Pierre Gauthier was asked point blank in the post-mortem, which is the team you use for evaluations, the one that squeaked into the playoffs by losing in overtime to the second-worst team in the league in the final game of the season, or the one that did what it did in the playoffs?
Personally, I would say neither extreme was a valid representation of what this team really is, but if I had to go one way or the other, I would lean toward that team you saw knocking off the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Habs regular season was a mishmash affair, a group of players coming together from different points in the league to play under a coach with a rigid style that takes some getting used to. Leadership had to established, relationships forged, chemistry developed. None of that ever happened over the course of the regular season, thanks to a series of long-term injuries to key players, but also because that rigid coach was still getting to know which players he can trust and which ones he couldn't stand.
That story of chemistry was repeated several times over the course of the playoffs as reporters from all over the league were wondering how such an ordinary regular season team could be so extraordinary in the playoffs. Heard often enough, it could easily be mistaken as an excuse. But I believed it.
Why? Because Josh Gorges said so, that's why. I don't pretend to know much about what goes on behind closed doors in that dressing room before we're allowed in to ask our probing, often times annoying questions. What reporters are privy to is usually just a facade, a show meant for mass consumption.
But if there is one player on that team I have grown to trust as being a straight shooter, one that says the things that need to be said and never lies, it's Gorges. When that whole thing with Andrei Markov and Carey Price broke out in January, Gorges never denied it, he simply addressed it and correctly identified the most troubling aspect of that story - which was that it got out in the first place.
Gorges spoke very candidly after the season ended about the metamorphosis that took place on the Canadiens. He spoke about how Hal Gill and Scott Gomez butted heads for almost the entire season on how the game should be played - in Gill's conservative way or in Gomez's freelancing, loosey-goosey offensive way. Gorges described their locker room debates on the subject as "bickering matches," until they ultimately took each other aside and realized they both just wanted to win (clearly, Gill won the argument).
"It took us a full season, all 82 games, until we got to the playoffs. Actually, it was probably after Game 4 against Washington, but then it clicked," Gorges said. "People stood up and said this was the way we were going to play, and if you weren't willing to do that, you weren't accepted in the group. You were an outsider. And as those outsiders became fewer and fewer, it became harder for the ones that were left not to buy in."
That is something that the Canadiens have not had in forever, a leadership group that shows real leadership. Gorges was very quick to point out that the previous teams he played on in Montreal were all fine and dandy, but this was indeed different. This was special.
"I know that this is a different group than we've had in the past," Gorges said. "Not to say that we haven't had good groups in the past, because I've played with a lot of good players, a lot of good teammates in Montreal over the past couple of years. But more so this year than any year I've been playing in the NHL, this team played for each other. When you lose you take it a little more personally, because you feel your teammates all showed up and did everything they could to play for each other."
So, why this trip down memory lane so long after the Habs have been eliminated? Simply because I feel that management, the coaching staff and the players all believe in their core group of guys. And that core leadership group is the same one Jacques Martin gathered at centre ice just prior to the Eastern Conference final for a 10-minute pow-wow: Gorges, Gill, Gomez, Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri.
Those five players will still be in Montreal next season, that's a guarantee. Beyond that, however, not much is guaranteed at all.
So who's missing from that summit on the ice? Andrei Markov would be one, because he was obviously injured at the time and will remain so until at least November. The fact the Canadiens managed to beat Pittsburgh without Markov was astonishing, but also perhaps a bit eye-opening as well. Maybe this team has grown out of his imposing shadow. Maybe this team doesn't need him as much as it once did.
That's nonsense, of course, but with Markov entering the final year of his contract it's a question that needs to be asked.
He remains the most talented player on the team, in my opinion, but he's also someone that would probably fetch a hefty return in a trade. His injury makes that possibility a bit dicey, but I'm sure a team would be willing to take that risk on a player that has as high a reward as Markov does in the end.
Gauthier, when asked about it away from the cameras, said that Markov's injury has no impact on any potential talks of a contract extension, which were originally planned for this summer. Markov simply didn't want to talk about it.
“I’m not thinking about the contract right now," he said. "In my mind I have to step back on the ice and just play the game. It wasn’t easy, especially in the playoffs, watching those games on TV or by the ice. Those are the kind of games you want to play. I’m going to do my best to be back as soon as I can.”
We've seen what happens with lame duck players in Montreal, and I don't think the team will get a significant enough return if Markov were to be traded at the deadline. So either he needs to be signed at around the same salary figure he's earning now, or he needs to be traded this summer. If the return is diminished somewhat by his injury then so be it, because it will still be better than the return he would fetch at the deadline.
