defense they’d be a juggernaut. We know if the team had a third and fourth line who anyone outside the city could name their defense might not matter.  We know that Vincent Lecavalier is playing point per game hockey for the first time since George W. Bush was president. We know that Matheiu Garon is one of the best goaltenders in the southeast division this year.

New York Rangers: We know that not many people picked this team as a bubble team. We know that their powerplay can’t be properly described without using what some would call “unprintable words”. We know the offense as a whole can be called mediocre at best. We know Rick Nash somehow managed to play two games over a couple of days before he felt the hit from Milan Lucic that is blamed for his getting taken out of the lineup.

Ottawa Senators:  We know this a very resilient team.  We know Craig Anderson’s name should be etched onto the Hart and Vezina by early April if he stays anywhere near his current 1.49 gaa and .952 sv%. We know that despite the resilience and the absurd goaltending the team needs to either make a trade or find someone in the system to contribute outside the crease.

Toronto Maple Leafs: We know the Leafs have a coach who can get the individuals on the roster to play like a team. We know James Riemer is still built out of balsa wood and bubble gum. We know Phil Kessel is probably due a goal scoring explosion sometime real soon. We know a 4.4 shooting percentage is not something anyone associates with Kessel, even when he has one. We know that Grabovski is either being unforgivably misused or just having an off year after having been in the top three in scoring for the team the last two years.

Pittsburgh Penguins: We know this team can’t hold onto a shred of discipline when playing their cross state rivals. We know they can score. We know balance isn’t how this team is build. We know they are going to have to do something really creative to get under the cap next year and have a contender.

Boston Bruins: We know Brad Marchand is contributing big time. We know Nathan Horton is a UFA at the end of the season. We know the powerplay is still “a work in progress” despite success in recent games. We know they’ve played the least games so far of any team in the NHL.

Carolina Hurricanes: We know the team has their fair share of offensive talent.  We know Justin Faulk is the future of the teams blueline. We know they lead their division by being more evenly mediocre than the other teams in their division.

Montreal Canadiens: We know believers in karma will point to the last two season and say this is just an evening of the scales. We know those folks would be better served to point to the vastly underrated Tomas Plekanec and the rookie Alex Galchenyuk who have pushed the Habs offense from 20th last season to 9th th

The dividing line between the upper echelon of the NHL’s forwards in terms of pay and the merely competent is always sliding upwards. Right now the line is slipping from the five million mark upwards. Without knowing what the next CBA will look like, much less the next two or three annual caps we’ll take a look at the league and who’s earning about twice the leagues average salary or more.

In the Northeast division, there are this year or next only a handful at this salary or more. The Montreal Canadiens have three on the list, Scott Gomez, Thomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta, combining for a cap hit of $17,357,143. The Ottawa Senators have just Jason Spezza making north of five million, and he’s got making a cool seven million with a no trade clause. The second highest paid forward in the division is Thomas Vanek, who along with Pominville are over the threshold for the Sabres. Boston boasts Patrice Bergeron, Brian Rolston and David Krejci. The Maple Leafs lay claim to Mikhail Grabosi and Phil Kessel.

A brief look at the disposable:

  • Gomez is a punchline. He appears to be liked by his teammates, but with 38 points in the 2010-11 season, and a boatload of missed games in the 2011-12 season that’s allowed him to put up 11 points in 38 games, he’s not in anyway living up to his contract. While it’s true no one forced the Rangers to sign him to the contract or the Canadiens to trade for him, he’s unlikely to see another contract worth north of $2million anywhere in the NHL when his deal expires in two more seasons. He’ll be 34 by then and can retire if he chooses having suffered through his $51,000,000 seven year contract.
  • Phil Kessel is exactly the player he was at the end of his second season. He’s a one dimensional goal scorer who disappears for weeks at a time. He shows up and blows the doors off the league working hard for October, showing interest in November and then might as well not exist the rest of the season. He’s shut down on a regular basis by smart defense regardless of it is the top pairing or the third against him. He “didn’t want to be traded” from Boston, and landed in Toronto to the tune of $5,400,000 a year and frequent “Thank You Kessel!” chants. If he did any thing other than score or at least did it consistently all year he’d be an elite player, as it is his contract is dead money December 1st onward.
  • Brian Rolston, while part of his issue is simply not fitting into the plan and system on Long Island, his age has more than a small part in it. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be in the NHL in two years, and how much he plays from now until the end of the season in Boston depends on how fast Horton and Peverley work their way back into the lineup.

