Like whomever it was Vanessa Williams was cooing to all those years ago, we’ve gone and saved the best for last, as our How Did We Get Here? series examining the seasonal and organizational situations that delivered each Canadian NHL team to their current position in the standings wraps up with this country’s top team, the Montreal Canadiens.
Right now, the Canadiens are tied for top spot in the Eastern Conference and in a four-way tie for top spot in the entire league, though they’ve played one fewer game than Nashville and Anaheim out West and one more than the New York Rangers, their partners atop the Eastern Conference standings.
There is a short answer to how they got to where they are this season and that’s Carey Price. The Canadiens netminder has been the best player in the league pretty much all season, will mostly likely put a Vezina Trophy on his mantle this summer and should probably be putting the Hart Trophy next to it, but goalies don’t often get recognized as the overall league MVP, so the Vezina might just have to do.
But how did they get to the point where they could get to this point?
First and foremost, this is an organization that has historically drafted well and unearthed some very impressive finds outside of the first round. P.K. Subban was drafted in the second round. Tomas Plekanc was taken in the fourth. Brendan Gallagher and Andrei Markov were selected in the fifth and sixth round respectively. Of the team’s current Top 6 scorers, only Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk very first-round draft picks. Price was a first-round selection as well. Yes, there have been misses like David Fischer (No. 20 overall in 2006) Louis LeBlanc (No. 18 overall in 2009) – every team has a couple of those over a long enough stretch, but not every team literally builds the core of the top two forward lines and half of their top two defensive pairings through the draft.
Secondly, in the nine years since the 2004-05 Lockout Season, Montreal hasn’t had made any real terrible free agent decisions. Brian Gionta’s five-year deal didn’t end up netting the statistical returns they likely hoped for, but the diminutive American did serve as team captain over his final four seasons in La Belle Province, but for the most part, they’ve been pretty penny-wise over the last decade and done a good job of getting out from under any marginal deals they have handed out as well.
Ultimately, this team has emerged as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders because this core unit has been able to stick together and develop over the last few years.
They made the playoffs in the shortened 2011-12 season when Gallagher and Galchenyuk were rookies, advanced to the Conference Finals last season and have a very good chance at going all the way this year. The only player to rank in the Top 8 in scoring from any of those teams that is no longer with the team is Gionta, who departed as a free agent after last season.
That kind of continuity and knowing which six forwards and four defensemen you can count on every night is crucial for team success.
Pacioretty has developed into one of the top wingers and most consistent goal scorers in the league while Subban is the reigning Norris Trophy winner as the league’s top defensemen and a serious threat to double-up this year. Plekanec and Markov are the veteran leaders, David Desharnais is the undrafted free agent that has become another incredible find for the Canadiens and Gallagher and Galchenyuk are the young, emerging offensive threats.
Everyone has a role that is clearly defined, they play well together and have filled in the blanks around that group exceptionally well, putting this team in a position to make a deep run into this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. It is easier said than done, but this is how you build a consistent, winning franchise – draft well, trust in your selections and spend your money wisely.