What Canadiens Learned After Round 1 of 2023 Playoffs

The Montreal Canadiens may have missed the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it’s all part of a master plan. General manager Kent Hughesrebuild is alive and well, but it’s undeniably a fluid process. Things can change at any moment, and, if that’s the case, they can most certainly change over the course of a single posteason, in what is largely considered a copycat league.

Kent Hughes, Montreal Canadiens GM
Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes – (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Obviously, one round does not an entire postseason make, but all eyes are nevertheless on the action in what is generally seen as the most exciting two weeks of the NHL calendar. So, Hughes, a self-proclaimed hockey junkie, is most certainly watching… and maybe taking notes alongside Habs fans. Here are their top five takeaways from Round 1 (at least if they weren’t well aware already):

5. There Are Benefits to Stockpiling Multiple High Picks

Call it tanking or simply rebuilding through drafting high time and again. Regardless, for one example, the New Jersey Devils, who’ve had only a single playoff appearance since winning the Stanley Cup in 2012, are in the midst of breaking through after a first-round victory over the New York Rangers following several high draft picks, including two separate first-overalls in Jack Hughes (2019) and Nico Hischier (2017).

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Ditto for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who just won in the first round for the first time since 2004. Technically, the Edmonton Oilers, who are also moving on and are another prime example of building through the Draft, had already broken through following a third-round appearance last season. This season the Oilers even eliminated the Los Angeles Kings, another team set to take the next step following several seasons at the bottom of the standings themselves.

Granted, there are exceptions, like the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken, who, as recent expansion teams, haven’t had a chance to “tank.” However, the Kraken did just upset the defending Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche, who themselves are no stranger to boasting multiple high-end draft picks. Considering the Avs just finished the regular season as one of the top teams in the West and are in little danger of suddenly falling down the standings, it’s clear the strategy, while not perfect, does lead to success, with the team the Avs beat for the Cup last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning, also having gone that route.

Related: Canadiens Can’t Get Distracted by Useless Anti-Tank Talk

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Sure, the Lightning also lost in Round 1, but, a) it was to the aforementioned Leafs and b) it was after three straight Stanley Cup Final appearances (two wins). They’re one of the closest examples to a modern-day dynasty in existence. In other words, the Canadiens, who are in a good position to draft a second straight top-five pick, are in a good position overall. All they and their fans need is patience.

4. Canadiens Don’t Need Another Carey Price

What the Canadiens don’t necessarily need is a top goalie. After all, just like that, the top five goalies during the regular season in terms of save percentage (SV%) have all been eliminated after the first round. The same goes for the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, New York Ranger Igor Shesterkin. The last four actually.

In the case of the regular-season SV% leader, Linus Ullmark (.938) of the Boston Bruins, he was even replaced for Game 7 against the Florida Panthers by teammate Jeremy Swayman (.920), who ranked No. 4 (and couldn’t get it done himself). Granted, neither goalie is what you would necessarily call elite, as they each have a lot to prove. However the lesson is clear: elite goaltending isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Linus Ullmark Jeremy Swayman Boston Bruins
Boston Bruins goalies Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman – (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Obviously, it’s better to have a top goalie than not. However, in the salary-cap era, it’s clear roster-construction sacrifices need to be made, and devoting the $10.5 million the Canadiens did to Carey Price is not a recipe for long-term success. That doesn’t mean the Habs should rely exclusively on their current goaltending tandem of Samuel Montembeault and Jake Allen (and Cayden Primeau), only that they’re not in as dire straits as it may seem.

3. Anything Can Happen per Canadiens Owner Geoff Molson

Hughes predecessor, ex-Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, had a reputation for arguing anything can happen once you make it to the playoffs (from ‘Stu Cowan: Hard to imagine this Canadiens team winning a playoff series,’ Montreal Gazette, May 10, 2021). Owner Geoff Molson has come to reiterate the idea too, and, while the mantra’s goal is seemingly to lower regular-season expectations, it’s hard to dismiss what just transpired in Round 1 out of hand.

