No one can make a case the 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens are world beaters. Case in point, the only thing they’re trying to beat right now is par on the golf course. They can’t even do that properly, starting wars on Twitter instead… and losing badly. That’s while four other, arguably championship-caliber teams continue to battle on the ice, each vying for something actually worth winning to a hockey player.
What you can do though, if you’re a Habs fan, is find solace in how none of those four teams are perfect from top to bottom. In fact, your very own 28th-place Canadiens arguably stack up well in different ways against each of them. Here’s how:
Heading into this season, the Washington Capitals’ Braden Holtby was one of literally a handful of goalies objectively better than Carey Price. Even as Price started off poorly (and continued poorly… and finished poorly), you could argue he had the pedigree and track record over the last few seasons to warrant giving him the benefit of the doubt over almost every other goalie in the league, save for a few exceptions.
Holtby, being two years younger, cheaper and someone who has (more) recently won the Vezina Trophy, was one of those few. And then he ran into his own share of difficulties this season to the point that backup Philipp Grubauer started the first few games of the Capitals’ unlikely playoff run this spring.
Granted, Holtby won back the starting job and has been great from Game 3 of the Caps’ first-round series on. Nevertheless, his stat line from this past season reads like a Stephen King novel (.907 save percentage with a 2.99 goals-against average). Price’s is actually worse (.900, 3.11), but the disparity between the two goalies isn’t as far off as one might have thought by season’s end.
If Holtby and the Capitals can shake off whatever’s ailing them and reach the Eastern Conference Final, so too can Price and the Habs. Just ignore how the Caps have only gotten this far, for the first time in the Alexander Ovechkin era, with Lars Eller… and without Karl Alzner.
Funny that. Or scary. One of those.
If I described a defense corps anchored by a slow-footed, but imposing 33-year-old physical specimen that was only deep on one side, you’d probably assume I was talking about Shea Weber and the Canadiens. Or you’d take a look at the above header and read between the lines.
Of course, the Winnipeg Jets are better defensively than the Canadiens. There is no disputing that. The difference isn’t as great as you may think though, with the Jets giving up 31.9 shots per game this past season. The Habs gave up 32.3.
The argument here is, on paper, the two squads aren’t that different. The Canadiens may have Weber, but the Jets have Dustin Byfuglien. They are each backed up on the right side by their respective teams’ other top defensemen in Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba for the Jets and Jeff Petry for the Habs.
Hell, the Jets even have Habs cast-off Joe Morrow playing for them on the left side. Remember his brief time here? Morrow sure does… just maybe slightly differently than everyone else.
In any case, where the comparison falls apart is how the Jets also have Josh Morrissey on the left side. Morrissey, a mobile, defensively sound blueliner had a bit of a breakout season in 2017-18, giving the Jets some legitimate depth on both sides.
Without him, they would just have Dmitry Kulikov, Tobias Enstrom, Ben Chiarot and Morrow. The latter two are seventh defensemen, while Kulikov has failed to live up to his potential as a former first-round draft pick. Enstrom is meanwhile a shadow of the defenseman who routinely led this team’s defense corps in scoring a few years ago.
In other words, the Jets are arguably four men deep on the back end. The Habs, assuming a bounce-back season from Weber and steps forward by Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen, aren’t far off from matching them in that one regard. It’s the Jets’ high-octane offense (and effective goaltending) where the Habs fall disastrously short.
Las Vegas Golden Knights
Arguably the only victory over the Las Vegas Golden Knights Habs fans should concern themselves with is how they managed to get through last summer’s NHL Expansion Draft completely unscathed, losing just Alexei Emelin. He’s someone the Knights didn’t even want. He’s someone no one may want right now.
If you’re looking for something more tangible, would you believe not a single Golden Knights-drafted player has appeared in a single game for them these playoffs?! The Habs, who have 10 players they themselves drafted on their roster right now, clearly have them beat when it comes to player development. Just don’t let how the Knights have only had one draft in their existence get in the way of the facts.
In all seriousness, the Canadiens do have the upstart Golden Knights “beat” in one category. That’s age. The Canadiens, surprisingly, are one of the league’s younger teams, ranking in the top 10 with an average age of 26.8 years. That’s actually tied with the Jets, but slightly better then the Knights’ average age of 26.9.
Now, it’s important not to read too much into this stat, as the youngest team in the league, the Colorado Avalanche, obviously made the playoffs. So too did the Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils, each of whom are younger than the Habs on average.
So, being young isn’t an excuse for not performing (especially when both the Jets and Knights are near the Habs in age and playing each other in the Western Conference Final). It’s still a sign that the Habs have room to grow and, in spite of popular opinion to the contrary, the system is rife with youth.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Believe it or not, the Habs are actually better than the Tampa Bay Lightning when it comes to drafting. If you were to take apart both rosters, you’d actually find more players drafted by the Habs than the Bolts. Of course, two of them play for the Lightning (Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev), but that’s beside the point.
Looking at the players who have appeared in at least one playoff game for the Lightning and were drafted by them, only nine meet those criteria: Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Cedric Paquette and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
If you were to do the same, looking at the Habs’ roster right now, you’d find: Jacob De La Rose, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Charles Hudon, Artturi Lehkonen, Max Pacioretty, Nikita Scherbak, Noah Juulsen, Victor Mete and Price.
Now, before you go about screaming out how the Habs are better than the Lighning from the rooftops, consider how this exercise conveniently ignores the likes of Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde. It turns out the Lightning’s amateur scouting isn’t half-bad and that they’ve still signed their fair share of undrafted, young talent that has panned out pretty well.
Only Daniel Carr falls into that same category for the Habs. While Carr clearly has talent to spare, it’s becoming increasingly apparent there’s not really a place for him in the organization, which unfortunately just further reinforces how the Habs trail the Lightning in many other areas.
Nevertheless, if there’s one positive to take away from this it’s that the Habs’ upcoming first-round third-overall pick won’t go to waste. In fact, they already have two other third-overall picks on the roster right now: Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin… not to rub salt in the wound with regard to the latter and who drafted him once upon a time.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.