Call of the Wilde: "To" versus "through"
Habs General Manager Marc Bergevin is fond of saying "Some players get you to the playoffs and some players get you through the playoffs". On March 1, the NHL's trading deadline, feeling comfortable where his team was in the standings, Bergevin traded away some 'to' for some 'through'.
The Montreal Canadiens are made more for the playoffs right now than they have been in a generation. Even their coach has been changed from a “to the playoffs” kind of guy for a “through the playoffs” kind of guy, as Claude Julien has won a title in Boston and advanced to another final before losing.
This Habs team, long known for speed but lacking in size, has recently added plenty of bulk. The head coach spoke of a speed vs size balance yesterday at his news conference. It was size that he felt the Habs lacked when he mentioned that the playoffs is a grind and it lasts a long time – that wearing down your opposition over time instead of yourself is key.
The last time the Habs had a run, they were eliminated by Tampa Bay. Then-coach Michel Therrien at said that his club had emptied the tank. Wonderful that they gave it their all of course but the down side to that is the tank can't be empty with two rounds still to go. The tank has to be at half.
This time the organization is banking that they can keep some gas in the tank by driving speed less and driving size more. Not just getting to the puck first but holding on to it too.
The Habs are loaded with players now who are known for that playoff sandpaper that wins games in April and May.
Andrew Shaw has two cups and goes from a mid-level player in the regular season to one who amps it up and is among the very best when the playoffs begin.
Shea Weber is a shutdown defenceman who has excelled in the big games and handled the moment well. Many refer to the end of the playoffs last year in Nashville where he had a poor conclusion but if you feel it fair to cherry pick a thesis from the a couple of games in that series, then be prepared for someone to cherry pick the conclusion to recent Olympics and World Cups. That’s where, in a best-on-best tournament, Mike Babcock used Weber as his best shutdown defender – the best defender on the world's best team. Now Weber is successfully partnered with Andrei Markov in a true 27-to-30 minute pairing that the Habs have rolled. It was Claude Julien who finally put the two best together.
Also new is Andreas Martinsen, who is a definite addition of size and loss of speed. One can imagine Bergevin looking out at Sven Andrighetto and not seeing a “get you through the playoffs” profile. Martinsen lays out the odd big hit and has shown surprisingly good skating skills. He epitomizes Julien's balance statement with the balance trending big.
Also known to amp it up for the playoffs is Dwight King, winner of Cup hardware in Los Angeles. He gets a promotion up the depth chart while Alex Galchenyuk gets a lesson from the head coach. Julien is sending a message to the young star that he needs a "higher compete level."
The Habs also added Steve Ott, who will be in the lineup opening night. A good face off man, Ott gets under the skin of the opponent and brings grit to the balance. Ott is another player known for the “through.” You can see what Bergevin definitely had in mind here.
The support pieces since the last time the playoffs were here are either bigger and grittier or are experienced in these big moments. Even Mike McCarron is a large physical presence that the Habs couldn't bring to the table before.
The speed and skill is still there though and it is improved. Paul Byron broke 20 goals for the first time and broke defenders’ will, turning them inside out quickly on the rush. Max Pacioretty continues to score and has matured, too, in every aspect of his game.
The Habs have added intelligence down the middle in Phillip Danault. Artturi Lehkonen was the MVP last season in the playoffs in Sweden as he won a national championship. Jordie Benn is the exact profile of a playoff performer – steady, smart, a shot blocker, sacrifices for the cause. Jeff Petry was the Habs’ best defender in their last playoffs.
The playoffs are about puck battles more than the regular season. The best players in the playoffs get in the corners and win pucks. Alexander Radulov does that. One-on-one he is a bear to take off the puck. Brendan Gallagher is a battler who, despite his size, never backs down and wins in many places including in front of the net.
And, of course, in goal the Habs have the world's best who has won a title at every level. Carey Price has world junior gold. He has a Calder Cup title in the AHL, carrying a team on his back. He has Olympic gold. He has World Cup gold. He has a .960 save percentage for Canada in his last three tourneys. One more mountain to climb for a goalie who has always had the guts in the toughest environments.
The playoffs favour size. The playoffs favour grit and sandpaper. The playoffs favour experience.
Go up and down the Habs roster and you will find very few players who don't fit the quintessential playoff profile.
Since the last playoffs, Bergevin has identified that he needed to change the player profile of his guys who can get them to for some more guys who can get them through.
This is the most prepared and most balanced team for playoff hockey the Habs have had in a generation.
My prediction is an Atlantic Division title. However, there's a machine in Washington that is also more prepared than they have ever been, adding playoff parts and changing to a much better playoff style this season. This could be their year in DC. I see a Habs vs. Caps conference final. We shall see then who has more of the things that get you through and who stayed healthy because that is an intangible you cannot predict.
The puck drops Wednesday night at the Bell Centre. The city is pumped. The team is prepared. Let's see how the new balance is built 'through' this.