Canadiens’ Tough Schedule Can Appease Both Sides of Fanbase

The Montreal Canadiens wrapped up their February schedule with a come-from-behind win against the San Jose Sharks. They were trailing 1-0 entering the third period, but goals from Kaiden Guhle, Jesse Ylonen and Christian Dvorak gave the Canadiens a 3-1 victory.

It was the end of an impressive month for the team. The win over the Sharks, coming on Feb. 28, gave them a 6-3-0 record in their nine February contests. They looked especially good in big wins over the playoff-bound New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers.

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The Canadiens’ winning record for the month, especially the comeback win over the Sharks, resulted in split reactions from fans of the team. Some are happy to see the team playing well, with young players like Guhle and Ylonen chipping in on offence and learning how to compete at the highest level. Others would be happier to see them lose every night and get a better draft position at the end of the season.

The month of March might bring the best of both worlds and keep fans on both sides of this debate happy. That schedule got underway on Thursday with a late-night contest against the Los Angeles Kings. The Canadiens will be in Anaheim to take on the Ducks tonight, a few hours after the trade deadline passes. It will be interesting to see how active they can be with reinforcements in Laval so far away from California.

Whatever roster players are left for the Canadiens on Friday night, it will be one of their final games against a league bottom-feeder this season.

Canadiens’ Schedule Among League’s Most Difficult

On Sunday (March 5), the Canadiens face the Vegas Golden Knights before heading home for a four-game stand. Those four games are against the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and Devils who are the three top teams in the Metropolitan Division, as well as a game against the Colorado Avalanche who are loading up for a Stanley Cup title defence.

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The Canadiens hit the road the very next day to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins, then travel south to visit the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning before returning home for another game with the Lightning. They finish off the month of March with games in Boston, home to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a quick road trip to see the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers and then a home game against the Panthers.

Martin St. Louis Montreal Canadiens
Martin St. Louis, Head Coach of the Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That is a total of 16 games in just 29 days, and 10 of those come against teams that are inside the playoffs while two more are against the Panthers who are battling frantically to get into a playoff position. It does not get any easier in April, as the Canadiens finish off their season with games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Boston Bruins.

To sum up, that is three games against the league’s elite, two against teams that will be fighting for every point to get into the playoffs and one against the team that has Alex Ovechkin, who always plays great against the Habs and is chasing the all-time goal-scoring record.

Canadiens Still Have a Quarter of Schedule to Play

Though trade deadline day is upon us, there is still a quarter of the season to play. The Canadiens are currently 26th in the overall standings but with that much runway left, they could still climb a few spots or drop down a few. There remain two schools of thought on what would be best for the future of the franchise. A young team playing competitive, difficult hockey and improving their all-around games or losing every night and getting a better draft pick.

The 2023 NHL Draft promises to be one of the best we have seen in recent memory. The biggest prizes at the top include Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson and Matvei Michkov. The Canadiens are currently ten points ahead of the last-place Blue Jackets and would have to play alarmingly poor hockey to drop to 32nd overall and have the best chance of selecting Bedard first overall.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Finishing last would not guarantee the Canadiens the first-overall pick, but it would guarantee they select in the top three. That would ensure a terrific prospect that could likely step right into the lineup and help the team next season.

The only downside is that they would need to lose most of their games in the final quarter of the season to improve their draft lottery odds the most. This could lead to a negative environment for young players and not allow them to develop their games and get better as the season winds down. The playoffs are not happening and the Canadiens are playing out the string, but they can still have players like Guhle, Ylonen, Nick Suzuki, Jordan Harris and Kirby Dach learning, improving and figuring things out that will help them next season and for the next ten years.

Canadiens Schedule Could Lead to Best of Both Worlds

Of course, the Canadiens’ incredibly difficult schedule may lead to the best of both worlds. The young players can continue to play well and do everything right and learn lessons by going head-to-head and competing with Auston Matthews and Aleksander Barkov and the mighty Bruins, but also still losing.

The 2021-22 Canadiens lost a lot of games in the first period. That was horrible for development, as players were heading to the rink every day knowing they were going to lose that night. It is impossible to learn how to compete with the world’s best players when your team is not good enough to keep a game close for 20 minutes.

Kaiden Guhle, Montreal Canadiens
Kaiden Guhle Montreal Canadiens (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But that isn’t going to be the case for the remainder of this season. This team competes, they battle and they make the opposing team earn every inch of ice. They don’t just roll over and accept the inevitable defeat at any point in the game. Those are all great qualities.

But, they also are not that deep or talented when compared to the Eastern Conference playoff teams. They just are not ready to join the NHL’s elite. This means, no matter how well they play in the final 21 games of this season, they just won’t be able to win their fair share.

Young Players Developing, and a High Draft Pick is Ideal

That would lead to a perfect scenario for the future of the franchise. Players like Suzuki, Dach, Ylonen, Guhle, Harris, Justin Barron, Jonathan Kovacevic and Rafael Harvey-Pinard will continue to get better and Denis Gurianov and Mike Matheson will continue to blend into the team’s system in close, competitive hockey games. They will all see up close what it takes to be a playoff team, yet they won’t quite be able to come out on top in those games.

This leads to positive development for young players as they hold their own against tough opponents, but also losses in the standings. This would satisfy both sides of the Canadiens fan base. The one that is enjoying the development of the young players already on the roster would continue to see their games grow, and the side that just wants the best draft pick possible would be satisfied with many more losses than wins.

It is not often a team looks at an incredibly difficult schedule and thinks it is a perfect setup for them. But the combination of learning from the best and getting a better draft pick is exactly what the Canadiens need right now.

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