It’s a lot of pressure to place on an offense that just scored a 27th-ranked 221 goals in 2021-22. However, for the Montreal Canadiens to be “successful” in 2022-23, i.e., contend for a playoff spot, the improvements they made up front over the offseason are going to have to come through in a big way.
Canadiens’ Defense and Goaltending Works in Progress
After all, the Canadiens’ defense is in transition. The team lacks a No. 1 defenseman, with prospects like Justin Barron, Jordan Harris and/ or Kaiden Guhle positioned to contribute in a big way this coming season. The Canadiens have got the depth for the future, but right now it’s logically more about learning through mistakes, and mistakes will be made.
In net, even if Carey Price does return, he won’t be the catchall he had been in the past for those same mistakes. He’ll realistically see limited action compared to in the past, and, at 35 and coming off a year-long absence (for all intents and purposes), he simply isn’t the goalie he was at his peak.
Related: Has Carey Price Peaked?
Needless to say, Price won’t be able to win games all on his own anymore. That was a stretch in the best of times, seeing as he can’t score. So, now the burden ironically falls on the forward group to do the lion’s share of work, getting the Canadiens to avoid a second consecutive non-playoff season.
Canadiens’ Offense Gets “Boost” from Dach, Dadonov
Maybe that’s unrealistic, seeing as, year over year, the big additions are Evgeny Dadonov, Kirby Dach and Juraj Slafkovsky. For some context, the Vegas Golden Knights couldn’t give Dadonov away last trade deadline, with his no-trade clause getting in the way. He eventually served as a cap dump, with the Knights acquiring Shea Weber’s long-term-injured-reserve-destined deal in exchange.
Meanwhile, Dach could theoretically be on the verge of a breakout season as the Habs’ potential second-line center. However, he’ll have to make huge strides in the production department, coming off a modest 26 points in 70 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2021-22.
Finally, while Slafkovsky could end up playing alongside Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield on the first line, it’s far from guaranteed. That may be the role the 2022 first-overall pick was drafted to play, but in the immediate future he’s arguably just as likely to be given top-line minutes in the American Hockey League so that the Slovakian winger gets a chance to adjust to the North American game.
There’s at least no good reason to rush Slafkovsky, in that, neither he nor Dach should be expected to develop into game-breaking talents at their young ages. They alone won’t realistically turn things around. Coming off a 20-goal season Dadonov should be able to provide secondary scoring, but he’s also at the opposite end of the spectrum as a 33-year-old in decline. He’s more of a complementary top-six forward, who, by definition, also shouldn’t be able to turn things around on his own.
Canadiens Will at Least Be Healthier in 2022-23
It’s about balance and the Canadiens do have that in spades. Assuming each of the three above play regularly, there will be nine other contributing bodies up front, but can Habs fans be reasonably certain they’ll be the same 12 total, night after night? Probably not because of injuries. Their depth, even though it’s improved, will get tested. Thankfully, not to the same point as last season, as lightning won’t strike twice.
The Canadiens just set a record for man-games lost. Only Nick Suzuki, who was the only Habs player to play in all 82 games, so much as hit the 75-game mark among Habs forwards. So, if the Canadiens fall back to just average in terms of health, maybe just maybe they’ll be able to win consistently.
Well, the Canadiens were in the middle of the pack back in 2020-21, at least in terms of the combined cap hits of injured players (CHIP), per NHL Injury Viz. As the 18th-most injured team that season though, the Canadiens scored just a 17th-ranked 159 goals (56 games). So, average for all intents and purposes, as one might expect.
You’d have to go back to 2018-19, to when the Canadiens were relatively healthy, with the 24th-highest CHIP ranking. That season, the offense ranked just 13th, with 249 goals. So, better, but maybe not the level of effectiveness for which you’d hope under the circumstances.
In fact, go back to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. That was the last time the Canadiens ranked in the Top 10 in goals scored. They notched 149 in 48 games, which is just over three per game (3.10), which is coincidentally right around the aforementioned 249 per 82-game season. So, because of changing norms, what meant a high-powered offense literally 10 years ago won’t necessarily hold true for 2022-23, which is fair.
Can Habs Score Enough to Make 2023 Playoffs?
The Florida Panthers actually led the league with 340 goals last season, scoring over a full additional goal per game (4.14). They of course also won the Presidents’ Trophy, earning 122 points with a goal differential of 94. No one should expect the Canadiens to reach that same level in 2022-23, so consider the Dallas Stars instead.
The Stars finished fourth in the Central Division as the No. 1 wild-card team. However, even though they finished ahead of the Nashville Predators, they were the playoff team with the lowest goal differential. The Stars scored 238 goals while giving up 246 for a differential of -8. So, it is possible.
In fact, the Canadiens themselves made the playoffs in 2020-21 with one of -9. That’s actually the same differential with which they made the play-in round in 2019-20. Only one team since the latest lockout, the 2015-16 Detroit Red Wings, has made the playoffs with one that’s lower (-13). So, to be generous, let’s just say the Canadiens need a goal differential of -10 or more for a realistic shot.
If you extrapolate the team’s defense and goaltending as a wash relative to last season, the Canadiens will give up about 319 goals. That means, they’ll have to score over 300 in 2022-23 (after getting just 221 last season). It’s unlikely to say the least, considering only five teams accomplished the feat, each earning 109 points (St. Louis Blues) or more, meaning only elite teams. Objectively, the Habs just aren’t. At best, if absolutely everything goes right, they’ll be mediocre overall, on the playoff bubble, in an eight-team Atlantic Division where just about everyone has improved (or stayed strong) and where there are only three guaranteed playoff spots up for grabs. The deck is stacked against them from the start.
Canadiens Due to Improve, just Not All at Once
There will undeniably be improvement up front. The Canadiens have legitimate depth, with four complete lines (when healthy). There are no fewer than nine options to play in the top six, each possessing the offensively capability to do so, but there are, all the same, legitimate doubts they can make up the additional 80 theoretically necessary goals.
All that to say, a playoff spot just isn’t in the cards, based on the current state of the defense and the uncertainty in net. The offense should be a relative strength, just like general manager Kent Hughes suggested in his introductory press conference, when asked what style of play he envisions for the Habs. However, it’s not so strong that it can carry the team all on its own.
Obviously that doesn’t mean the Canadiens should throw in the towel before the season starts, but it does mean the focus shifts to development, not wins. In some respects, it would be nice to see the Habs as a whole improve by leaps and bounds in the standings, but the priority should be to develop their collective on-ice game, regardless of how the Habs fare on the scoreboard… even if there will surely be more goals, based on the aforementioned depth up front.
For now though, there should be one goal above all else and, all due respect to the hardest trophy to win in all of sports, it isn’t the Stanley Cup. That can wait until the rest of the team catches up to the same level of progress expected up front.