The Montreal Canadiens’ game plan has changed slightly, but the end goal remains the same. You see, instead of failing to show up night after night, they’ve decided to actually play well… not only that but string together a few wins.
St. Louis’ Got Canadiens… Winning?
What a novel approach to the game of hockey, at least for one of the NHL’s worst teams with aspirations of hopefully getting the first-overall pick at the upcoming 2022 NHL Entry Draft. Even if the Canadiens have won four in a row under new head coach Martin St. Louis, that goal should remain intact, though.
After all, this is the first time the Canadiens have so much as won two games in a row all season. As one of the worst Habs teams of all time, the 2021-22 Canadiens are in little danger of missing out on a chance at the first-overall pick, center Shane Wright in all likelihood.
Sure, the lottery rules have changed and the event is now stacked more heavily in favor of teams at the bottom of the standings. However, even though a team can only move up a maximum of 10 spots, the Canadiens are unlikely to improve that much over the remaining 30 games of the schedule (if at all).
Keep in mind the Canadiens are still just 12-33-7 with 31 points, one point more than the last-place Arizona Coyotes, who have one game in hand. That means, if by some “miracle” (or “disaster”) the Canadiens run the table and win every remaining game this season, they’d only end up with 91 points. They missed the playoffs in 2018-19 with 96. But, St. Louis or not, they’re not winning all their remaining games. That much is certain.
Canadiens Still Destined to Get High Draft Pick
For the sake of argument, let’s assume these Canadiens are at least capable of playing to the level of last year’s team, which reached the Stanley Cup Final. This would be without a healthy Carey Price or an active Shea Weber, for the record. In any case, last year’s Habs notched 59 regular-season points in 56 games for a 52.3% points percentage, meaning the 2021-22 Habs could realistically earn, what? Thirty-one more points for 62 total points? In 2018-19 again, the last full 82-game regular season, that still would have been the worst total in the league.
Bottom line, the Canadiens are still getting a high pick, and that’s even taking into account a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, during which they play 50% of their games at home and face 16 current non-playoff teams. Rest easy, though. The Habs don’t even necessarily have to finish last to get the first pick, if history is any indication.
Sure, it gives them the best lottery odds, but it doesn’t guarantee you jack, with the last-place team getting the first pick only three times since the 2013 revamp to the rules. That should tell you something, in the sense that, even though that 33% chance is higher than the 25% shot the Florida Panthers got in 2013 (with the last-place team’s chances changing several times since), they’re still pretty bad odds.
For example, the Buffalo Sabres have two first-overall picks to show for their struggles over the last decade, tied with the New Jersey Devils. However, the Sabres have had the league’s worst record four times (none for the Devils), most infamously missing out on Connor McDavid in 2015, despite having actively tanked the previous season.
Canadiens Still Tanking in Traditional Sense
At this point, there’s no need for the Canadiens to tank, but it’s nevertheless coming to a certain extent. General manager Kent Hughes is in the process of selling off talent as we speak, having already traded away one of the team’s top players in Tyler Toffoli. Realistically more moves are coming too, with the March 21 trade deadline coming up fast.
To be clear, “tanking” in this context is all about management making moves that weaken the team. Players themselves rarely if ever don’t try, but it became fairly apparent in the weeks (or months) leading up to St. Louis’ hiring that morale was incredibly low and it showed in the results. They lost the four games leading into the All-Star break by a combined score of 26-11. Theoretically refreshed, they still lost their first game back to the New Jersey Devils, a team directly above them in the standings, that had lost seven straight games (one more than the Habs at that point in time), 7-1.
Clearly more effort had been anticipated under those circumstances (or at least a better result), prompting the Canadiens to replace ex-head coach Dominique Ducharme with St. Louis. Since then, the compete level has been unmistakable. Even if they did lose the first three games under their new bench boss, the games were at least close and the desire to win on the part of the players was obviously there. Despite St. Louis’ 0-3 record up to that point, there was a stark improvement.
Canadiens Have Got Priorities Straight
The desire to win may have been there before, but it wasn’t readily apparent, and that right there should have been priority No. 1, to reinvigorate whoever’s on the roster, even if only to cash in to a greater extent on each of their assets on the trade market in a few weeks. The winning? It’s just a by-product of it and, even though it will technically hurt the Habs’ chances at winning the first-overall pick at the draft, it’s not totally unwanted.
Securing the first-overall pick isn’t as much a priority as many would believe, even if only because it’s out of the Canadiens’ hands to a certain extent. All anyone can reasonably expect them to do is stay at the bottom of the standings as much as possible, and that’s pretty much guaranteed already. So, why not cheer for them to win between here and the end of the regular season?
Maybe St. Louis is destined to only get as far as interim head coach with this team. Who knows? But, all due respect to his predecessor, St. Louis’ succeeded where Ducharme failed, getting the Habs to have fun again. And it’s contagious.
Even with this latest winning streak, it’s entirely possible the Canadiens lose more games than they win down the stretch. And, for the sake of that No. 1 pick, so be it. There should be no worries either way, though. Same with how they’ll end up playing in those games, win or lose. By all appearances, St. Louis’ got them locked in. And “all appearances” almost literally, because everyone’s watching again. Why not? It’s worth watching again too.
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.