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Analysis: Canadiens' actions signal plan to join elite

by Arpon Basu / NHL.com

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price says he tunes out the hockey world over the summer, and it's a good thing for him that he does.

Throughout the offseason, the main question surrounding Price was whether he could repeat the historic season he just completed, leading the NHL in wins (44), goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.933).

To expect him to do so, the prevailing wisdom has determined, would be unreasonable.

Price respectfully disagrees, and expressed it with one word when asked Thursday if he could actually improve on his outstanding performance.

"Yup," Price said at the Canadiens annual charity golf tournament.

That was it.

The Canadiens, of course, would love nothing more than for Price to be correct, but they would probably prefer not to be banking their entire 2015-16 season on it.

Two announcements made Thursday showed the Canadiens are preparing to take the next step in their development, from a good team that relies on outstanding goaltending to an excellent team that just so happens to have outstanding goaltending.

The first piece of news was that the Canadiens would name a captain prior to the end of training camp.

Price called it largely ceremonial, but when it comes to the buzzwords used by Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien all last season, it's actually quite significant.

Over and over again, the two of them referred to the Canadiens as a team in transition. Now that they're ready to name a captain, that appears to be no longer the case.

"I wanted to have a transition year, it was not just lip service," Bergevin said. "It was really a transition year to let things settle and see how the group would react. We didn't reach our ultimate goal, don't get me wrong it's always to win a Stanley Cup, but if you look overall we had a really good season."

Bergevin's coach put the decision to name a captain this season in much simpler terms.

"I think we're there," Therrien said, "that's the reason why."

There's an argument to be made that Price nailed it; that the captaincy is more symbolic than anything else. But when Canadiens management considers it to be a symbol of where they are as a team, it takes on more importance.

Bergevin and Therrien have always insisted the Canadiens primary goal is to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs, preferring to focus on the first necessary step to reach the ultimate goal. But one of the potential candidates to be named the 29th captain in franchise history has bigger things in mind.

"The excuse of saying that we're young, it gets a little old after a while," defenseman P.K. Subban said. "We've shown that we can be an elite team in the League and now it's about us stepping forward and taking that next step in development. I think it's also about working in a way where management has to make decisions down the stretch on maybe bringing in a guy or two to help us win.

"I know that for me, I'm getting anxious. I don't want to wait another two or three years for people to say now you're a Stanley Cup contender. I want to win one now."

That was not the only time Thursday that Subban mentioned forcing Bergevin to make a move at the NHL Trade Deadline to bolster the Canadiens for a deep playoff run through their play. As opposed to Bergevin and Therrien, perhaps Subban is thinking beyond simply making the playoffs, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

As Therrien said, maybe the Canadiens are there.

The second major announcement Thursday was Alex Galchenyuk would play center this season after spending the vast majority of his first three seasons in the NHL at left wing.

It was a move both obvious and necessary, one shared with Galchenyuk in late June but kept from the public until now.

The reality of it is if the Canadiens ever want to be considered a truly elite team, they will need a dominant top-line center. A look at the Stanley Cup champions since the game was opened up following the 2004-05 lockout proves it.

The chain of dominant centers remains unbroken since then: from Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes (2006 champions) to Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks (2007) to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings (2008) to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009) to Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015), to Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci of the Boston Bruins (2011) to Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings (2012, 2014).

There's nothing saying Galchenyuk will ever become that kind of center for the Canadiens, but either way they need to find out now.

"It's time for us to know and for him to know if he can really fill that role," Bergevin said.

Galchenyuk is entering his fourth NHL season, but he is still 21, so there should be no rush for him to emerge as an elite talent immediately. The urgency instead lies with the Canadiens and their organizational depth chart, because if Galchenyuk does not become that dominant center they may need to look for an external solution.

Montreal's four other centers are Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller and Torrey Mitchell. Eller, at 26, is the youngest of that group, and while he is a vastly underrated player, it is safe to say he will never become a top-flight center.

The Canadiens don't have a center prospect in their system who could become one either, to such an extent they had Charles Hudon, a natural left wing, move to center as a rookie in the American Hockey League last season. Aside from Galchenyuk, the Canadiens have taken one natural center in the first round of the NHL Draft since 2005 (Louis Leblanc, 2009), and the prospect cupboard at that position is relatively bare as a result.

There is some concern the Canadiens will lack patience with Galchenyuk at center and be unwilling to live with his growing pains. In reality, the Canadiens don't have much of a choice but to be patient, because the alternative is not pretty.

With Price under contract for three more seasons at $6.5 million per year and Pacioretty signed through 2018-19 at $4.5 million per season, that represents the Canadiens immediate window for winning with two of their best players on team-friendly contracts. It also provides a timeline for when Galchenyuk might need to emerge as a legitimate top-line center.

The Canadiens chose to keep things quiet on Galchenyuk's move to center because they wanted to avoid putting additional pressure on him to succeed. But their progression from a team in transition to a team in contention may in fact hinge on that success.

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