Top Reasons Why Canadiens Are Suddenly Struggling in 2022-23

First things first, it’s not the Reverse Retro Montreal Canadiens jerseys. It’s intriguing to consider how, whenever the Canadiens have worn their new threads, they’ve lost. However, there is clearly more at work behind their recent 3-5-1 skid, which started with a 4-0 loss to the relatively lowly San Jose Sharks on Nov. 29.

Montreal Canadiens 2022-23 Reverse Retro
Montreal Canadiens 2022-23 Reverse Retro – (NHL/adidas)

Since that point, the Canadiens have also lost to the fellow non-playoff Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators and the last-place Anaheim Ducks. For the record, of those four games in which the Canadiens were arguably the favorites, they only wore the jerseys in question against the Ducks.

So, while there could be some psychological cause and effect there, where the Habs suddenly find themselves channelling the Montreal Expos, who, excluding 1994, only made the playoffs once in their existence, there’s a lot more to the story. Here are the likeliest reasons the Habs have lost a step:

5) Tough Schedule

It’s becoming an increasingly frequent narrative, how the Canadiens have one of the toughest schedules from the quarter mark on, in the whole league. While that’s certainly good news for fans hoping for a second straight high draft pick, it’s an argument that takes the No. 5 spot on this list, because it simply shouldn’t hold water after a home loss to the Ducks, a team now with just three road wins, and, even worse, just two regulation wins, on the season.

Related: Canadiens Still in Playoff Hunt at Quarter Mark for Better or Worse

Sure, the Canadiens had just played the previous night, losing to the Senators… against whom they similarly came across as flat for most of the action. And, yes, the Habs did just come back from a Western road trip… back on Dec. 7, after which they had three days to prepare for an eventual loss to the Los Angeles Kings at home. So, all in all, about as illegitimate of an excuse as not feeling it because of clashing colors on the jersey, especially not even midway through the season. If they’re tired now, what about come Game 82?

4) Power Play

Prior to Cole Caufield scoring a power-play goal in the third period against the Ducks, the man advantage had been struggling to say the least. At a 31st-ranked 14.4% on the season, the Canadiens’ power play hadn’t scored since against the Edmonton Oilers in a 5-3 loss on Dec. 3, a stretch of 23 scoreless opportunities.

Cole Caufield Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Cole Caufield – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, there’s no denying the power play is costing the Canadiens games, especially seeing as several of their losses have been close, where single goals would have made a difference. Just use the median 22.3% power play in the league as a reference. The Canadiens have had 97 opportunities on the power play, scoring just 14 goals. They arguably should have eight more markers on the man advantage by now.

Even so, the Canadiens’ struggles on the power play aren’t a recent phenomenon. The Habs haven’t had a unit in the top 15 of the league since 2017-18 (No. 12 at 21.2%). Looking at the stats since 2018-19, they’ve had the worst power play in the league.

Of course, the Canadiens did go through a stretch where they almost missed the playoffs in four of five seasons from 2015-20, which features some significant overlap. So, there’s no disputing a good power play does tend to give you an edge in a team’s bid to make the playoffs. Nevertheless, without a true power-play quarterback to run things this season, this season specifically seems par for the course. As a result, it’s hard to lay all the team’s problems at its doorstep, when pucks aren’t really going in regardless of the situation.

3) Struggling Offense

From the get-go this season, it was clear the Canadiens’ success hinged on its offense. The defense was largely inexperienced, the goaltending, without Carey Price, middle of the road at best. However, the one thing the Habs did have was a surplus of NHL-caliber forwards, with a solid (if unspectacular) top nine (when healthy).

Carey Price Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The offense has generally delivered, but only when the Canadiens are winning. In the team’s 14 wins, the Habs have scored 51 goals (excluding shootout winners), which translates to 3.64 per game. That would be the third-highest mark in the league. However, it doesn’t work like that, with the Habs scoring just 2.80 per game overall.

However, in the last nine games? The Canadiens have scored just 22 goals (2.44), and it’s not just the goals that aren’t coming, but the chances too. They’ve averaged 25.78 shots, down from their season average of 29.0, and, as alluded to earlier, the Canadiens haven’t exactly been facing the best of the best either. Maybe some of it can be attributed to the Canadiens not having their best lineup available, some but definitely not all.

