The Montreal Canadiens will play the Pittsburgh Penguins in a play-in series to determine who makes it to the 16-team playoffs if the NHL resumes later this year. This provides hope for some fans that the struggling team can turn it around and make a run for the Stanley Cup. For other fans, it’s seen as a false sense of hope, and they believe the team isn’t good enough to win anything.
The facts of the matter are that the team stands to lose a top-10 draft pick if they do successfully win the series. With the Canadiens building through the draft and probably two seasons from graduating from a bubble team to a shoo-in playoff team, they would be better off with the draft pick than a playoff run, and here are some reasons why.
Going into the play-in series, the Canadiens are the 25th ranked team in the postseason. With only 19 regulation wins in the season, they finished with a winning percentage of .500, just putting them ahead of the Buffalo Sabres for the final spot in the postseason. This gives them 100-1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup, considering they are not even in the playoffs unless they win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the season ended, the Habs were 10 games out with 11 games remaining, with a less than a one percent chance of making the postseason.
Related: Canadiens’ First Round Draft Targets
At the deadline, they traded players for picks in order to prepare for the upcoming draft, where they had a 6% chance of getting the first-overall pick and a 36.8% of getting the 7th-overall pick. Now that the draft has been altered, they are in a group of 8 play-in teams that will have a 12.5% chance of winning a top-3 pick if they lose and don’t make the playoff round. The odds just don’t match up to help the Canadiens improve the team for the future if they make it into the playoff round.
Building Through the Draft
If Marc Bergevin is sticking to his word and trying to build through the draft, then winning the series will slow that process down. He has a huge chance to get his third top-three draft pick since becoming the general manager (GM). His first one Alex Galchenyuk — although a good pick at the time — didn’t work out and the next one, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, is probably a year or two out form becoming what the Habs hope he will be. Even if he doesn’t get the top-3 pick, Bergevin is almost guaranteed a top-10 pick with winning percentage being the main factor in where the losing lottery teams will be placed in the draft.
Bergevin has done well in the last few drafts getting talent to help the team — players like Ryan Poehling, Cole Caufield, Alexander Romanov, Cayden Primeau, Mattias Norlinder, Jayden Struble and Cale Fleury. The issue is all but the first two were drafted in the second round or later, and Caufield and Poehling were drafted 15th and 24th, respectively.
This draft is deep enough that any player picked in the top 10 could be an elite talent that would greatly benefit the team. Falling out of the top 10 would still get them a great draft pick, just not at the same caliber. If Bergevin wants to build through the draft, he needs to start drafting higher-end talent in the first round.
As mentioned earlier, this year’s draft is very deep; even the second and third rounds have quality players. However, there is still a talent gap between the top 10 and the rest, which is normal or you wouldn’t need to rank anyone. This draft’s top three is probably one of the best in years with Alexis Lafreniere leading the way, and players ranked two through five could be interchangeable to your taste with names like Lucas Raymond, Quinton Byfield, Tim Stutzle, Jamie Drysdale. Even Alexander Holtz, Cole Perfetti, and Marco Rossi who could easily slide into the top five.
As you can see, the top 10 in this draft are all players that will greatly improve any team they are drafted to. The Habs were sitting eighth before the season stopped and had a good chance to draft either Perfetti, Rossi, Holtz or, if they wanted a defenseman, Jake Sanderson.
If they win the series, they drop to 16th, which would still give them a good pick in someone like Jack Quinn, Dylan Holloway, Connor Zary, or Seth Jarvis. However, these later picks are not the same talent level as the top-10 players, and though they will help improve the team, they won’t move the needle as the top-10 players will.
Habs Are Not There Yet
The Canadiens right now in a normal season are a bubble playoff team at best. Last season’s 96 points is a good benchmark of how good this team is if everything goes right. This season, the team dealt with a lot of injuries and adversity and ended up with 71 points, probably around 82 if the season finished. This is a clear indication that the Habs just are not there yet when it comes to being a yearly playoff shoo-in; not necessarily a Cup contender, but a team that should make the playoff every year.
With another top-10 pick this season, they could see themselves pushed into not only playoff team status, but also into contender status in the next season or two. With Caufield, Kotkanieimi, and Romanov contributing on a regular basis — some as soon as next season — the team’s depth is already getting stronger. Adding an elite top-10 pick from this draft could catapult the Canadiens to playoff-team status as early as next season.
It’s a short series and anything is possible. Without putting any pressure on Carey (Price), with a goaltender of that quality, anything is possible. I feel confident that if we do get to play Pittsburgh we have a chance to beat them.Marc Bergevin on team’s chances (from, ‘The big word is ‘if’ as Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin discusses playoffs,’ Chronicle Herald, 05/27/2020)
Bergevin truly believes this team can win and make it to the playoffs, especially in a short series. He is confident Price can backstop them and that the team can prove they should be there. The confidence he has in them is great for the team. It’s not a bad thing to want to make the playoffs and win, but if your plan is to build for the long term and you were in the right place for that to begin with, it is better to stay the course. Anything can happen in the postseason — we have seen that numerous times — but in the end, the Habs don’t have the team to win it all. The further they go, the further away from high-end talent in the draft they will get.
However, a Cup would be nice. And like Bergevin has said before: anything can happen once you’re there.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.