It comes down to this, for the Montreal Canadiens. At a 27th-ranked 57 points, they’ve got 18 games left to jockey for the best draft position possible. Granted, while the playoffs are all but a mathematical impossibility at this juncture, tanking is just as out of the question.
However, it’s a non-issue.
To be clear, tanking only occurs when a team’s management group ships out assets that would otherwise put the team in a better position to succeed. That’s no longer an option, especially with the trade deadline having come and gone without general manager Kent Hughes having been able to do much of anything, albeit with his hands tied tighter than the budget of 10-year-old on a strict allowance.
Related: Canadiens’ Keys to a Successful 2023 Trade Deadline
That’s neither here nor there though, as the Canadiens are suddenly in the midst of their toughest stretch of the season. And that’s saying something, as they’ve had one of the hardest schedules in the entire league since December, according to Tankathon. Starting with their 4-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on March 5, the Habs, who are now on a four-game losing streak, have 10 straight total games against teams either in a playoff spot or within three points of one (in the lone case of the Florida Panthers).
Little Reason for Canadiens Fans to Be Concerned
Perhaps ironically, the Canadiens have fared the worst against the Panthers of all their upcoming opponents, losing both their contests so far by a combined 13-4 final score. However, overall, they’re 4-10-2 on the season against them for a .312 points percentage (compared to their .445 on the season). And that’s one of many reasons there should be little concern on the part of Habs fans with regard to the team’s chances at earning a shot at drafting Connor Bedard (or Adam Fantilli, etc.).
Any legitimate concern may instead rest with whom the Canadiens decide to draft if they stay out of the Top 2 come the NHL Entry Draft, but that’s a story for another day. It is admittedly unlikely that the Canadiens catch the Columbus Blue Jackets, against whom the Habs coincidentally conclude this current stretch on March 25, for last place. After all, 10 points separate them and the Blue Jackets, but it’s worth noting between now and then the Jackets play at least three winnable games against the St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks.
All that to say, the landscape at the bottom of the standings can look very different by the end of this month. There of course is a chance it doesn’t. The Canadiens obviously played tight games in eventual 4-3 losses against the Golden Knights and Carolina Hurricanes to start this latest stretch, with the March 7 defeat to the second-place ‘Canes even going to an unanticipated shootout (ex-Hab Jesperi Kotkaniemi of all people getting the winner there).
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However, that’s been largely true for most of 2022-23, with exception to the team’s seven-game losing streak in late December, early January, when they were routed regularly (by a 36-12 combined score). This team’s identity is just such that they’re admirably able to hang in tough the tougher the competition, only to eventually lose more often than not, more often still against the teams they’ll be facing over the next little while.
Rebuild Still on Track for Canadiens
Even if the expected swoon doesn’t come to fruition and the Canadiens far from bottom out completely over the next few weeks, the following bears repeating: The rebuild is still in good shape.
The Canadiens will still most likely draft in the Top 10, adding to their fairly respectable prospect pipeline. The Canadiens will also be shedding a few less-than-ideal contracts this coming offseason via free agency (and, in the case of at least Joel Edmundson, trade hopefully).
Admittedly, the Canadiens are depending on teams below them in the standings like the Blue Jackets to win. However, they very much are in an enviable position as far as the rebuild as a whole is going, Hughes and company largely still very much in control of their own destiny in that regard.
Plus, the game against the Jackets themselves will go a long way to determining just how this season shakes out, making the last 18 games very interesting indeed. Remember, the primary cause for concern among Habs fans hoping for a high draft pick this summer is how well they’ve been playing relatively speaking, case in point the aforementioned shootout loss to the Hurricanes.
So, to shine the Canadiens’ situation in the proper light, if their biggest problem is how watchable they are, it’s really not much of one. There’s still a lot to play for the rest of the way. It should be an entertaining race to the finish to the bottom of the standings, potentially even a photo one with ever-increasing realism.