By CATHAL KELLY
Thursday, October 4, 2018
TORONTO -- A few days ago, the Canadiens made Shea Weber their captain. There was a news conference. It was about as celebratory as the taping of a hostage video.
"I don't know how many times you can say it's an honour," Weber said.
Well, try it a few more times, just in case. It might be the highlight of Montreal's season.
Weber will have to stitch that C onto a suit lapel. After off-season knee surgery, he won't be fit to play until December at the earliest. He still might be Montreal's top skater at the moment.
The rest of the roster is filled out with the sort of people who get to skip a military draft - children, the aged and the infirm. Carey Price is still Carey Price, but even shoulders that wide can only bear so much weight.
On Wednesday, a few hours before the team's season opener in Toronto, you could already see Price's face creasing. No brightness - just that late-in-the-year thousand-yard stare. Exactly how crack-proof is a goalie mask? Because this season, Price will be doing some stress testing in the field.
The contrast between haves and have-nots was especially stark as you went from the Maple Leafs dressing room to the Canadiens' visiting HQ down the hall.
The Toronto end had a disco feel - dozens and dozens of reporters wedged into the sweaty room all but high-fiving the players. Someone asked defenceman Jake Gardiner about the Leafs being the bookies' favourite to win the Stanley Cup.
"A lot of the odds is people in Toronto betting. They go down," Gardiner said, quite correctly.
Let's not apply logic to this dream. Not yet. That's what April's for.
The Canadiens' room also had that 'about to go on a journey' atmosphere. In this case, sideways into some sort of ditch. This was a wake without the open bar.
The Canadiens finished 28th in the NHL last season. The done thing in that situation is to make some changes.
However, the done thing under Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin is to cut out the most extreme examples of talent in the hopes that everyone who remains looks identically average.
Bergevin is one of those NHL types with an immaculate executive CV - born in Montreal, journeyman player, charismatic speaker, still has a great head of hair in his 50s. He looks like he knows what he's doing.
But Bergevin's transactional record suggests his long-term goal may be shorting Canadiens stock.
He jettisoned P.K. Subban (a beloved, electric player) for Weber (resolute, but about the same amperage as a hair dryer). He dumped elite defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev for a winger he wanted to convert (poorly) into a centre.
This off-season he sacked longsuffering captain Max Pacioretty for the sin of one bad year. After a self-defeating project spent trying to make Alex Galchenyuk better by complaining in public about how bad he is, Bergevin also freed Galchenyuk of his Quebec-based labours.
Montreal's preseason highlight was Galchenyuk's replacement, Max Domi, doing freebie plastic surgery on Florida's Aaron Ekblad with his right fist.
Domi was suspended for his trouble, which must have been a relief from the dreariness.
What remains now is a roster short on quality, as well as potential. By the time, the Habs' most promising youngster, 18year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, is fully developed, Price, 31, could be in the vertical portion of the downslope of his career.
The Canadiens are proof that there's a difference between rebuilding and just being bad. It's timing. They're the latter sort.
And because it's Montreal and the Canadiens, the angst was running high hours before they'd even played for the first time.
Coach Claude Julien decided Wednesday that veterans Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner would be healthy scratches for Game 1.
Since Plekanec was an offseason free-agent signing, this was a little like buying a new TV and then deciding to leave it in the box because you like the old one better.
Using a variation of that same metaphor, Alzner is a Mercedes and Julien had chosen to skateboard to the first day of work.
The Canadiens signed Alzner a year ago to a US$23-million contract. Now (since Weber is out) he's not even your seventhbest defenceman?
If that's the case, that's bad.
Bullhorning it to an already frustrated fan base on opening night is worse.
One explanation for this course of action is 'youth-quake'.
Another could be 'just making this stuff up as you go along'.
You can guess which side the Montreal media settled on.
There was no pretense about going in easy. Instead, they went in hard on last year's leading scorer, Brendan Gallagher, over it.
Gallagher is about the most reliable quote in the Canadiens' dressing room, and suffers for his helpfulness. His armour of good cheer was cut through after 90 seconds of questioning. By minute three, he was in midcampaign form. "It's not a message," Gallagher said of the Plekanec/Alzner decision, an edge appearing in his voice. "We're trying to win games. [Julien's] mindset is the same as our mindset."
Which mindset would that be?
Losing spectacularly as opposed to losing reasonably? Or maybe something more extreme? Maybe working up toward locker room bust-ups and on-ice meltdowns. Something out of the not-so-long-ago Leafs playbook.
While everyone in the room had already set to bickering, your eyes drifted over to Price. He'd taken the goalie's prerogative and passed on talking.
Toronto's Frederik Andersen did not avail himself of the same privilege.
The crowd seethed around Price while he unbuckled his pads, throwing his soiled gear around passersby into a laundry hamper. He made very sure not to make eye contact with anyone. He seemed very alone in a room wall-to-wall with people.
Five years ago, Price may have been just about the most important hockey player to both the Canadiens and Canadians. Now he's a guy trying to maintain his dignity on a team that has let its own slip.
You felt bad for him. Before very long, you're going to feel worse.