BROSSARD – Unlike in high school, the NHL’s locker clean-out day was a bittersweet affair for the Habs’ playoff warriors.
After spending an eventful 2013-14 campaign fighting side-by-side in the trenches, the Canadiens reconvened at the Bell Sports Complex for their final day together before the summer break. Aside from setting tee times and comparing off-season training plans, it was a time for Michel Therrien’s troops to reflect on the season that was.
“I was pretty close. I was going to try and come back pretty quickly. It was bad timing,” offered Carey Price, who was nearing a return to play from a lower-body injury before his team suffered elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers. “In playoffs, you obviously play through things. That’s what I wanted to do, but there’s also the reality that no matter how badly you want to play and how badly you want to get in there, it’s also a matter of just how effective you’re going to be. That was a decision that we had to make.”
Though a healthy Price will be the Habs’ undisputed starter heading into the 2014-15 season, there are question marks surrounding the look of the goaltending depth chart behind number 31. Dustin Tokarski played well in relief of Price in the New York series, and veteran backup Peter Budaj is still signed through next season.
“It’s definitely a tough spot. Peter Budaj is one of the genuinely nicest human beings I’ve ever met. He’s an unbelievable backup. He’s one of the best friends I have on this team. He showed a lot of character. He never hung his head. He never pouted, and he showed the utmost support for everybody, including Dustin. It takes a special person to do that,” praised Price. “As for Dustin Tokarski, he did a great job. That’s probably one of the hardest jobs you can ask a guy to do. He really excelled. He showed why he’s won at different levels. He’s an awesome guy. I’ve got to take my hat off to him. He did an excellent job.”
The off-season may also redefine the look of the Habs’ defense corps. Veterans Mike Weaver, Andrei Markov and Francis Bouillon will all be unrestricted free agents on July 1st.
“I had an amazing time here. The media was...interesting,” joked Mike Weaver. “It was an amazing feeling to put on the Canadiens jersey. All the guys were welcoming and made things fun on and off the ice. It was a special year.”
The 36-year-old made it clear that he would love to stay on as a mentor for the Canadiens’ younger defensemen.
“When I just started out professionally, I learned a bunch from the older guys on the team. In my first season, we won the Turner Cup with the Orlando Solar Bears thanks to all the veteran experience on the team. It’s hard for young guys to teach other young guys,” insisted the 13-year NHL veteran, who led the Habs with 50 blocks in 17 postseason tilts in 2014.
Whether GM Marc Bergevin decides to maintain the status quo on the blueline or not, he’ll be able to count on a bevy of young guns that stepped up big time during the most recent playoff run.
Restricted free agents Lars Eller and P.K. Subban are awaiting new contracts as well this summer, but both are intent on being a part of a winning team in Montreal for years to come.
“I see myself as a top-six player, someone who can be counted on to make a difference,” confided Eller, who led all Habs forwards in scoring during the playoffs with 13 points in 17 games.
In addition to generating offense with fellow playoff hero Rene Bourque, Eller often matched up against opposing scoring lines and played a strong two-way game.
“The key is to be consistent,” admitted Eller. “Nobody is going to be at his best for a full 82-game season, but it’s about being consistent and never getting too high or too low.”
For his part, Subban may be due for a big pay raise with a new contract in the offseason, but he is fully committed to keeping his eye on the ultimate prize.
“The great thing about Montreal is that there’s a commitment to winning every year. A lot of guys go through their careers never getting to the Conference Finals, and we’ve been there twice in four years,” offered Subban. “I want to be here for a long time, hopefully for my entire career.”
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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