The difficulty with trying to gauge steady, incremental growth is you can’t watch it in real time.
It’s not until junior puts on last spring’s jeans that you realize he’s a couple of inches taller all of a sudden.
The same is roughly true of hockey teams.
So look at the Montreal Canadiens lineup and scoff if you must – unlike their main conference rivals, they didn’t make a huge off-season splash with trades or free-agent signings – but also understand these kids are growing, even if it isn’t immediately obvious from looking at them.
“Guys are getting older, guys are getting more mature. I can’t stand it when people say, ‘Oh, P.K., you sound different, you’ve changed.’ No, I haven’t changed at all, I’m the same person. I’m four years older, though, than when I first came into the league. I’ve gone through puberty – you know what I mean? Give me a break,” 24-year-old defenceman P.K. Subban said, later adding: “As a team … we’re getting more comfortable with each other.”
Continuity is the order of the day for this year’s Canadiens – with rare exceptions, head coach Michel Therrien has kept his lines and defensive pairings together throughout camp – and the idea is to profit from the extra experience and playoff heartbreak last spring.
Therrien said he expects to see clear progression, but “we have practically the same lineup as last year, with another season’s experience, so I’m looking toward this season with optimism.”
Whatever success the Habs enjoy this year will be a function of the ongoing hockey education and growing maturity of their young core – 26-year-old goalie Carey Price is the doyen of the group, which includes Subban, winger Max Pacioretty (24), centre Lars Eller (24) and second-year pros Alex Galchenyuk (19), Brendan Gallagher (21) and Jarred Tinordi (21).
The average age of the Habs squad was tugged upward by the addition of 35-year-old Daniel Brière and veteran role players George Parros and Douglas Murray – who will miss the next four to six weeks after suffering an undisclosed injury in practice last Sunday – but this is essentially the same team that finished a surprise second in the Eastern Conference in 2013.
There will be the predictable murmurs that a lockout-shortened season doesn’t offer the true measure of a team – in addition to the usual low-grade rumble about lack of size, defensive grit and the rest – and the first-round playoff exit against the bigger, brawnier Ottawa Senators was the real tell.
Perhaps that’s true, and perhaps the cautiousness and humility with which the Habs are approaching the season suggests they tacitly agree with the learned prognosticators on television and in print who have them as a bubble team for the playoffs.
Or perhaps it means nothing of the sort.
“We’re not bothered by [predictions]. Everyone in this room knows what we’re capable of. Sometimes, when you start the season as the favourite, it can be tougher. I’m not worried at all about what anybody says,” said centre David Desharnais, who had an up-and-down 2013 season but enjoyed a strong training camp.
Whereas the main powerhouses of the Eastern Conference spent the off-season making major renovations (David Clarkson, Daniel Alfredsson, Loui Eriksson, etc.), the Habs liked what they saw of their team last season.
It’s also true the team’s glaring needs – an elite goal-scoring right winger and a stud, minute-munching, opponent-mashing defenceman – aren’t easily addressed.
But it isn’t a fluke the Habs were among the conference’s better regular-season teams. Possession stats don’t lie: Montreal was one of the league’s best five-on-five teams. If the penalty kill can reach the same exalted heights as the power play, the team should be in the thick of the playoff hunt.
The organization recognizes, however, there’s nothing much to be gained by talking about it.
“We’re confident,” Therrien said, “but you have to stay humble, that’s important.”
Or as Subban put it: “It’s easy to talk the talk … just go out and do the job.”
The job starts Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who won last year’s opener at the Air Canada Centre, took the season series and manhandled Montreal at home in a 6-0, fight-filled affair.
The addition of Parros suggests the Habs will be able to put up more of a fight. The former Anaheim Ducks tough guy is expected to match wits Tuesday against his former coach, Toronto’s Randy Carlyle, in his Bell Centre debut.
The two won a Stanley Cup together, and Parros understands Toronto’s bare-knuckled approach better than most.
“It’s not surprising, I’ve never had a problem with that sort of style,” he said. “Here he is, and here I am, and we’re going to go at it again.”