There is no team in the NHL that has received as much criticism for its roster construction this summer as the Montreal Canadiens. From a PR perspective, the whole thing has been a nightmare and it only seems to be getting worse with each passing day.
Whether it’s been what appears to be an obvious push to trade skill for grit (Lars Eller out, Andrew Shaw in), trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, or the reports that they may have parted ways with their analytics consultant due to disagreements over the Subban trade, everything about this offseason seems to be a runaway freight train of doom-and-gloom when it comes to their chances for this upcoming season. It’s almost as if the whole thing is going to inevitably end with complete failure.
The crazy thing about all of this is that the short-term outlook of the team, at least as it relates to the 2016-17 season, really isn’t all that different than it was before all of these moves started to happen. They are a highly volatile team that could end up being anything from a playoff team that has a chance to contend in the Eastern Conference, to a lottery team that has a chance to contend for the top pick in the draft lottery.
Where they finish is going to be determined by one thing, and one thing only: The health and performance of goaltender Carey Price.
That was going to be the case before Shaw was acquired and Subban was traded, and it is still going to be the case now with the new-look roster.
At this point the Subban-for-Weber trade has been analyzed from every possible angle, and the long-term ramifications are obvious. Weber is four years older, has a massive contract that will at some point be an issue, and given the fact he is going to be 31 years old this season, his performance will only decline in the coming years. That is a shaky bridge the Canadiens will eventually have to cross. It is going to be a significant issue in the future, and criticism of the trade is absolutely justified for those reasons alone.
Especially when the team itself can’t even fully explain why it had to happen.
All of that has made it pretty easy to overlook the fact that Weber is still a pretty good player right now. He may not make the same type of impact Subban does (or even be as good right now — and that is a concern) but he is not a terrible player and he is not completely done yet. He is still a top-pairing defender that can still make an impact on a team, especially offensively.
The bigger issue with the Canadiens in the short-term is still the way the team plays and the level to which it relies on its goaltender to win games.
With Price sidelined for most of the 2015-16 season, the Canadiens received one of the worst goaltending performances in the league, finishing with a .906 team save percentage, placing them 26th in the NHL. Even a league-average performance in net would have shaved more than 20 goals against off of their season total on the same number of shots. And you can probably bet that a healthy Price will be significantly better than league average and the Canadiens are going to be a better team because of it.
This is simply what they do.
This doesn’t mean the Canadiens haven’t taken a flawed approach to building their team or made moves that could backfire in a big way in the future (committing a six-year contract for a third-line player, as one example; trading P.K. Subban(!) as a bigger one). It also doesn’t excuse the approach.
But the Canadiens under Michel Therrien’s watch have been a team, no matter how much talent exists on the roster, that has relied on its goaltender more than any other team in hockey to win games. When Price plays, the team wins and has a chance to compete. When he doesn’t play (or doesn’t play well), the team has virtually no chance to win.
They go as he goes, and these moves do nothing to change that reality.
Price has been masking the flaws in the team’s approach on the ice for three years now.
Now that responsibility is going to have to expand to covering up for the decision making of the front office as well.