Early on this 2022-23 season, the differences between the Montreal Canadiens and their 2021-22 counterparts are easy enough to see. For example, superficially speaking the Canadiens are now at 3-3. That right there is the biggest indication of improvement, but it doesn’t stop there.
Canadiens Lose to Stars in Respectable Fashion
It took the 2021-22 edition of the Canadiens their sixth game to earn their first win, nearly twice as many (11) to earn three. Granted, there are no guarantees the current Habs maintain a .500 record over the course of the season. In fact, if things go according to plan in their undeniable rebuild, they’ll fall well short of that figure.
Nevertheless, if you dig even a little deeper, the differences between the two become even more pronounced. Take for example the Habs’ latest outing, a 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Oct. 21. It was was arguably their most decisive defeat this season, but one in which they still outshot the opposition 34-30 and kept pushing in spite of giving up a backbreaking 4-2 goal with just 17 seconds left in the second period.
One reason fans had the sense the Canadiens could still win? Two of their three wins this season have been of the comeback variety, with the Habs even coming back from two down in the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins to win 3-2 in overtime on Oct. 17.
Ducharme vs. St. Louis
The Canadiens meanwhile earned a 22-49-11 record in 2021-22, with wins in short supply, comeback victories even more so. Prior to ex-head coach Dominique Ducharme getting fired, only two of the Habs’ mere eight wins really qualified, as ones in which they trailed past the first period: a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Nov. 11 and a 3-2 shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 17. In neither were the Habs down by more than one goal. Ultimately, under Ducharme, the 2021-22 Canadiens were in the running for the title of the worst team in franchise history.
Once Martin St. Louis took over, things changed for the better. The wins, while by no stretch countless in number, were definitely more numerous in nature. Comeback victories were no exception. Of the team’s 14 remaining wins last season, the Habs came back in five. Two of those were by two goals, including a 5-4 shootout victory over the eventual-Eastern Conference-champion Tampa Bay Lightning on April 2.
The hiring of St. Louis brought about a much-needed cultural shift for the organization. It isn’t that the Canadiens suddenly became a playoff team under him. They didn’t. Watching simply became much more bearable because the effort level turned up to a 10, on a consistent basis to boot. That same phenomenon has translated over to 2022-23, as, even in defeat, the Canadiens have become, well, fun.
Canadiens Still Rebuilding
The Canadiens still aren’t a playoff team, with the rebuild still in full swing. And, even if it will be hard to replicate last season’s record-setting number of injuries, they’re still without Shea Weber, who’s now out of the organization altogether, or a No. 1 defenseman in general. There’s still no Carey Price, who’s reportedly as good as out of the organization altogether from a playing a perspective, or a No. 1 goalie in general.
However, because the Habs are now one complete season removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance and the departures of the team’s two top pillars in Price and Weber, circumstances are drastically different. Now they’re coming off a last-place finish instead, with expectations lowered significantly as a result.
There’s a reason Toronto Maple Leafs fans were generally concerned following their team’s 3-2 start to the season, while Habs fans were giddy by comparison after their team had earned the same record through five games. It’s all relative.
One Habs loss (and Leafs win) later, things are potentially beginning to normalize. What “normal” is exactly for the Canadiens is hard to define, but it stands to reason it includes some combination of what we’ve already seen under St. Louis: more passion and competitiveness even in losses, which will be somewhat fewer in number than last season.
There will clearly be some progress on that front, but, with a focus on solidifying the team’s prospect pipeline, this is still shaping up to be a transitional season. No one should lose sight of that, including management, the players themselves and even fans. The Canadiens are also one season removed from hitting just about rock bottom. So, things are looking up, whatever perspective you’re taking.