Marc Bergevin Montreal Canadiens
Ex-Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For example, on consecutive nights no less, the Oilers and Maple Leafs overcame three-goal deficits to win games in overtime, each en route to winning their respective first-round series. In the case of the latter, the Leafs even ended up breaking a 19-year curse of first-round futility.

Meanwhile, the sophomore Kraken just beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in a seven-game series in their first playoff appearance and second season in existence. The Florida Panthers meanwhile squeaked into the playoffs only to pull off the second-greatest playoff upset in history (in terms of point differential in the standings; 43 vs. the 48 between the Oilers and Kings in 1982).

It should all be enough to instill some hope that there’s an at least quasi-realistic chance they compete for a playoff spot in 2023-24, and, if they just barely squeak in themselves? Who knows? The Panthers can even serve as inspiration, even if it’s to the chagrin of the Canadiens and their fans who had counted on them first missing the playoffs and, failing that outcome, losing to the Bruins.

2. Panthers GM Bill Zito Not Totally Incompetent

There’s still a chance the Canadiens get the 17th-overall pick at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, as a result of the ill-advised trade the Panthers made to acquire Ben Chiarot last season. However, credit to Panthers GM Bill Zito for making it interesting, after the Panthers upset the Bruins in Round 1.

Ben Chiarot Florida Panthers
Ex-Florida Panthers defenseman Ben Chiarot – (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The Panthers of course just squeaked into the playoffs with the fewest amount of points (92) following a late-season push (and late-season collapse by the Pittsburgh Penguins), effectively lowering the value of the pick the Canadiens got in the deal. That doesn’t truly do justice to how close Zito came to a firable offense, as there had been at one time literal talk of that first-round pick potentially being the one that won the upcoming NHL Draft Lottery.

Granted, it was always only going to be a very small chance, but there was a chance nevertheless. It turns out, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning roster (for 2021-22) Zito helped construct had some life left in it after all.

That doesn’t necessarily take away from the horrendous nature of the Chiarot trade for the Panthers though, considering he only played the fourth-most minutes among their defensemen down the stretch last season. Not for nothing, but Chiarot also hasn’t panned out as hoped with the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he signed last offseason.

So, overall a disappointment, all due respect to Chiarot, who has generally been miscast as a top-pairing defenseman. He can still pan out, just lower than initially anticipated, which is an eerily similar description relative to the pick the Canadiens got in exchange at this point.

1. 1976-77 Canadiens Still Undisputed Best Team in History

Like it or not, when the Bruins set new records for most wins (65) and points (135) in a regular season, they had at least a claim to the title of the best team in NHL history.

Granted, it can be construed as illegitimate, in the sense that the Bruins played two more games than the 1976-77 Canadiens. Furthermore, regular-season overtime was discontinued in 1942 and reintroduced for the 1983-84 season. So, the Bruins, who went to overtime and/or a shootout 16 total times, winning 11 times, effectively got 11 extra points the Habs didn’t even have the opportunity to earn.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers Linus Ullmark Boston Bruins
Linus Ullmark lets in the Game 5-winning goal against the Florida Panthers in Round 1 – (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Of course, the 1976-77 Canadiens also only played three postseason rounds, coincidentally beating the Bruins for the Cup. Had these Bruins went the distance, they would have had to play four, which would have been a point in their favor. They obviously couldn’t even get through a single round, which should put the argument to bed for good, both with specific regard to the Bruins but also the two other 60-win teams in NHL history, neither of whom so much as made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

So, for at least one more season, the 1976-77 Canadiens remain the best team in NHL history, at least by any measurable metric. If there’s nothing else Habs fans take away from this postseason, let it be that and how there’s good news to enjoy. It’s all the more impressive considering they aren’t even playing. They should be soon, though.