Monday, August 09, 2010

Could The Habs Do A Losing Season?

Over the weekend, I was watching TSN and was surprised to see a feature on a Canadiens prospect at the Canadian junior camp. It was Louis Leblanc again, of course, and the story revolved around his decision to pull out the stops by playing in the QMJHL. Part of the report noted that good old Louis had had a great little scrimmage at the camp. Apparently, he’s been creating some one-game chemistry with Sean Couturier.

Sean Couturier? This is when my ears piqued. Sean Couturier led the QMJHL in scoring this past season. He played on the Drummondville Voltigeurs. He was born in Phoenix, but grew up partly in Quebec to Quebecois father and former junior hockey star Sylvain Couturier. He’s 6’4” and 193 lbs, is still 17 years old and is touted to e the first overall pick in the 2011 draft.

In short, the Canadiens might be interested.

The problem for the Canadiens is that since the draft started, or at least since they had a canny GM, players like Couturier are only available through a deft trading hand or the old-fashioned way, with a bit of losing. Gauthier has shown his hand at the swaps already, and it ain’t deft, so that leaves the losing.

Could the Canadiens be a loser?

Last season the Canadiens made the playoffs by a single point thanks to an OT loss in the last game of the season. While that proved to be a critical point looking back on the conference finalist season, we should not forget that it could have been so different.

So what you say? Here’s what. Had the Canadiens missed a single point it would have been early misery for Habs fans this spring. But 14 points less and it gets really interesting – the Habs would have tied the maple Leafs in points and been in line for a top two pick in the NHl entry draft.

14 points is a lot in the NHL. But 14 points can escape quickly too.

Imagine Benoit Pouliot had not stormed the barricades upon his arrival, but rather settled into his Minnesota Wild and his latter Canadiens form. Imagine Sergei Kostitsyn had been banished on a permanent basis and the Canadiens toiled some more with Pacioretty and Maxwell. Imagine Gainey had insisted on giving Carey Price every on ice learning experience he could gather, while ignoring the value that time on the bench could bring. Imagine Andrei Markov had healed like a regular human with a completely severed tendon. Imagine the Habs hadn't won so many early season OT games as they did.

I’ll admit, it’s a lot of what ifs, and it doesn’t account for corrections that could and probably would have been made to make a salvage attempt for the season. But suffice to say, it wasn’t that far off.

So remembering all those what ifs, have a look at this upcoming season. Pouliot isn’t changing teams this year (yet) and may still be playoff Ben. Sergei is gone anyway, Pacioretty and Maxwell look due some time. There is no Halak to take starts away from Carey Price anymore. And, Andrei Markov is already injured, though he may be healing just as well as before. Everyone else is healthy as I write, but injury, late night whining on French language chat shows, is an inevitability, not a variable.

The 88-point Canadiens team that just made the playoffs last year could very well be outsiders this season, and they're not many slips away from a 14-point tumble. They could be a loser.

Could the Canadiens really be a loser?

Upstairs, I postulate that it is mathematically possible for the Canadiens to be a loser. 74 points is not out of the realm of possibility. 68 points either. The team as it stands is an 88-point team that traded its best player and looks to be relying on rookies and temperamental wingers to carry significant pressure.

But in Montreal mathematics means little. What matters more than that is tolerance for loss. The tolerance of fans, coach, GM and owners. Because the opening day Canadiens will not necessarily be the closing day Canadiens.

We know a bit about fan tolerance. It’s close to nil. If 2 losses can sway millions, imagine a hopeless February and March. Tolerance from Martin might not be at its height either. This isn’t Ottawa 1995, this could be Martin’s last stand and he’ll not relish the role of lottery leader. The same must be true of “interim” GM Gauthier. He’s inherited a job without test and has moved boldly to already put his own neck on the line. I’m not sure he could rationalize the losing to save his own hide. Finally, the owners. While it may be best to take a crack at lose-win cycle that works for other teams, it may not fit with the Molson vision for the Canadiens as a fat calf.

Decisions in a losing Montreal Canadiens organization rest on a hair trigger, with movement, perhaps at a great future cost, often seen as the perfect mean to relieve the dissonance.

Could you stomach a losing season?

For me there are two competing interests in my heart on this question. Ultimately, only the Cup remains as a goal. For one, I see the cold practicality of losing badly if the team is to lose at all (that is to miss the playoffs anyway). Juxtaposed with that is the memory that the 88-point Canadiens made the conference final and were beaten by the 89-point Flyers, mediocrity in the season means less in the arena of the playoffs. And seasons of pain don’t guarantee anything at all (hello Thrashers and Blue Jackets fans).

Still: “Leblanc. Leblanc remet a Couturier. Couturier contourne Orpik. Couturier a Dumont. Et le but.” You have to admit it has a certain ring.

What do you think?

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