2) Injuries

A perfect example of injuries directly impacting the outcome of a game probably came in the Canadiens’ 7-6 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 5, during this weak stretch. Even though they were up 4-0, Sean Monahan left in the second period, arguably serving as the turning point in the contest. Of course, whenever you’re down a man in the middle of a game, it’s going to hurt you… just not usually to the extent that you give up a four-goal lead.

Sean Monahan Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Sean Monahan – (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The typical argument is injuries aren’t as much an excuse as a reason behind a team’s struggles. After all, the Canadiens aren’t the only team suffering through injuries.

For example, in terms of cap hits of injured players, the Habs ranked fifth as of Dec. 8. Two of the four teams worse off (so, 50%; Washington Capitals, Colorado Avalanche) rank higher than them in the standings. So, there’s far from a perfect correlation.

To be fair, the ranking doesn’t take into account Price’s stint on injured reserve, with the goalie having unofficially announced his retirement for all intents and purposes. Whenever you lose a goalie of his caliber and a pillar of the franchise like him, things are going to take a turn for the worse. That cannot be denied.

Latest News & Highlights

Even so, general manager Kent Hughes made a conscious decision to use Price’s cap space to acquire Monahan. The veteran pivot was a luxury for the rebuild following the acquisition of Kirby Dach as the team’s projected second-line center at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. More notably, Hughes made a conscious decision at the time to go with a goaltending duo comprising a career backup in Jake Allen and a third-stringer in Samuel Montembeault (from ‘‘Disheartening’: Canadiens’ Price could miss entire season, GM Hughes says,’ Montreal Gazette, Aug. 19, 2022).

All that to say, the Canadiens theoretically had an opportunity to find at least a temporary replacement for Price. Hughes actively chose not to, hinting at acceptance of the struggles headed the Canadiens’ way this 2022-23 season.

1) Regression to the Mean

Ironically though, you can’t really blame the Canadiens’ rough stretch on the goaltending. Sure, it hasn’t been great, but it has probably been better than you might expect, at least statistically. Canadiens goalies have allowed 29 goals over the last nine games, which actually works out to a lower goals-against average than their 24th-ranked 3.50 on the season so far.

The undeniable fact is the team in front of the goalies simply hasn’t been strong enough. The goalies themselves aren’t strong enough to carry this team like Price in his prime. Sure, injuries are a factor, but, even if you divide the 30 games the Canadiens have played into three 10-game stretches, their first was 5-5. Their second was a slightly better 5-4-1, and it’s not like the Canadiens have been this injured all season.

All that to say, the Canadiens have been a great team to watch and get behind for their never-say-die attitude, but there should be no surprises. They’re where they are in the standings, because they’re a .500 team. They have been all season, and it’s by Hughes’ design.

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

The Canadiens may be better than the Ducks, but they’re also better than their Nov. 2, 7-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, a team equal to them in the standings. They’re also maybe not as good as their multiple overtime wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins indicated. So, in some respects, fans should expect things to even out, i.e., regress to the mean, especially when the team’s underlying numbers say things have been going better than they should be.

So, it’s not the jerseys. It’s the team wearing the jerseys that is the issue, only it’s not an issue strictly speaking. In reality, the Canadiens aren’t technically struggling. In many ways, they’re still exceeding expectations. While they are admittedly treading water in terms of their .500 record, regression to the mean applies to all teams, and you are seeing teams like the Pens get their acts together.

It’s hard to see the Canadiens follow suite, though. They’d need to string a lot of wins together just to get back in the playoff race, because the five points between them and the second wild-card team in the Eastern Conference (New York Islanders at 17-13-1) is a lot of ground to cover.

All in all, the desire to fight to the end in each game has admirably been consistent, just not the results, which is a trademark of a rebuilding team… which is the master-plan currently in effect. There are obviously things that need to be addressed, but, as long as no one is realistically expecting the Habs to be on a streamlined fast track to the playoffs, there should really be no problem at all. That’s the real problem.