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By the Book

by Archives April 1, 2008

The Montreal Canadiens’ somewhat surprising success this season has fans dreaming of Stanley Cups in the future. If not this year, they say, things will continue to improve. They see the production from young players like the Kostitsyn brothers, Ryan O’Byrne, Josh Gorges and others including the goaltending duo of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak and see this as the beginning of a run of success at the top of the Eastern Conference.
To them I say, simply, not so fast.
Over 20 years ago similar things were being said about the Montreal Expos. The expansion team that struggled mightily over its first 10 seasons finally started to come together in 1979. Homegrown talent from years of struggling finally started to culminate into a team that finished a close second to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was, fans thought, the beginning of a winning franchise. And they were right. Sort of. They finished another close second in 1980, and in 1981 made the playoffs in a strike-forced split season. They ended up within one game of the World Series before ‘Blue Monday’ hit and they were eliminated by the Dodgers.
In 1982 and 1983 they finished barely over .500 and in third place, and then by 1984, they were in fifth place and under .500. It took nearly 10 years for them to be competitive again.
You may be asking yourselves now why I am making this comparison. Well, like this year’s Canadiens, they were also a team that relied on great performances from young players.
In 1980, four of the five Expo starting pitchers were 23 or younger and the ace Steve Rogers was only 30. It would have been expected that Bill Gullickson (10-5, 3.00 ERA, 21 years old), Scott Sanderson (16-11, 3.11, 23 years old), Charlie Lea (7-5, 3.72, 23 years old) and David Palmer (8-6, 2.98, 22 years old) were just hitting the peak of their careers.
It was not to be. Sanderson would be a Cub by 1984 and Palmer missed the entire 1981 and 1983 seasons while Gullickson and Lea had good, but not great seasons except for 1983.
On offence, the potential was probably even greater than in the young rotation.
Of the eight positional starters, only shortstop Chris Speier (30) and left fielder Ron Leflore (32) were over 26. Gary Carter, Warren Cromartie, Rodney Scott and Larry Parrish were all 26 while Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine were 25. That didn’t even include a 20-year-old Tim Raines and a 22-year-old Tim Wallach who would both become starters in 1981.
Except, Parrish would be traded to Texas for a 35-year-old Al Oliver in 1982, and except for eventual Hall of Famer Carter, Hall hopefuls Raines and Dawson and to some extent Wallach, the young hitters never truly developed. By 1985, Carter was a Met. Scott, Cromartie and Valentine were no longer Expos.
Now, there were extreme circumstances that may have curved the future of this bunch – they slid head first for a reason – but people had reason to believe that the Expos would be in the playoffs for years and win championships. But, it was a dynasty that never was.
Flip this to the Canadiens. People see great seasons for players like Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and think that this is a trend that will continue. It might, but as soon as you can say Michael Ryder, 60 point seasons can turn into 50 point seasons and the team that is near the top in goals scored could return to the middle of the pack.
People see partial seasons from Mikhail Grabovski and Sergei Kostitsyn and think that their production will improve with a full season, but rookies are never sure things. Guillaume Latendresse was supposed to improve over his rookie season, but has an eerily similar scoring line to last year.
And even the most pessimistic Canadiens fan will look at Alexei Emelin, David Fischer, Ryan McDonagh, Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban and others and can’t see this team slipping in the long term, never mind the short term.
Injuries can happen, and with free agency and the salary cap – two issues that the Expos didn’t even have to deal with – it will be even harder to keep the veteran core of this team for the long term.
What I’m trying to say is don’t be so quick to pencil the Canadiens at the top of the Eastern Conference for the next five years, don’t count your Stanley Cups before they hatch and just remember the Expos for the 1980s.

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