Keys to a Perfect Canadiens Game for 2022-23 Rebuild

Put simply, the Montreal Canadiens are wrecking their own rebuild this 2022-23 season. The Canadiens objectively have too many holes throughout the lineup to realistically make the playoffs, most notably in net and on defense.

Related: Canadiens’ 2022-23 Season Hinges on Habs’ Offense

Nevertheless, at 8-6-1 and tied with the Florida Panthers for third place in the Atlantic Division, they’re at least contending for a spot in the season’s early going, which is fun and all, but not great looking at the big picture. The saying goes that you can’t make the playoffs early in the season, but you can miss them. The Canadiens are in the process of finding out if the same holds true for a high draft pick.

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Take for example the Canadiens’ latest game, a 5-4 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 12. The Habs came back to the tie the game three times in the third period, setting the stage for a red, white and blue-hot Mike Hoffman to score the winner in the extra frame. Things like that just shouldn’t happen… and yet they did (and have happened over and over again).

Mike Hoffman Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Mike Hoffman – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The comedically tragic part of the win (for fans hoping for one of Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli or Matvei Michkov at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft) is one or two bounces the other way? It would have been the perfect game for the purposes of a rebuild, characterized by the following elements:

5. High Entertainment Value

Give credit where it’s due, the Canadiens at the very least delivered for all the fans in attendance at the Bell Centre against the Penguins. In spite of the three leads the visitors held in the third period, there’s little disputing the Canadiens deserved the eventual outcome, not only in coming back like they did, but by outshooting the Penguins 42-24 and driving play for most of the game.

Honestly, even if you are a Canadiens fan and hoping for them to fall to the bottom of the standings this season, you probably pumped your fist the second Hoffman scored in overtime, only to check yourself and readjust accordingly. It’s hard to help it considering what you had just witnessed: an unabashedly exciting game the hometown Habs won in dramatic fashion.

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Any other season but this one, that’s the type of win on which a team can build from a character perspective to make a playoff push, and to do it against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to boot? If the Canadiens could bottle up the feeling, they could charge more than they do for beer and finance another bowl on top of the nosebleeds. Fans would line up in droves to fill those seats too, even based only on the potential this Habs team is displaying for the future, right now. Games like the win against the Penguins show there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It largely goes back to the hiring of Martin St. Louis and the culture shift that took place almost immediately. All of a sudden, the Canadiens, who had never met a game under ex-head coach Dominique Ducharme on which they couldn’t give up, were fighting to the end, win or lose. It’s what makes the Canadiens watchable again, giving fans reason to tuen in, even if the Habs don’t come through in the end. It’s just at this point, fans are becoming increasingly uncertain for which outcome to cheer.

4. Production from Players on Trade Block

It’s a similar situation regarding the players who don’t figure into the team’s long or even mid-term plans, players the Canadiens are trying to showcase for the purposes of a trade down the stretch. For example, Hoffman is the hottest he’s ever been with the Habs, with four goals in his last three games.

Mike Hoffman Montreal Canadiens
Mike Hoffman – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As a result, it’s probably the easiest it’s ever going to be to trade Hoffman. So, games like Hoffman’s been having, the Canadiens can only hope that the likes of Jonathan Drouin, Evgeny Dadonov and their other pending unrestricted free agents join in on the action. All three are arguably the most underrated Habs on the roster, but trading Hoffman, a 33-year-old forward with one additional year left on his deal, has to be a priority as his contract clearly doesn’t fit in with the timeline the Canadiens are setting for their rebuild.

So, consider No. 4 effectively checked off this list, even if showcasing Hoffman just to trade him is the easier part of the equation. It’s still not a given Hoffman produces with 63.1% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone. Only half the battle’s been won in that regard. The Canadiens still have to convince someone else to take him off their hands.

3. Production from Young Guns

Against the Penguins, it obviously wasn’t just Hoffman scoring. In fact, up until that point, captain Nick Suzuki had been stealing the show with a goal and an assist. Not to be outdone, Kaiden Guhle and Kirby Dach each ended the game with two assists, one each coming on the overtime winner. Cole Caufield also added a goal for good measure.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The latter four players make up a huge chunk of the Canadiens’ core moving forward. So, it’s a good sign when they each contribute to that degree, even if the game ends up a win. Of course, to be fair, under normal circumstances, whenever so many of your young guns are scoring, you’re going to come out on top. Against the Penguins, it came down to the wire for the simple reason the Habs’ goaltending wasn’t stealing the show instead, though.

2. Allen or Montembeault’s Armor Cracks

Goalies Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault have been a huge part of the team’s early-season success. That much is clear when you’re giving up a ninth-ranked 33.4 shots per game, but only a 16th-ranked 3.20 goals per game. Of course “only” is kind of tongue-in-cheek in that context. In this day and age, you can’t consistently win if you’re allowing more than three goals in a game, or at least you shouldn’t be.

Jake Allen Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens goalie Jake Allen – (Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As alluded to earlier, the team’s offense is coming through in a big way so far, with Suzuki and Caufield enjoying great starts to the season. Following the win against the Penguins, Suzuki even ranks 12th in league scoring with a team-leading 10 goals and 19 points in 15 games. Of course, the other side of the coin says Suzuki’s 27% shooting percentage can’t last and a regression to the mean is in order. The same goes for Allen and Montembeault in net.

In Allen’s case, seeing as he’s sporting a 3.19 goals-against average and .902 save percentage, the regression is already taking place. He may be playing well judging by the eye test, but this Canadiens team can’t consistently win unless Allen, the team’s No. 1 goalie, is standing on his head game after game, like he did against the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 8, when he stopped 41 of 43 shots.

Thankfully, little of what Allen’s accomplished in his career up to this point suggests he’s capable of keeping up the pace over an entire season. He’s not a bad goalie, but he’s also not goalie with the endurance of a true starter, and, when you stop only 20 of 24 shots like he did against the Penguins, Crosby or no Crosby, Malkin or no Malkin, you’re not exactly at the top of your game.

That’s a good thing if you’re Hughes and the Canadiens, because, when you go with a goaltending tandem of Allen and Montembeault to start the season, you can’t realistically be hoping to make the playoffs. After all, in Hughes’ eyes, neither one is a legitimate starter. So, instead, you’re looking for something else: namely the losses to pile up.

1. A Loss

The Canadiens checked off every item on this list against the Penguins, except the most important one. They didn’t lose, and, if you’re intent on rebuilding, as the Canadiens should be, you kind of need to, for fear of forever being stuck in no man’s land as far as draft picks are concerned.

True, the Canadiens did pick Juraj Slafkovsky first overall last summer, but he far from projects as a franchise player. No one in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft did. The next one is where it’s at. So, for the Canadiens to have so much as a mathematical shot at first overall, they need to find a way to sneak into one of the bottom 11 spots in the standings, based on current NHL Draft Lottery rules.

Juraj Slafkovsky Montreal Canadiens 2022 Draft
Montreal Canadiens forward Juraj Slafkovsky – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens may currently be holding down the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and own the 15th-best record in the league, but they’re also just four points out of 26th place. So, nothing is completely lost this early in the season. Apparently not even games in which you find yourself trailing on three separate occasions in the third period.

It just can’t go on this way… both realistically and practically speaking. Right?