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Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, after giving up a goal to the New York Rangers during Game 6 on April 22, 2017, in New York.

Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports

During the NHL playoffs, Montreal is the kind of place where municipal transit employees customize the bus-front panels, which usually flash route numbers, to read "Go Habs Go."

You might jump aboard to find the driver has a radio with the game on, the passengers living and dying with every rush.

And when it all goes wrong for the Canadiens, as it did in New York on Saturday – again, for the 24th spring in a row – passion can turn to angst and fury.

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The armchair general managers came out in their legions on the phone-in shows after the Habs were eliminated in Game 6 of their first-round series against the Rangers.

Mostly they were demanding Carey Price, the best goaltender since Patrick Roy was run out of town, be traded.

No one ever won a championship hewing to the whims of hot-blooded fans, but what if they have a point this time?

Not that Price is to blame for this year's hasty playoff exit. To win, you have to score, and the Habs didn't, or at least not enough.

General manager Marc Bergevin is stuck in the mediocrity trap that hard salary-cap systems can create – good enough to win a round or two, but patently not on the cusp of domination.

Now, about busting out of it.

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In July, 2018, Price will be eligible for free agency, and if the Habs wish to sign him to an extension this summer – assuming he's interested in staying as he approaches his 30th birthday – it will be eye-wateringly expensive.

Does Bergevin stick with the plan of assembling enough talent around Price to get him into a position to steal a Stanley Cup final series?

Or is it time to accept it's unreasonable to place such a crushing burden on a player who has no margin for error and tear the thing down, sell high on veteran assets and players who aren't likely to improve, start over with draft picks?

The smart money says that's the way to go.

There are several compelling reasons why it won't happen.

First, the Habs are a risk-averse organization. The gambles Bergevin took last year – trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, signing Alex Radulov, paying over the odds for Andrew Shaw – fall comfortably within mainstream NHL thought.

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They are also liable to see the glass as half-full: They have a perennial top-10 goal scorer, a hard-rock franchise defenceman and a smattering of young secondary talent that could easily have won the series with a bounce here or there ("a game of inches," coach Claude Julien said).

After the disastrous 2012 season, majority owner Geoff Molson identified stability as a key element in building a contender, and Bergevin and Julien, the latter of which has put the team back on the rails since replacing Michel Therrien in February, will both see five-year contract extensions kick in next fall.

But Molson has also made it clear his only priority is winning another Cup – his business depends on icing a team people are excited about watching – and on that score he is perfectly in tune with the fans.

And make no mistake, the ticket- and merchandise-buying masses are in high dudgeon. They may even be as ticked off as downtown business owners, who were hoping for a deep playoff run and its attendant cash-register sounds.

"It's bad for the restaurants, the hotels, for everybody," said Santana Enrique, owner of Sports Crescent, which opened on rue Ste. Catherine – what used to be known as the usual Stanley Cup parade route – in 1989.

Enrique, who watched the Cup parade past in 1993, is discounting all his Habs paraphernalia 50 per cent just to get it out the door.

"I looked for something black to wear today, but almost all I have in the store is red," he said.

The difficulty for Bergevin is that after five seasons in charge he hasn't meaningfully addressed his team's main flaw, which is down the middle.

Alex Galchenyuk, drafted third over all in 2012 as the team's No. 1 pivot of the future, hasn't entirely worked out. Some of the blame falls to him, some to an organization that seemingly can't decide if he's a winger or a centre.

Conventional wisdom suggests he could be dealt this summer.

Can Artturi Lehkonen, the revelation of the playoffs, play centre? He did for a time in Sweden, but the NHL is a different beast.

Tomas Plekanec, signed to a two-year extension in 2015, is aging and his offensive skills have eroded. He will count for $6-million (U.S.) against the cap next season.

Phillip Danault, a promising two-way centre and just 24, has never scored more than 40 points in a season as a pro. Shaw played centre late in the season, but he's not there for offence.

Michael McCarron, a first-round draft pick in 2013, is not yet a full-time NHLer.

The minor-league cupboard is mostly bare when it comes to prolific scorers (Charles Hudon being the exception), never mind centres.

Bergevin has often said the surest way to acquire front-line offensive talent is via the draft, but the fact is he hasn't.

In the moments after being eliminated Habs captain Max Pacioretty, a 35-goal scorer who was unable to convert any of the myriad scoring opportunities he created in the series, was asked whether the team's 11 goals over six games – a franchise low in the playoffs – meant more firepower is needed.

"I don't know. I'm not the GM," he replied.

Yes, well, touché.

All eyes now turn to the man who is.

And he's got a big job to do, lest the fans' passion and anger turn into something far more damaging: apathy.

Video: Flames starting work for next season after playoff rout, GM says (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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