Entering the 2015-16 NHL season, the Montreal Canadiens were clear Stanley Cup contenders, bringing back veteran rosters and a slew of All-Stars between them. Injuries and overlooked roster moves, however, have turned the Atlantic Division into a packed race heading out of the All-Star break.
There is no secret to what is currently ailing the Canadiens. They started the season off at 9-0-0, one of the three best starts in NHL history. Instead of being simply title contenders, they looked as if they could be the greatest NHL team in the post-lockout era.
Then star goalie Carey Price suffered a lower-body injury on Nov. 25, forcing him to miss 27 games. For most teams, losing a clear-cut No.1 goalie is a huge blow, but for Montreal, Price is an irreplaceable part of the team’s structure. Price, the Vezina and Hart Trophy winner, is one of seven goalies in the history of the league to take home the MVP award.
The current starter, Mike Condon, has been the replacement-level player he was expected to be, posting a .904 save percentage and 2.45 goals against average. He has proven good enough to start for a good team, but without Price, holes in the Canadiens‘ roster configuration have started to poke through. As expected, star defensemen P.K. Subban has received unfair criticism for the team’s struggles. While Subban’s skating and playmaking lead him to play an aggressive, offensive style that can compromise his responsibilities on the other end; without him the team is devoid of any offensive firepower. Subban is currently the team’s leading scorer with 37 points, and no Hab sits in the top 30 in the league in that category — Subban is 38th in the league’s top scorers.
The Canadiens have no forwards on the team that can generate much offense, making the holes in their roster much more apparent. Without a once-in-a-generation talent between the pipes, Montreal is simply a run-of-the-mill team that can neither blank teams nor score goals in bunches.
Currently sitting atop the division now are the Florida Panthers who have one of the more perplexing-and fun-rosters in the league. Mixing young up-and-comers with veterans whose careers started when their teammates were in elementary school, the Panthers have found the right mix of chemistry and talent after finishing sixth (out of eight) in the division last year.
Any conversation with the team starts with its first line. Jonathon Huberdeau, the third pick in the 2011 draft, and Aleksander Barkov, the second pick in the 2013 draft, have rounded into shape much earlier than the organization could have expected, forming a forward-heavy scoring attack. Both players were drafted with the hope that they would become long-term stalwarts on the first line, and they have both become focal pieces of a balanced team.
It would be impossible to talk about the Panthers, though, without mentioning fan-favorite Jaromir Jagr. At 43, he is older than the combined ages of Huberdeau and Barkov (22 and 20, respectively), yet he is sandwiched between his linemates as the team’s second overall leading scorer. This weekend, he played in his first All-Star game since 2004 and if the Panthers can keep a solid cushion in the standings — they are just five points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot — they can get Jagr some much-needed rest to keep him fresh for a championship run.
In another surprise performance by an older player, 36-year-old goaltender Roberto Luongo, in his second season as the consistent No.1 at Florida, has been stellar. Top six in the league in both goals against and save percentage, Luongo is having his best season since 2010-11, when he was the goaltender for the Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks. Back then, Luongo was one of the highest-paid players in the league, and his playoff struggles consequently made him one of the more scrutinized players in the league as well. His rejuvenation down south carried with it little probability that he would be the backbone for another championship-contending team, yet that is exactly what happened.
Sitting in a relatively weak league, the Panthers have enough young players with team-friendly contracts that they can swing into a trade before the Feb. 29 deadline. Perhaps they could fortify their defensemen depth by grabbing Dustin Byfuglien from the rebuilding Winnipeg Jets.
Currently bunched behind the Panthers are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins. The Lightning’s recent surge had them looking like the Stanley Cup finalists the team was last year, but with superstar captain Steven Stamkos’ impending free agency, Lightning management is even debating trading him away in order to get some return on value in case he walks away for nothing this summer.
While the division once seemed to be in the domain of a historically great Canadiens team, it looks like its shining star will be the Czech who had one of the greatest mullets in sports history.