Posts advocating that the Canadiens “tank” the upcoming season still appear on Twitter from time to time. Frankly, I have no time for this mindset. It builds a losing culture and it provides zero guarantee on a top 3 draft pick.
I prefer to view the Habs with cautious optimism and expect modest improvement over last season. While it may be unlikely that it will result in a playoff berth, the path of improvement slowly but surely creates a winning culture puts the Canadiens on a trajectory of sustained success over the long term.
The potential for this improvement comes from a number of areas.
It has been said that NHL forwards often peak at around 28 years of age and defensemen peak at 30 years of age before seeing their performance plateau and eventually decline. A quick glance at the Canadiens roster shows that many of their key players are still well below this threshold and have the potential to grow their individual games next year and well into the future. In total, there are about 16 or 17 players on the Canadiens roster who fall into this category.
The Canadiens set all kinds of records last year when it comes to man games missed due to injuries and with the Canadiens, you could often see key players on the sidelines. Top defenseman Mike Matheson, leading goal scorer Cole Caufield, the highly effective Sean Monahan, heart and soul player Brendan Gallagher all missed significant games and/or played through injuries. The list is much longer than that but these examples give us an idea of the challenges faced when trying to ice a competitive roster.
And as players battled through injuries that should have kept them on the bench, they not only aggravated those injuries, but contributed less than their full potential on the ice while taking a spot away from a healthy player.
It was likely a wakeup call for players who weren’t completely honest about their injuries as well as for management and the coaching staff who didn’t push hard enough to determine the status of players’ health. Everyone involved now realizes that playing it cautious and being patient with recovery times will paradoxically speed up the process for a healthy and productive return to the lineup.
Armed with that experience and a revamped training staff, odds are that the Canadiens will not suffer through an injury situation as bad as last season.
So far the number of roster changes have been minimal but they too have the ability to make the team better.
Joel Edmundson brought a physical presence on the ice and, according to most, a positive influence in the dressing room. Unfortunately his on-ice performance was relatively ineffective and his presence in the lineup took ice time away from others.
Jonathan Drouin has gone from Montreal to Colorado; Alex Newhook has gone from Colorado to Montreal. Based on Drouin’s struggles with the Canadiens and his injury history, this move looks like a clear upgrade for the Canadiens.
There is also the potential for more roster changes that include players who fall into Edmundson’s category – veterans who underperformed and could block the path to the NHL for younger players who are on an upward trajectory. While that hasn’t happened yet, it could and a name that often pops up is Mike Hoffman. He’s still a capable NHL player but at this stage of his career, he’s probably a better fit for a team that is closer to being a Cup contender.
At the beginning of last season, Marty St. Louis and the rest of the coaching staff had only limited time working together. After the trials and tribulations of a full season, they will undoubtedly have a better idea of what challenges they could face and how to deal with them. It seems to be an open-minded team of coaches that is a far cry from the authoritarian regime of Michel Therrien.
The Canadiens still have holes to fill before they become a playoff contender. Another sniper, preferably a right winger, is needed. So is a dominant defenseman to play on the right side and there is always the question of goaltending. But a lot of other holes have already been plugged.
The development of players in Laval and in the pro leagues this upcoming season will provide Canadiens’ management with a good idea whether there are any internal solutions to shortcomings on the NHL roster, or whether they will have to look farther afield.
Kent Hughes will want to build a positive culture and a team that is competitive enough this year to be attractive next year for free agents and trade candidates to consider. Another dismal season would make that difficult. With and improving team and more contracts coming off the books after this season, he will have an abundance of cap space to add talent to the lineup when it is far closer to being ready to compete.
Since Jeff Gorton took over the reins as executive vice president with the Canadiens, he has been preaching patience. With the potential improvements for the NHL squad, the influx of quality talent in Laval, a handful of potential gems playing in the European pro leagues, more draft choices coming and plenty of future cap space to be a player in the UFA and trade market we should see the Canadiens return to a position of prominence in the NHL.
Rushing the process is counterproductive; so is willfully undermining the current roster and creating a culture of losing. I am confident that the approach the Canadiens have taken to date will bear fruit sooner than many imagine.