I looked over the predictions I posted prior to the last couple of seasons. For 2011-12, I was excited about the arrival of Erik Cole and the return of Max Paccioretty, but troubled by the enduring absence of Andrei Markov. I predicted the team would battle to squeak into the playoffs. We did battle that year, never really gave up, but ended up last in the Conference.
For the abbreviated 2013 season, I missed the importance of the addition of Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. I didn't see the régime change as significant, insofar as I didn't include it in the writeup. I worried about the absence of P.K. Subban and a downturn from Erik Cole after a career year. So I predicted another season at the bottom of the standings. And we placed second in the Conference.
So maybe this prediction game is tricky, fraught with pitfalls for the amateur prognosticator. One tries to resist the herd instinct, but it seeps in regardless, when you're unaware. You try to keep an even keel, not be too optimistic or pessimistic.
Practically, how does this apply? What do we take as a given, say, in Carey Price's case? A season like the last, good to very good at the beginning before crashing to earth and ending up with a .905 save percentage? Or the season that his talent, physical gifts, pedigree and track record indicate he should have, one near the top of all goaltending statistical categories.
What about P.K.? Norris-season plus, with one more year of experience and training? Or Norris-season minus, with teams keying on him even more, targeting him to get him off his game, or worse?
Is Andrei Markov going to be better, one year further removed from his knee injury, or is he now diminished by a lack of mobility?
The rest of the defence corps has big question marks too. Josh Gorges routinely overachieved in seasons past, to the point where we now expect that from him. Does he have another ho-hum season like last year or does he revert back to form? Does playing with an ACL in his knee not agree with him? Does Raphaël Diaz continue his upward trajectory, or has he hit his ceiling?
My most immediate worry is the fact that Jarred Tinordi will begin the season without the support of Douglas Murray, who is out for 4-6 weeks with an injury. While I was envisioning a blue line with Mr. Murray and Alexei Emelin soon, one in which Jarred Tinordi would be insulated and protected like Messrs. Gallagher and Galchenyuk were last season, the bleak reality is that Jarred will be front and centre, and will have to do the heavy lifting. That's not optimal, and I hope it doesn't stall his development.
At forward, we've added scoring with Daniel Brière, although whether he's ultimately an upgrade over Erik Cole remains to be seen. We lost some toughness in that sequence, and the superficial addition of a few minutes per game of George Parros doesn't make up for it. Overall, we're susceptible to goon tactics, and if the referees turn a blind eye, we'll be bitter with impotent rage by the time Christmas rolls around.
Generally, a lot of people feel that the team will improve organically, just through the youngsters having one more year of experience and development. I don't deny that will be beneficial, but I'm always stumped as to why that's not seen as a two-way street. Sure the youngsters got one year older and thus better, but didn't the veterans, guys like Tomas Plekanec and Travis Moen and Andrei Markov get one year older and worse, as age diminishes their physical gifts? Isn't time a treadmill that you have to keep up to, with rookies getting on and veterans falling off? Also, if we insist that it's so, that the kids got better but the vets will hold the line, how is time a boon for us only and not every other team?
In any case, the important thing though is seeing the process. Two seasons ago, the fourth line at the onset was going to be Yannick Weber, Mathieu Darche and Flyers castoff Blair Betts. Over the last two seasons, if we ignore the standings, the talent level and depth of the team has improved markedly, and we're on the cusp of having an overstock down on the farm. Two seasons ago, the shelf was bare in Hamilton, last year we had prospects but no real options to call up, or very few if we allow for Gabriel Dumont, Louis Leblanc (who was having an off year) and Mike Blunden. This season, we have a bunch of defencemen who can be called up if necessary, and the forwards are maturing a little behind them. By next season, we'll start to have headaches wondering how we're going to find room for everybody on the roster. That's a good position to be in, compared to having to claim Blair Betts.
So for this season, my naturally cautious side forces me to predict the Canadiens will finish 7-10th in the Conference. Too many things have to go right for us to logically expect any better results. We'd have to have the Carey Price we want, rather than the one we've had lately. Our patchjob defence squad would have to overachieve, keep it together despite the absence of two big pieces and the presence of a rookie. We'd need a bounce back from many forwards, David Desharnais, Travis Moen, Daniel Brière. Lars Eller would need to take that step forward, and stay there, not inch back imperceptibly. We'd have to assume he'll not feel the after-effects of the concussion which ended his season last spring. On and on it goes. For every one of these hopeful scenarios happening, one won't, and eighteen surprises, good or bad, will skew the data.
A final concern is injuries. For years we've been ravaged by injuries, to the point we'd break records, and we cleared out the training staff and changed our boards and glass in our rink to see if that would help. Well last season it did, and we were remarkably healthy throughout, with no major injuries and all the frontline players in the lineup, and we paraded to the top of the standings. Until the spring, when Alexei Emelin blew out his knee, and Brian Gionta popped his other biceps, and Lars Eller was mugged, and Raphaël Diaz was concussed...
So with things reverting to the mean, and the Canadiens bound to suffer some serious injuries this season, and with all the dice not coming up sevens, we'll have the middle of the pack results from our middle of the pack team. And Marc Bergevin will be smart and hold the line and not panic-buy at the deadline, and we'll retain assets and keep building for the future. And we'll have a great fun season of watching a great bunch of young men play high-intensity, fast, exciting hockey. And we can't complain about that.