In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.
With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.
The Montreal Canadiens pulled a few surprises this postseason, particularly knocking off the regular-season champion Boston Bruins en route to an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final. Now with that success, the expectations are raised for a team that has a solid group of youngsters coming up through the ranks and two superstar players at their given positions.
The Habs have a good start from the net out with Carey Price holding things down between the pipes. Combine Price with P.K. Subban, one of the league's best defensemen (and as yet unsigned ahead of a Friday arbitration hearing), there's the two guys that should be long-term pillars of the franchise. You can also probably throw the high-scoring Max Pacioretty into that mix as well to give the Habs a nice foundation at all three primary positions.
A few offseason changes, notably losing captain Brian Gionta, and last-year's late-season addition Thomas Vanek will challenge the Canadiens a bit next season, but they have some strong young players to step into bigger roles like Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk.
The Canadiens should be poised for another playoff push in 2014-15.
Here's a look at the players that will make up the core group to help in that quest.
Core Values: Montreal Canadiens
Players (Age, term remaining on contract): G Carey Price (26, 4 years), D P.K. Subban (25, RFA), LW Max Pacioretty (25, 5 years), C Tomas Plekanec (31, 2 years), RW Brendan Gallagher (22, 1 year), D Andrei Markov (35, 3 years)
Total cap hit for 2014-15: $29.9 million^ (43 percent of cap space consumed by six players)
^ - Total includes estimated cap hit of $7.5 million for P.K. Subban who has yet to re-sign for next season
Average age: 27.3
Total point production in 2013-14: 95 goals, 147 assists, 242 points (43 percent of team's point production)
Montreal Canadiens Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:
*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. Red represents below 50 percent. The darker the shade, the further away from 50 percent.
About the Core
Carey Price: Coming off of one of the brightest seasons of his strong career, big things will be expected from Price next season and beyond. At only 26 years old, he already has 369 appearances under his belt in the NHL. Last year, he helped boost his career numbers with a 34-20-5 record, .927 save percentage and 2.32 goals-against average, as well as six shutouts. Over his career, Price has compiled a 179-137-44 record, .917 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average with 25 career shutouts. After backstopping Canada to the gold medal at the Olympics last year, he showed big-game potential as well. Had he not been derailed by injury in the postseason, he just may have been able to help the Habs make it to the Stanley Cup Final. With four years left on his current deal, Price has plenty left to accomplish before he turns 30. With a strong goaltender, the Habs have a lot of leeway with how they form the rest of their roster. How he was acquired: 2005 NHL Entry Draft, first round, fifth overall
P.K. Subban: With his contract negotiations looming over the team presently, there's plenty of uneasiness in Hab Land right now. Subban is coming off a short bridge deal during which he posted career numbers and even won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defensemen in 2012-13. Subban is pretty much the total package, which is why he should be commanding one of the richest deals afforded a defenseman under an expanded salary cap. Shea Weber currently holds that distinction at an annual average of $7.3 million. Considering Subban's production and importance to the Habs, he's going to get close to that number, if not surpass it. In 284 career games, Subban has 167 points. He was second on the Canadiens last year with 53 points and did the same last year. He is vital to the present and future of the team and looks like he'll only get better. This is a delicate negotiation at this point, but the Habs should work hard towards getting him under a long-term contract even if it is at a high cost. How he was acquired: 2007 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 43rd overall
Max Pacioretty: Perhaps Pacioretty would be appreciated more had he not been seriously injured during the 2010-11 season. After suffering a severe concussion and fractured vertebrae, he has turned into one of the more prolific scorers in the league. Pacioretty bounced back from that injury with a 33-goal campaign. He put up 15 over the half season of 2012-13 and then last year put up 39 goals. Only six NHLers had more goals than Pacioretty over the last three seasons. With size and tremendous speed, Pacioretty has grown into a huge offensive threat down the wing. And he's only 25 years old. He's under contract for five more years and if he maintains the scoring pace he has over the duration of the deal, the Habs will be getting more than their money's worth. Pacioretty has really only played three full seasons, so he could just be getting started on a path towards a tremendous NHL career. How he was acquired: 2007 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 22nd overall
Tomas Plekanec: Heading into his 10th full season with Montreal, Plekanec has been through a lot with the Habs. He has also done a lot for the Habs. With 439 points in 679 career games, Plekanec has been a reliable producer over the years. He's been a top-line player for the bulk of his time in Montreal and has put together some really tremendous seasons. Last year, Plekanec's numbers took a bit of a dip, but he still put up his sixth 20-plus goal season with the club. Not only does his production count, but he eats some of the toughest minutes among Canadiens forwards (check out the usage chart above -- he's the circle hiding behind Gionta). Last season, the vast majority of his zone starts came in the defensive zone, while he also often saw opposing teams' top forward lines. He's a good all-around player, who can get under opponents' skin, too. He has just two years left on his deal, but Plekanec has given a lot to the Montreal organization for which he has played his entire career. How he was acquired: 2001 NHL Entry Draft, third round, 71st overall
