Following the Montreal Canadiens’ success this spring -- a somewhat surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals -- the Habs can expect to have a target on their jerseys when they open the 2014-15 season.
They’ll do so, however, without former captain Brian Gionta and veteran defenseman Josh Gorges. The two well-respected players are now members of the Buffalo Sabres -- Gionta signed as an unrestricted free agent, while Gorges was sent to Buffalo in a trade -- leaving a huge void inside the Montreal dressing room.
Former Hab Mathieu Darche thinks that will be the biggest challenge facing the team this season. But he sees plenty of younger players who are ready to step up.
Chief among those? Star defenseman P.K. Subban, who inked an eight-year, $72 million extension earlier this month.
“My only concern is that I feel like they let go of a lot of leadership,” Darche told ESPN.com in a phone conversation while on vacation with his family in Maine.
“I can see him [Subban] with a 'C' on his jersey,” Darche said. “Why not? If not him, you could go with Brendan Gallagher. You talk about leadership by example. He could have it.”
The 37-year-old Darche, who was a teammate of Subban's with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and for three seasons with the Habs, says he is a “P.K. backer” and lauds Subban's fierce competitiveness and sometimes-polarizing personality. Darche has seen Subban evolve, both on and off the ice, and has nothing but great things to say about the 2013 Norris Trophy winner’s progress toward becoming a true pro.
Subban is learning to straddle the line of being humble while maintaining the trademark swagger that makes him such an electrifying presence on the ice.
“There’s nothing wrong with keeping some cockiness,” Darche said. “In every sport you need to be confident, and cockiness is not necessarily derogatory. P.K. gets that. On the ice, he just wants to be the best player.”
And no one should be worrying that Subban will get comfortable now that he has cashed in on his success. Darche said Subban is driven by wanting to be the best, not by dollar signs.
“If there is one guy I don’t worry about sitting on his contract, it’s P.K. He wants to have his numbers in the rafters at Bell Centre,” Darche said. “He knows the better he is, the better the team has a chance to win.”
Though the negotiation process between Subban’s camp and the Habs was perceived by many as contentious, with a deal being struck after arbitration but before the final ruling could be made, Darche said there won’t be any awkwardness as a result. That’s just not Subban’s way.
Instead, Darche feels the deal is good for both sides. Subban gets security, but Darche thinks that in two or three years, the Habs may feel they got a bargain.
“They were lucky they got the deal done before the arbitrator’s ruling,” Darche said. “He’s leaving money on the table. Trust me, had he made it to unrestricted free agency, he would be making over $10 million a year.”
Darche, who was a key figure within the players' union during the last lockout, is flourishing in the business world since deciding to hang up the skates in 2013.
In fact, he turned down a few NHL opportunities since retirement to work in the corporate world, putting his marketing and international business degree from prestigious McGill University to use while working for customs brokerage company Delmar International.
Darche has enjoyed the experience -- his travels last year took him to China and Vietnam, among other locales -- but he could see himself returning to the NHL if the right management opportunity ever opened up.
He remains connected to the game by doing work for the French-language television station RDS, where he has dissected and analyzed his former team plenty.
He thinks the Habs have a good thing going, despite the departure of some key “glue guys.” Subban is locked up, and they have top goaltender Carey Price coming back after a knee injury during the Eastern Conference finals ended his season in May.
Price’s return should bode well for the Habs, Darche said.
“To me, Carey Price is the best goaltender in the league,” he said. “I’ve been saying that for three years now. It’s night and day what can happen with [Price in goal]. He can take you places. When you’ve got Carey Price, the sky’s the limit.”