For the Montreal Canadiens, the light at the end of the tunnel’s taken the form of the first-overall pick. However, there’s a lot of track left on the road back to respectability after a last-place 2021-22. No shortcuts means heading into another tunnel for 2022-23, and that probably means tanking the season. Are all aboard?
Canadiens Finish Last in 2021-22
Now, it only “probably” means tanking 2022-23, because for all intents and purposes the Canadiens didn’t tank 2021-22. They finished last due to a variety of factors. They include the “retirement” of Shea Weber and a league-leading number of man-games lost, with goalie Carey Price, appearing in action just five times, being the most notable name on that list.
So, there’s little denying the Canadiens deserve the first-overall pick. The fans too, even if they didn’t deserve the season that led to it. While they were treated to a Stanley Cup Final run in 2021, for many the last-place season immediately thereafter likely took an emotional toll. As a result, Habs ownership may think it would be too much to ask of its fanbase to suffer through a second consecutive miserable season in 2022-23. Getting blown out gets old, after all.
Ducharme vs. St. Louis Behind the Bench
Remember the Canadiens fired head coach Dominique Ducharme effectively for that reason, after the Canadiens lost their final seven games under him by a combined score of 40-17. It got so bad Ducharme got fired despite assurances he would stay on the rest of the season upon the hiring of executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton… and despite the fact the Canadiens were 8-30-7 (.256 points percentage; PTS%) under him and there was no realistic shot at a playoff spot.
So, there came a point where, even though the Canadiens weren’t actively tanking, they accepted the fact they weren’t making the playoffs, but were in line for a high draft pick… and still fired their head coach in the middle of the season. The lesson? No one likes to lose.
Instead of resigning themselves to another poor season, the alternative for the Canadiens is likely to end up in no man’s land with regard to their next draft pick in 2023. After all, nothing’s really changed. Weber’s not coming back, with rumors circulating that the Habs will trade his contract. Price’s future is up in the air, with retirement a possibility at the very least. All in all, the Habs face the same obstacles to a playoff spot they did this past season. They can try to make the playoffs, but the deck is so stacked against them, they’d most likely just fall short.
Of course, there is one big difference. Martin St. Louis is projected to be behind the bench instead of Ducharme, with the former having gone 14-19-4 (.432 PTS%), which is quasi-impressive considering the shape of the roster. Granted, St. Louis’ shine did rub off down the stretch, but, in spite of a 2-5 record in his final seven games, the Canadiens only got outscored 32-28 in those games. So, there’s every reason to believe another season at the bottom of the standings would at least be bearable.
Free Agency Far from Good Option for Canadiens
Now a one-season turnaround is theoretically possible. The Canadiens have done it before, but these Habs just have too many holes in the lineup to realistically contend for so much as a playoff spot. So, to compete they’d potentially have to go the free agency route, with reports surfacing the Habs are aiming to at least make a splash. But tying themselves to expensive players who will inevitably decline, likely in relatively short order, is no recipe for long-term success, as the contracts to Weber and Price, two elite names in their mid-30s, kind of prove.
With Weber/ P.K. Subban and Price on the roster (and mostly healthy) and eating up a sizeable portion of the cap, the Canadiens almost missed the playoffs in four out of five seasons.In 2019-20, they made the one-off play-in round on a technicality because of the pandemic. Credit where it’s due, the Habs did still make the playoffs, just like they did the following season, of course reaching the Final. While they earned every ounce of their success that Stanley Cup Final run, they also just barely made the playoffs leading up to it, struggling the rest of the way after a stellar 5-0-2 start.
Canadiens Set to Draft Wright
As a result, the Habs should forego signing big-name free agents and aim for an extended stay in the cellar. Shane Wright is arguably the top prize this offseason at the NHL Entry Draft, but next summer, assuming the same draft rules, a last-place finish would absolutely guarantee a chance at drafting one of the big three in Connor Bedard, Matvei Michkov and Adam Fantilli, each of whom are considered franchise-altering talents.
On the flip side, tanking doesn’t guarantee the first-overall pick, nor does it guarantee long-term success. Some teams, like the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers simply haven’t broken through despite numerous high picks. If you look at the last decade and a half of Stanley Cup champions though, it becomes clear that tanking certainly works well enough, with the most successful teams having suffered through similar extended stays at the bottom of the standings.
All in all embracing the Canadiens as the worst team in the NHL now and potentially in 2022-23 is the best bet to secure sustainable, long-term success at the top. It would be a different story if the Habs were ready to compete, in which case a free-agency shopping spree might make sense. They’re not, though. So, it becomes one of those aforementioned shortcuts that the Habs should avoid, with slow and steady winning the race more often that. Thankfully, it’s just one more stop, before potentially full steam ahead.