 

The interesting:

  • David Krejci is nearly a mercurial as Phil Kessel. He shows up willy-nilly, sometimes for a game, other times for a week or even a month. Then like responsible government he becomes a myth for days, weeks and months at a time. His saving grace is that even if he’s not particularly physical he’s willing to hit, take a hit to make a play and can be counted on not to make reasonable efforts defensively when engaged.  Next year the soon to be 26 year old becomes the highest paid Boston Bruins forward with a cap hit of $5.25m.
  • Brian Gionta may be proof that going from the Atlantic division to the Canadiens is a bad career move. No one would bat an eyelash at the numbers he put up for the Devils and his current contract. Unfortunately when your production drops about 20 percent people tend to notice. Not a complete waste of a contract, but possibly they are putting him on the ice too much. His last year in New Jersey he played about four minutes less per game and produced twenty percent more points, including picking up shorthanded points. Nineteen and a half minutes a night is a lot for any forward. At an even $5m he’s worth watching to see what happens if and when a new coach takes over, especially if the team drafts a high end forward like Filip Forsberg or Alex Galchenyuk who might make the immediate jump to the NHL.
  • Thomas Vanek is another curious case. The last three seasons have seen his numbers spiral. Even if you throw this season where the Buffalo Sabres had more injuries than can be counted out, the last two years are still wanting. He’s got a ton of ability, but is very, very streaky. Realistically he hasn’t much support around him in recent years, and that will drag any one down. But after two 40+ goal seasons, more is needed. Maybe if he’s paired with skilled import Hodgson he’ll revitalize himself.

The cream:

  • Jason Spezza for all the negative press he’s earned over the years is still a very highly skilled center working around the fact he’s been marooned on a team with little NHL talent for the last several seasons. Hometown All Star appearance aside, with one more goal he’ll be the least heralded 30 goal man in the NHL. He’s won almost 54% of his faceoffs this season, won over 56% last season and is over a point per game this season while spending a lot of time on lines with guys you probably can’t name. The Ottawa Senators star center is on the books for $7m a year with a no NTC>
  • Patrice Bergeron in any reasonable version of the universe Bergeron would probably own at least two Selkie trophies. That could finally be addressed this season.  He wins faceoffs, is arguably eclipsed defensively only by Norris trophy winner Zdeno Chara on the Boston Bruins. He’s a former 30 goal scorer who has not often been gifted in terms of his linemates offensive abilities and despite that he’s 6th in total points for the fabled 2003 draft, just 6 points behind Zach Parise, and ahead of a number of big names taken ahead of him like Richards, Carter, Kesler, Eriksson, and Brown among others. He’s taking home $5m with a no movement clause.
  • Thomas Plekanec is living the post Thornton pre-Savard era of Patrice Bergeron’s career in Montreal. There’s very little offensive help and he’s spending entirely too much time on the ice. With almost 21 minutes a night of ice time sucking down his reserves his production would plummet even if there were someone to pass the puck too. More than three of those minutes are spent standing in front of slapshots as he plays and produces points short handed. If I’m going to point to a guy in the league currently “under producing” and say it’s the system or team, it’ him. The $5m and ntc are about what he deserves simply for taking the mess the team is quietly.
  • Mikhail Grabovksi is the newest member of the club. If I were taking over the general managers job in Toronto, immediately after scheduling weekly time with a therapist, I’d put him officially on the teams “untouchable” list. Much like Plekanec or Bergeron he’s a gamer. He shows up ready to play and play hard. He may or may not prove to be as offensively gifted as some of the other players on the list, but he doesn’t take nights off and he brings his game no matter how bad the teams situation is.