Then there's Tomas Plekanec, a real conundrum for Gauthier this summer. I took a bit of heat from blogger Robert Lefebvre, someone I respect, over something I wrote for the CBC on Plekanec's unique situation this summer. But I think what comes out of both Lefebvre's story and my own is that Plekanec is a difficult player to price when it comes to his next contract. Appropriate comparables are very minimal, something I've examined here on this blog numerous times, and his offensive reliability that was astonishingly consistent in the regular season wasn't there in the playoffs. Again.
I will go on record here to say that I feel Plekanec is a tremendous player. The number one reason I feel that way is because I know he cares with every ounce of his being. He wants to win, he wants to contribute, he wants to be better. But his story once again comes down to price. I've heard callers on radio shows say the Canadiens should let him walk. I disagree if Plekanec comes to the negotiating table with reasonable demands. At $4 million a season, that's a great signing. But at that price Plekanec would clearly be leaving a lot of money on the table.
For a guy who has been under-estimated practically his whole career, I think Plekanec sees this situation as his one opportunity to get the recognition he richly deserves. And unfortunately for the Canadiens, that recognition comes in the form of a dollar sign.
Plekanec didn't want to talk about his contract situation at all when he faced the media on locker room clean out day. He was asked every which way whether he felt he'd be back with Montreal, and other than saying that was his top option, Plekanec wouldn't spill the beans.
I managed to talk to him after a lot of the other reporters had left that day, and I presented the conundrum Gauthier is faced with to him. How do you quantify Plekanec's all-around abilities on a salary figure? How is his penalty-killing skill properly compensated?
"I think that's a better question for my agent or the GM," Plekanec responded.
I took one more shot and asked Plekanec whether he saw July 1 as the most important day of his career, and whether he'd be willing to sacrifice that day and opportunity to shop his services around the league for the security of a long-term deal with the Habs, even if it was for less than his market value.
“I’ll be turning 28 years old in October, I’m in the best years of my career and I’m sure I can play even better in the next few years,” Plekanec said. “I like it here, but it doesn’t mean I will look just for security.”
After the formal press conference, I tried as hard as I could to pin Gauthier down on how he will handle Plekanec. I presented him with the Ryan Kesler comparison of a $5 million long-term deal, with the idea of Plekanec's multi-faceted value to the team, with thew difficulty he faces in negotiating a deal based largely on intangibles.
"It used to be a puzzle with 100 pieces," he responded. "But then you add the piece of the salary cap and the pay vs. performance that you're referring to, and that affects every other piece. It makes it exponentially complex."
My two cents? With Gomez still on the cap for $7 million-plus, Plekanec can't make more than $4.5 million on this team. Like it or not, he's too similar to Gomez. They both kill penalties, they're both playmakers first, they're both similarly (under) sized. Having a one-two punch like that is too easy to defend. The Habs are stuck with Gomez only because of his contract, which means Plekanec may be expendable, and is far from vital in the coming years.
But where will his replacement come from, you ask?
That's where the real puzzle comes into play for Gauthier this summer: can he turn Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak into a legitimate top-line centre or power winger?
Judging from both goalies responses on getaway day, they don't want to be competing for ice time anymore. They want a number one job, and Halak's earned it while Price still might, no matter what a large majority of the fan base believes.
Price turns 23 in August, a baby in goalie years, and has the physical tools to be that franchise goalie everyone saw him as for years. Halak is 25 and in the prime of his career, a known commodity who will fetch some pretty major dollars this summer.
For me, the danger in trading one or the other is equally high for Gauthier. He could just as easily be trading away a franchise goalie in either scenario. So the lone option available is clear in my eyes: go to auction and take the highest bid.
I have to believe the lot that will fetch the highest return will be Halak, even though Price still appears to be seen by many as the prime catch. The reason is that Halak has proven something, not only in these playoffs but on the Olympic stage as well. He's a winner, there's very little doubt about that anymore even though he showed a little dip in the conference final.
So my belief would be to turn that winner into another winning asset, a forward the Canadiens desperately need to complement the solid core that's been assembled, and roll the dice on Price. I saw a different man on getaway day in Brossard, one that realizes that hockey glory will no longer be handed to him on a silver platter, one that has seen Halak work his ass off to get where he's gotten, one that knows he has not done the same.
But where would this team be without Halak, and perhaps even Plekanec and Markov? Depending on what came back for Halak and Markov, I would venture to say the team will be fine, and even more than that.
It will be a second year under a coach who is somehow being bashed but who won the respect of his players. A second year with that established leadership group in place from the beginning, without the bickering associated with what amounted to a massive blind date. A second year of fine-tuning instead of building from scratch.
So count me among those who feel the real Montreal Canadiens are closer to the ones we saw in the playoffs, the ones that "clicked," the ones that nearly shocked the world.
Next season, we could very well see them stand up.
NOTE: I forgot to mention that Markov has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to designate seven teams in each conference he would accept a trade to, according to capgeek.com.