A losing season isn’t necessarily a lost one for the Montreal Canadiens. Here are five hard lessons learned from this 2017-18 campaign the Habs can build on moving forward.
5) Paul Byron Is No Fluke
Paul Byron continues to impress, not just through his speed, but versatility.
Everyone knew Byron had breakaway speed down the middle of the ice, but few thought he could play down the middle of the ice with success. Yet, with eight points in his last eight games since he was first moved to center, Byron is on pace for his second consecutive 20-goal season.
You can add durability to the list, as at the time this was being written he was expected to play the next game after taking an arguably dirty hit against the St. Louis Blues. On a team supposedly built with character in mind, where no one stood up for the 162-pound winger-turned-center, Byron seems to be the exception, all at an average of less than $1.2 million per season.
4) Assets to Come at Trade Deadline
It’s a fair assumption the Canadiens will be sellers at the trade deadline, 10 points out of the last wild-card spot with 32 games left. As such, while they may not be in a position to make noise in the playoffs, they are poised to reap somewhat of a windfall in draft picks and prospects to build toward the future.
Consider the alternative: The Habs, built the flawed way they are, could conceivably be selling off futures as we speak in a misguided attempt to go for it now. Due to their consistent regular-season success under ex-head coach Michel Therrien, it wasn’t out of the question that they’d be in a similar position at about this time last year, in a top seed trying to contend, with their only realistic hopes for success resting on the shoulders of goaltender Carey Price.
Now everyone knows better. And those assets that will be coming in, for pieces that would arguably be lost anyway come free agency (like Tomas Plekanec), will serve as tangible proof that this season was not a complete write-off.
3) High Draft Pick
It’s maybe the most obvious benefit of a losing season: a relatively high draft pick. As the fourth-worst team in the standings entering action Thursday night, the Habs have a quasi-realistic chance to pick at No. 1 overall.
The top prize this year: likely Rasmus Dahlin, a left-handed, puck-moving phenom of a defenseman. The Habs can use him more than most, and that’s saying something, as he’s drawing comparisons to generational-talent Erik Karlsson. Every team can use an Erik Karlsson. The Habs just need one right about now.
2) Emergence of Victor Mete
While rookie Victor Mete hasn’t had anything close to a Calder Memorial Trophy-caliber season, he has been able to stick around and prove his worth as one of the team’s few mobile defensemen. He’s no Erik Karlsson, but he is a serviceable defenseman on this team.
At just 19 years of age, he’s someone Habs fans can look forward to manning the blue line for many more years. And to think he likely would have been sent back to the Ontario Hockey League and then buried deep down on the depth chart had Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin done a half-decent job rebuilding the left side of his defense on the fly this past summer.
It’s very possible the Habs wouldn’t have given him much of a shot had they found a way to keep Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu and Mikhail Sergachev in the fold. Seeing as Beaulieu and Sergachev are still youngsters, it could have been years before Mete was discovered for the gem that he was.
Granted, Bergevin doing a half-decent job rebuilding the left side of his defense on the fly would have meant there wouldn’t have been a need for Mete now or for the foreseeable future; Take what you can get, though.
1) Undeniable Need for Change
Habs fans have admittedly been down this road before.
When goaltender Carey Price went down for all but 12 games a few seasons ago, the flaws in the way this team had been built were revealed for all to see. That of course prompted a dramatic change.
In retrospect, or how many saw it at the time, the P.K. Subban trade was a move further in the wrong direction. Bergevin doubled down on the notion that a team built around the elite play of a soon-to-be 30-year-old goaltender was sound management. When you double down on something and lose, you tend to have to pay up.
With some analysts who had hailed the trade a win for the Habs at the time now calling Shea Weber a diminishing asset, there is little denying what has become obvious. The Habs need to shift away their focus from trying to win now.
This season has been the cold shower to a nightmarish culture change that took hold of this organization seasons ago. Everyone’s finally waking up. There’s no escaping reality. It’s time for a dramatic change for the better, now.
It may take some time to undo all the damage done, but it’s a start… one that would not have been possible without the horror that’s been 2017-18. The battle, not the season, may be lost, but the war is still going strong.