There’s little disputing the obvious: The Montreal Canadiens are an improved team in 2018-19 relative to the edition that missed the playoffs last season. Nevertheless, there’s just as little dismissing the similarities in their records.
Fiche des #Habs
4 décembre 2017: 28 MJ; 13-12-3, 29 pts
4 décembre 2018: 27 MJ; 12-10-5, 29 pts
— Guillaume Lepage (@GLepageLNH) December 4, 2018
Now at 13-10-5 entering Thursday night action, the Canadiens are holding down the last Eastern Conference wild-card spot. So, like last year at this point, it’s not as if they’ve got a playoff berth locked down by any stretch. And, yet, there’s an undeniable sense of positivity in the air about this edition of the team.
Assuming it’s not just Christmas spirit, what can it be? Leaving out the obvious personnel changes (such as the hiring of Dominique Ducharme as an assistant coach) as potential reasons, here are the top three ways the Canadiens are different relative to last year.
3. Shea Weber Is Back
The reason why the above record comparison between the two records is misleading also doubles as the most obvious difference. Defenseman Shea Weber is back now, whereas it was around this point last season that he got put on the shelf for the rest of that failed campaign.
It doesn’t technically count as a personnel change as Weber was always on the team. He was just unable to make much of an on-ice impact past mid-December of last year. Plus, when Weber had been in the lineup up to that point, he had been playing on a wonky foot, dating back to the very first game of the season.
Needless to say, having your No. 1 defenseman back in the lineup drastically changes the complexion of the remainder of the season. Especially now, with Canadiens coming off injured reserve, the Habs are healthy, starting with their best players. To be clear, injuries are a horrible excuse for failure, because every team goes through them, but it does serve as a good explanation as to why everyone is so optimistic about the Habs’ chances.
2. More Goals
It would be easy to point to the additions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar as the biggest changes relative to last year. However, it’s also not just them that’s been doing the scoring this season. The Canadiens are currently fifth in five-on-five scoring (67). Overall, they have 86 goals through 28 games.
Last season, during which the Habs got shut out a record 12 times, at the same point they had 78. That even includes that infamous 28th game of the season, when they beat the Detroit Red Wings 10-1, which is another reason the above comparison is misleading. At the buzzer, it just got in the five-game winning streak that had miraculously pulled the Habs back into a playoff spot after they had sputtered through most of the early season. The Habs went into a downward spiral right after.
Of course this season, Domi’s been producing like the No. 1 center the Canadiens have needed for decades. And, whereas Max Pacioretty stumbled throughout last season, the player many considered a throw-in to the trade that sent him out of town is now third in team scoring. Between the two in second place though is Jonathan Drouin, who’s found chemistry with Domi, not to mention the back of the net that eluded him most of last season.
Add a resurgent Andrew Shaw to the mix along with a fourth line that, when deployed correctly, can actually provide some offense and you may just have the secret to this team’s success… if they do in fact end up making the playoffs. Carey Price’s stats may still be a mess as he plays behind a defense that’s still mediocre to be kind (even with Weber back), but the talent up front is doing its job, arguably to the best of its ability.
It has made all the difference in the world. Maybe not in the standings, but in the eyes of fans it has. They’ve been pulled out of their seats more often and have bore witness to a more exciting edition of the Canadiens, which, even in losses, has remained in games up to the final whistle more often.
1. Lower Expectations
Ultimately, it all boils down to lowered expectations.
The Habs entered 2017-18 on the heels of a regular-season division title. In spite of how they disappeared in the first round against the New York Rangers that spring, there was still reason for optimism. Maybe not cause to envision a 25th Stanley Cup championship, but a playoff berth, surely. Obviously, one didn’t materialize.
Taking into account general manager Marc Bergevin’s so-so 2018 offseason, during which he really didn’t do much to improve the team in the short term on paper, it was hard to believe the Habs could improve on their fourth-from-last finish in 2017-18.
Fast-forward to late October of this season, at which point the Habs had shockingly stormed out of the gate with a 6-2-2 record. Bergevin took a mini victory lap in press-conference form, which was arguably well-deserved considering most self-respecting analysts had the Habs finishing well out of the playoffs again.
All of a sudden, even though the Canadiens have gone 7-8-3 since, it’s not so bad. The rebuild is on track and maybe even ahead of schedule thanks to Bergevin’s offseason acquisitions. The optimism surrounding the Habs is justified as a result even if the road to a playoff spot this season is uphill.
Nevertheless, fans should not lose sight of what should be the ultimate goal here: building a perennial contender, instead of a one-and-done edition like in 2016-17. Having missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, the Habs may be on the verge of continuing a dubious trend, but one that took shape long before.
Under Bergevin’s watch, the Habs have suffered diminishing returns in the playoffs since reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2014. In 2015, they reached the second round. In 2016, they didn’t qualify with Price injured for all but 12 games of the season. In 2017, they got upset in embarrassing fashion against the Rangers. That brings us to the disaster that was last year… and now.
The priority should not be making the playoffs but making noise therein instead. Even if it means missing out for a third time in four seasons in 2018-19. Even if the Habs are a better team than most expected heading into this season, there are still too many holes in the lineup for anyone to realistically predict them as being so much as dark horses come the playoffs. Forget favorites.
As a result, the focus should be on the future, both on the part of the fans and Bergevin, for however long he’s still at the reins of the team. If they so happen to still make the playoffs with that end goal in mind, so be it. Any managerial moves to the contrary would only serve to prematurely end what should be a rebuilding process. Prematurely heighten expectations when there is still clearly a lot of work to be done.