Since approximately 1994, the Montreal Canadiens have been a team of the past and a team of the future, but virtually never a team of the present. In the early 2000s people were excited about Hossa, Perezhogin, and Hainsey. When I first started posting on boards, we were excited for a future core of Higgins, Komisarek, Chipchura, Kostitsyn, etc. Later on we were excited for a future core of Pacioretty, Subban, and Price. Now people are salivating at the future core Galchenyuk, Gallagher, Beaulieu, Tinordi, and De La Rose. I used to buy into the cult of tomorrow, in fact I posted one of the most flamed threads in recent hfboards history: The case for a 1-year surgical tank for the Habs.
I argue that period is over, and that we all need to start thinking differently, to stop thinking about "competing in five years", and to think about competing right now, that the Habs can start winning right now. I make three arguments for this: the conference is weak, the team's core is mature and unlikely to get vastly better, and we're too good to tank.
1) The Eastern Conference is weak.
Bergevin has done nothing to deserve this good luck, but given that it's there, he might as well take advantage. The Western Conference has 5 teams with 60 points or more (Chicago, St-Louis, Colorado, Anaheim, San Jose) whereas the Eastern Conference has 1 (Pittsburgh). The 5th place team in the East would be 10th in the West. I never bought the argument that "anything can happen once you make the playoffs", but I am willing to buy the argument that "anything can happen once you make the finals". It's much easier to be lucky one time than to be lucky four times.
I can't argue that Bergevin has the tools to build the best team in the league now, but I think he has the tools to tweak the Habs and help them come out of the conference. Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh are teams ranked above us now, and I think those are teams we can beat. They're also teams that I don't think will improve much in the coming years, neither will Detroit or Washington who are next in the rankings, so this favourable situation may last a couple seasons.
2) The Habs Core is Mature, and is Unlikely to Get Much Better in the Near Future.
Within the Habs core, I see three players who are in late-prime or past-prime (Plekanec, Markov, Gorges); five players who are in early-to-mid prime (Price, Emelin, Pacioretty, Eller, Subban) and two players who are in pre-prime (Galchenyuk, Gallagher). For the core to get "much" better in the near-future, the pre-prime players would have to improve "much" faster than Plekanec, Markov, and Gorges decline... I don't think we should count on that. I think that's a good bet but not a great bet. Gallagher might not improve at all, and Galchenyuk's improvement over Plekanec will probably be there, but he won't be replacing a slouch.
Meanwhile... Price is as good as he's going to be. He's got a .930 save percentage, it doesn't get much better than that except for flukes. Pacioretty as a goal-scorer is 24 and thus is at his peak, since the peak of goal-scoring is ages 22-26. Subban probably won't improve much from being a Norris winner. We have these assets, these assets we've dreamt of having back in the 2000s, it would be pathetic not to try and win.
3) We're Too Good to Tank
This logically follows from the other points, but it's worth going over. Montreal drafted McCarron at 25th overall last year, and we can expect more of that in 2014 and 2015. "Building through the draft", in and of itself, will not help Montreal win in the period 2014-2017. The best draft selections after the top-10 typically take a minimum of 3 years prior to becoming impact players. For example, Subban was drafted in 2007, and began to help in the 2010 playoffs. McDonagh, Pacioretty, and Eller were drafted in the same class and took 1 or 2 years longer.
What our draft picks can do, is help us remain a good team once Plekanec, Markov, Pacioretty are either fading memories or playing in support roles like Brian Gionta currently is, or give us assets in the following years to help us acquire missing pieces. That is how Los Angeles became a contender: They traded Colton Teubert, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jack Johnson, a 1st rounder, a 1st rounder, for Dustin Penner, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards. That's part of what put them over the top. The Habs don't have those kinds of assets now -- acquiring Bobby Ryan might have meant the bankruptcy of the farm -- but they might in 2 years.