By Bob Trask – Over the past two years, the Montreal Canadiens teams have presented their fans with two extremes. In the 2020-21 season they clawed their way to the Stanley Cup finals and one year later they finished dead last and won the Draft lottery.
Which of these two teams most accurately reflects the abilities of those two teams? The answer is neither.
The Cup Run
While the Canadiens did reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2021, a lot of good things happened that allowed them to get there. It began with the divisional setup that allowed an 18th place team overall to earn a playoff spot. It continued with the elevated play of a few players (over a short period of time) and was abetted by some misfortune along with some less than stellar play by their playoff opponents.
In reality, the Canadiens were really only a middle of the pack team that got hot at just the right time.
The following season was a disaster on many fronts. A record for man games lost due to injury was a huge factor, especially when the majority of those lost games were due to the absence of key players like Carey Price, Joel Edmundson and Shea Weber. When you are beginning from a point of mediocrity those man games lost are devastating.
Among those that played, more than one set new personal benchmarks for futility. That group included Jeff Petry, Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia. It is simply too much for a team that has already lost key player to injuries to also have key players missing in action.
On top of all that, the Habs began the season in disarray. Jesperi Kotkaniemi bolted for Carolina, leaving the center ice position up in the air. Last minute transactions to acquire Christian Dvorak, David Savard and Samuel Montembeault meant trying to integrate three new faces into the lineup at the last minute. The controversy swirling around these players had to have had an impact.
The final element was the coaching situation. Dominique Ducharme had a deer in the headlights look about him. After a successful playoff run the previous year, the expectations were high that the team could repeat. It seemed like he almost knew that he was doomed and made some questionable decisions in order to overcome the odds.
By the time Bergevin was fired, the fate of the team was more or less sealed and they staggered along until Martin St-Louis was hired to replace Ducharme.
The Climb Back
The real Canadiens of the past two years were probably somewhere between these two extremes. Good fortune one year, followed by misfortune the next year, exaggerated the success and the failure of each edition.
Anticipating the level of success the team might enjoy in the upcoming season is difficult. Almost the entire defense corps that started the last season is gone, the status of Carey Price is unknown and much of the starting lineup is still to be determined.
The atmosphere around the club, however, seems both more stable and more positive than it has in years. There is a new level of transparency (honesty?) with Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes as the helm. There is also a new level of enthusiasm with St-Louis behind the bench.
When all the factors are combined, this edition of the Canadiens will likely be significantly better than the 2021-22 team but are unlikely to repeat the miracle of the 2020-21 team that reached the Stanley Cup final. The team is on a journey back to respectability and with any journey there will be bumps along the way. But with all the new faces it should be an exciting ride.
Best guess: A fun-filled 75 point season is a reasonable target.
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