Brendan Gallagher: An exciting young talent, Gallagher is only just beginning to realize his potential in the NHL. In just two years, Gallagher has grown into a high-impact forward for the Canadiens at both ends of the ice. He was the Calder Trophy runner-up as a rookie after putting up 28 points in 44 games and followed that up with a terrific sophomore campaign. In 2013-14, Gallagher led the team with a Corsi for percentage of 52, good for a relative Corsi of 7.7 percent. He also had 41 points, played on the team's power play and put 211 shots on net, good for second on the team. With a tenacious playing style, the 22-year-old has already endeared himself to the Habs faithful and has respect around the league as a budding talent. With just one year remaining before his first pro contract expires, Gallagher should see quite a payday and Montreal should do whatever they can to get this sparkplug under a multi-year deal as he should only get better. How he was acquired: 2010 NHL Entry Draft, fifth round, 147th overall
Andrei Markov: After signing a three-year extension this summer, Markov will likely close out his NHL career with the only NHL team he has ever known. One of the better power-play blueliners over his career, Markov has continued to produce well into his mid-30s. Last season, he posted 43 points, his highest total since the 2008-09 season. After overcoming injuries that sidelined him for much of 2010-11 and 2011-12, Markov hasn't missed a beat. Over his career, Markov has 442 points in 765 games. Even as he heads into the twilight of his career, Markov is a valuable asset to the Habs' blue line. Combining with Subban, the Habs have two strong offensive-minded defensemen who don't get burned defensively. They supplement production of a somewhat weaker forward group and help Montreal keep pace with the more offensively-charged teams they face on a regular basis. The Canadiens had to pay Markov quite a bit to keep him around, but it buys the club time to help their younger blueliners like Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi mature and take over the reins in due time. How he was acquired: 1998 NHL Entry Draft, sixth round, 162nd overall
Who's next in line
I debated including Alex Galchenyuk in the core of this team because he is likely viewed as part of it internally. The former third overall pick was slowed by injuries last season, but still managed to put up 31 points in 65 games. He has some incredible talent and if he can stay healthy, he should be a long-term impact player for the team. Galchenyuk just turned 20 last season and has one year remaining on his entry-level contract. As he continues to mature, he could be a top-six threat for the Habs for a long time.
Other players like David Desharnais, Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller and Nathan Beaulieu also received strong consideration for the core group, but it still feels like they're a tier below the group listed above. Desharnais in particular has been quite productive with 52 points last season and 163 over 257 games with the Habs.
Michael Bournival is another of the club's talented youngsters who could find himself in a more established role over time and figure more prominently in the organization's depth chart.
The most fascinating thing about the Canadiens' core group is that every single one of them is a homegrown player selected in the NHL Entry Draft. Only two of them are first rounders, with Alex Galchenyuk likely to become the third eventually. That kind of success, nabbing the building blocks of the organization over years of drafting, helps keep payrolls manageable and puts the team on the path for long-term success.
The Habs haven't shied away from making trades or signing free agents, but to have that foundation set by homegrown players is not something many teams can boast in today's NHL. It takes good scouting and a bit of luck to accomplish something like that.
The incredible thing is that the team even traded away draft pick Ryan McDonagh and survived a few first-round busts to build that foundation.
What the organization has to do now is build smarter around this group. The Canadiens were not very good in possession last year and it put a lot of pressure on Price to keep them in games. Part of that is due to a relative lack of depth compared to some of the other teams out there. It was enough to get to the Eastern Conference Final last year, but in order to make multiple deep playoff runs, the Habs are going to have to build up the top end of their lineup a bit more, while also finding more versatile players for the less-established roles.
Having a well-established No. 1 goalie in Price, a top-level No. 1 defenseman in Subban and a bona fide scorer in Pacioretty sets them up pretty well.
The addition of Tom Gilbert this offseason and re-signing veteran defenseman Mike Weaver helps the Habs build some of that depth on their current blue line. Also, trading for P.A. Parenteau could bolster scoring as an upgrade over Daniel Briere.
The big cloud looming over the organization currently, however, is the ongoing negotiation with Subban. His next contract should be a big one, but if they can't get a long-term deal done, the club is taking on a lot of risk of eventually losing their franchise defenseman when he becomes an unrestricted free agent a few years down the road.
Assuming the Habs get something worked out with Subban, and they have more than enough cap space to do it without crippling the roster, they're future sets up rather nicely. They have the talent at the top and the youth to support over a longer term. The Eastern Conference Final run may have just been an early preview of what's to come.