Canadiens Must Find a Purpose for Lost 2021-22 Season

This season has been a disaster for the Montreal Canadiens with only six wins in the first 30 games played. While mathematically the Canadiens hopes to compete for a playoff position this season are not over, the reality is that this is a lost season. With that reality starting to settle in now, new executive vice president Jeff Gorton has his hands full in righting the ship for next season. But, the players and coaching staff still need to play out this season, and because of this, there needs to be a new focus, a new purpose that can serve the team’s needs moving forward

Opportunity for Habs Youth

Even in a lost season, there is still opportunity. These players are professionals, they play for jobs. With the Canadiens sporting an injury list that could form the basis of a competitive team.

As of Dec 15, the Habs injury list includes two full forward lines; Tyler Toffoli, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Gallagher; then Paul Byron, Jake Evans, and Josh Anderson.

Josh Anderson Montreal Canadiens
Josh Anderson, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On defense, Jeff Petry returned on Dec 14 for one game vs the Pittsburgh Penguins, which leaves two full pairings on the list of wounded or missing with Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, Sami Niku, and Chris Wideman. Then, of course, the Habs are missing Carey Price in goal.

This would hurt any team in the standings, for the Habs, it has been crippling. Do the math, with this list of injuries the Canadiens’ have 57.2% of their $81.5 million salary cap out of the line-up. This opens the door of opportunity to some younger players who wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity to play. Playing the youth is fine, but it’s more than just minutes, it’s about roles.

“In order to perform well and succeed, the young player must be at a level where he can execute. It might be in the American Hockey League (AHL) or in Junior hockey. There is nothing more untrue than to believe that playing at a higher level will allow for better development. It has to be at the level where he can perform well. Otherwise, it will fail and he will become demotivated.”

– Andre Tourigny

In this case, players such as Cole Caufield, Ryan Poehling and Alexander Romanov should be the focus of the coaching staff. Place them in roles that they can thrive, for Caufield, that’s on the top power-play (PP) unit, for Poehling, he needs matchups against a third line as often as possible, and for Romanov, it’s to let his play dictate how many minutes he gets in a game, in all situations.

Create a Meritocracy for Development

The best way to allow for the youth to develop in this environment without over-taxing them is to create a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a system in which the players are able to prove they deserve more ice time based on the merits of their play and a coaching staff that identifies that and provides them with that opportunity. Essentially, it is a coach relying on whoever is playing well that evening, allowing the youth to take on roles and ice time when they are playing well, which in turn can build confidence.

Related: A Canadiens Rebuild Includes Trading Carey Price

This not only provides youth opportunity to play and develop, but it also minimizes the impact a losing season can have on a player’s psyche by forcing everyone to play to their best efforts.

Allowing bad habits to creep into their games would be detrimental. For a team to build a winning attitude, lack of effort can’t be tolerated. A meritocracy can help to avoid that from happening. This falls onto the coaching staff to enforce.

Ducharme’s Coaching Systems

Gorton is quoted as saying that head coach Dominique Ducharme’s job is safe for the remainder of this season. But one has to wonder if that will remain true for much longer.

Dominique Ducharme Luke Richardson Montreal Canadiens
Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ducharme has been criticized for not being able to adjust his system. While Ducharme has placed the blame on players lack of execution in the past saying:

“You’re in the NHL, you should be able to make plays, they don’t have to be plays that end up on the plays of the week, but just efficient, intelligent, well-executed plays. … As soon as we get away from that, like I’ve said, there’s no system to (make up) for that.”

– Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme (post-game press conference after losing 4-1 to Buffalo Sabres, 26 Nov 2021)

The meritocracy mentioned above won’t be able to eliminate these issues, at best, it can make the games more entertaining. With Ducharme’s current system not working, how much of it is the fault of the players? Some of the blame must lay at the coach’s feet as well, as he must communicate his requirements to each player better.

A red flag for communication issues and for the application of the system came after the Canadiens 5-2 loss to the Penguins on Dec 14. Jeff Petry addressed the media in a post-game interview and his words were not the usual cliché’s or platitudes.

“It’s frustrating, it’s the same things over and over. We’re not playing as a team, we’re not playing as a group. It’s like you’re searching to find where people are. It seems like there’s no structure out there.”

Jeff Petry (Pat Hickey, In the Habs’ Room: ‘We’re not playing as a team,’ frustrated Jeff Petry says, Montreal Gazette, 15 Dec 2021)

Petry’s next comments point to a possible lack of communication between Ducharme and his players as there seems to be few adjustments made,

“You watch it up top and there’s times where you’re scratching your head. It feels like everybody knows where we should be, but we’re not going to those places, we’re not making it easy for anybody on the ice except, most of the time, the other team.”

– Jeff Petry

With the direction the team has taken losing seven games in a row, somewhere it seems players look lost, Petry’s comments begin to bring into focus a breakdown between the players, their coach and the system.

Jeff Petry Montreal Canadiens
Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If Ducharme and his players can’t find a way to build better communication and adjust the system to those healthy enough to play. If a meritocracy and a focus on development for this season can’t be built. Then Gorton will be forced to step in and make a change in the coaching staff to minimize the damage this losing season can cause. Montreal will want to avoid how losing can poison a team for many years such as Buffalo has had to deal with over the years, where losing has caused a toxic atmosphere that can be difficult to recover from.

Fans will want to be able to easily identify a plan. A plan to develop the younger players as veterans leave allowing them to look to the draft and the future vision, building towards creating a true contending team instead of a  team that makes a Cinderella run on occasion. If a team is rebuilding, and it looks as though the Habs are trending that way, losing can be forgiven, as long as fans see effort, desire and a plan to lose with purpose.

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