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What the Puck: Canadiens defy odds, but Cup remains an elusive dream

What the Puck: Canadiens defy odds, but Cup remains an elusive dream
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The excitement is justified. 48 games in, even the skeptics — who me? — have to concede that this Habs squad is the real deal. As of Friday afternoon, they were solidly in a wild-card position. The Canadiens are bringing it most nights and just past the half way mark of the season, even I have to admit that they are the Vegas Golden Knights of the 2018-19 season. Like Vegas last season, these Habs had something to prove. They wanted to prove to all of us that they could play with the big boys. And they can.

Did you see the game Monday night at the Garden against the Boston Bruins? I thought it was the game of the year for the Habs, with full-on playoff intensity, all-world goaltending from Carey Price , yet another heroic performance from Jeff Petry and, best of all, the good guys won. The most amazing thing about this Canadiens run is that they’re doing it with a glaring lack of star talent.

They’re doing it without a player in the top 50 in NHL scoring — the Habs’ leading point-getter is Max Domi, with 41, putting him in 58th place in the league. An aside: They’re also doing it with a rag-tag defence corps.

In other words, painful as it is for me to say, GM Marc Bergevin was on to something last spring when he said this team had character issues. They had no character last season and they somehow dug deep, the good ship Habs, and found it this season.

But before you join the chorus of bandwagon-jumpers who suddenly want to nominate Bergevin for GM of the year, let me just mention that Bergevin has repeatedly said he knew this character issue was there  at the start of last season and yet he sat idle the whole season before acting. He claims it’s so difficult to make trades during the season in today’s NHL and fact is that other GMs manage to do it.

But there’s no denying that Bergevin turned things around. The proof is right there in the standings and it ain’t October anymore.

So where’s the problem, you might ask. Well it’s the medium term that has me worried. It’s the idea that this team is neither in true rebuild nor ready to contend. There is much talk about all the great prospects that the Canadiens have coming down the pipeline, a storyline that Bergevin fuelled at his mid-season news briefing, raving about the young Habs-to-be at the world junior tournament.

There are good, young players coming along, notably Ryan Poehling, Alexander Romanov, Josh Brook and Nick Suzuki. However, a junior is simply a prospect until he makes it to the NHL and the history of the league is littered with examples of hot, young players who simply didn’t pan out. So it’s never a for-sure thing. Look at Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Before he began the season, there was a raging debate about whether he was ready to play in the NHL. Now we know he is ready. But you couldn’t know for sure until he laced up with the Canadiens.

The more serious issue is that when these kids mature and are ready to make a major impact with the Canadiens in three or four years, it will be bad timing for the Habs because their veterans are probably going to be past their best-before dates. In four years, the two leaders of the team — Carey Price and Shea Weber — will be 35 and 37, respectively, and this is well beyond the prime for most NHL players. Jordie Benn and Petry will be 35.

Even if all of the prospects turn out to be A-listers, which is unlikely, they’ll be playing for a team that lacks the kind of veterans that you need to go all the way. Weber is playing great, but he’s already showing signs of slowing down. Just imagine when he’s 37. In fact, Weber and Price should be on a contender this year if Bergevin’s plan was working.

Also exciting as this team is, the Canadiens will probably finish in the wild-card slot at best and, at worst, just outside the playoff picture. In other words, they won’t be going deep in the playoffs and they won’t be getting a good draft pick. Sort of like the Habs most every season since 1993.
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