The Montreal Canadiens are ready to compete under head coach Martin St. Louis. They’re just not ready to win under both him and general manager Kent Hughes. That’s an important distinction to make. It should go without saying, but, until they are, they shouldn’t be ready to contend for so much as a playoff spot.
Truth be told the Canadiens were ready to compete under St. Louis, pretty much from the start. That was evident from the jump, once he got hired to replace Dominique Ducharme behind the bench in 2021-22. Pretty soon, the Canadiens won two in a row for the first time all season and eventually five. The Habs had been putting together one of the worst seasons in franchise history under Ducharme, going 8-30-7. However, they went an at-least-respectable 14-19-4 under his successor.
Believe It or Not, Canadiens Are Indeed Rebuilding
Now 8-8-1 in 2022-23, the Canadiens are showing a great degree of additional progress, which is encouraging under the scope of what is an undeniable rebuild. Long story short, you know it’s a rebuild for several reasons.
For example, Hughes acquired Sean Monahan. The one-time star center had been coming off multiple hip surgeries. So, it was more so a deal for the first-round pick the Calgary Flames were offering to help them out of a cap jam. In the process, Hughes used the cap space he confirmed would be made available once Carey Price went on long-term injured reserve (from “’Disheartening’: Canadiens’ Price could miss entire season, GM Hughes says,” Montreal Gazette, Aug. 19, 2022).
Breaking it down further, instead of using the space to acquire a replacement goalie, Hughes got another center, after acquiring Kirby Dach, who Hughes projected as playing down the middle himself, at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. Even though Monahan has worked out better than expected, logic dictates you don’t trade for him unless you want to give Dach time to acclimate to that position with zero to little pressure on him or Monahan to produce… so, a rebuild.
Canadiens Can’t Contend with Allen in Net
You also don’t make that move, effectively opting against using the cap space to replace Price, unless you’re committed to a non-playoff season. After all, even if you can’t help but love goalies Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault for the effort levels they consistently bring to the table, neither one is a No. 1 goalie. That’s not just a mere The Hockey Writers columnist saying so. That’s Hughes himself.
Furthermore, you don’t re-sign goalie Allen to an extension like Hughes did, hoping to suddenly contend in the next few years. By giving him a raise you’re logically making a commitment to Allen, a goalie that has never before displayed the endurance necessary to have success as a starter, that he will be the go-to guy for the next few seasons.
Think about that, especially how his greatest playoff success as a starter, the only time he got out of Round 1 as a No. 1, came in 2016-17, six seasons ago. Allen, all due respect to the guy for his impressive career to this point, just is not the guy. Now 32, Allen is the guy to acquire to back up the actual guy, or, in this case, the guy you lean on to stabilize the goaltending position during a rebuild, when you’re anticipating far more losses than wins.
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So, now, with the Canadiens within striking distance of a playoff spot, three points back of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, do you all of a sudden reassess the situation? Or do you acknowledge how, in spite of their (relatively) impressive start to the season, they’re also four points back of the 31st-place team in the NHL (that just beat them in the Columbus Blue Jackets) and not yet ready for primetime without a legitimate No. 1 goalie and without an experienced defense playing in front of him? That all signs point to the Canadiens eventually regressing this season?
Canadiens vs. Senators
The choice should be clear. However, just for kicks, consider the opposite situation, with the Ottawa Senators having acquired Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux among others this past offseason in a bid to improve by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, the results just aren’t there yet, with the Sens struggling out of the gate to the tune of an even worse record than the Canadiens’ at 6-9-1. Are the Senators going to cut bait and trade away those same players? No, because that would be crazy. It would be crazy to forego the hypothetical first-round pick Monahan can earn the Habs next trade deadline and become buyers instead.
The Senators are obviously going to readjust course slightly, but emphasis on slightly. The Canadiens should follow suit. To abandon the larger plan now would be to half-ass the new one, and, if there’s a dirtier word in Habs parlance than “tank,” that should be it, because half-assing it is what the Canadiens were doing under Ducharme, injuries or no injuries. The compete level just wasn’t there.
“Rebuild,” on the other hand, should not be a dirty word in comparison. It doesn’t take away from how, under St. Louis, the Habs are instead trying every night. That trend’s continued into 2022-23. Win or lose, that’s your winning culture. So, there may be talk of how the Canadiens need to instill one and keep this train going in the right direction (despite their objectively mediocre record), but it already is. It’s just going to take longer to get there.
Hughes’ Winning Culture Calls for Wins… Eventually
This “winning culture” does require wins, but only come a certain point, with Hughes having expressed admiration for that of the Tampa Bay Lightning. News flash, though: One of the biggest reasons the Lightning are as successful as they are now is because they drafted Steven Stamkos first overall in 2008 and Victor Hedman second overall in 2009, failing to qualify for the playoffs in five of six seasons between 2007 and 2013.
You’re also talking about a team whose hockey operations are headed up by Jeff Gorton, who literally wrote an open letter to fans about how his previous team, the New York Rangers, would be rebuilding. Those same Rangers drafted in the Top 10 for four straight seasons between 2017 and 2020, winning their first playoff game in five seasons just last playoffs, ultimately making it all the way to Round 3. So, there is objectively no reason for the Canadiens to rush things at this juncture, even if only because their models for success didn’t.
In an odd way though, any suggestion the Canadiens should fully embrace the modest success they’ve enjoyed so far this season and go for it is to minimize it all in one fell swoop. It’s an argument that it’s of the fleeting variety and that they absolutely need to take advantage now, when it instead needs to be built on for years to come.
It’s a rebuild. That’s what needs to be embraced, alongside the principles and competitiveness St. Louis and company have already instilled in this team. Even if the Canadiens suffer through another losing season, they’ve already won over fans in at least that one regard. There’s clearly a lot more work to be done getting everyone completely on board, but it’s a good start. That’s all it is though, and no one wins if they take shortcuts.
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 also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.