Maybe it’s the fact the Montreal Canadiens got the wake-up call they needed, losing in decisive fashion to the second-worst team in the NHL, the Arizona Coyotes. Maybe it’s how the Canadiens are finally getting healthier, with last year’s leading scorer, Tyler Toffoli, the latest to return to the lineup.
Maybe it’s just a case of the Canadiens showing what they’re capable of when not one, but two controversial goal calls actually go their way, when they beat the Dallas Stars 5-3 this week. Or maybe, more likely, instead it’s the Canadiens, the league’s actual worst team at 8-25-5, proving something to the effect of “oh well, you can’t lose them all.”
Consider the evidence:
- Against the Stars, the Canadien’s league-low third road win, the Habs scored a power-play goal in the third straight game for the first time all season.
- They scored a game’s first two goals for the first time in almost two months to the day, something to which you really have to set your mind to accomplish.
- They still had to resort to getting the best game of goalie Samuel Montembeault’s season to date, during which he still gave up three goals, with the team as a whole getting outshot by over a 2:1 margin (51-22).
Objectively speaking, this was not a good game. It was just a good game for the Canadiens. So, more likely than not, they’re still a bad team. Nothing’s changed in that regard. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing or even an embarrassment, though. Someone has to be in last place. It may as well be the Canadiens without the services of injured goalie Carey Price and retired defenseman (and captain) Shea Weber.
Canadiens vs. Lightning for Stanley Cup
It’s unfortunate the Canadiens couldn’t parlay their run to the Stanley Cup Final into sustained success, with suspicions Weber has just been biding his time to return, healing up for another long playoff run, seeming downright foolish in retrospect. However, at the end of the day, fans got their first fourth-round appearance since 1993. That’s still worth celebrating, even if the Habs ultimately fell short. Knowing in advance that the Habs would be horrible this season, wouldn’t you have taken the run anyway, assuming those kinds of things are the least bit negotiable?
To be fair, falling short in this context is of course getting vastly outplayed and losing 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Final. However, the Lightning, who spent a great deal of the 1990s at the bottom of the standings, is a worthwhile measuring stick for success as two-time reigning champs. As recently as 2017, they missed the playoffs, though. In 2013, they finished 28th in the league.
The two teams worse than them? The Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche. All three are seen as Stanley Cup contenders this season. More on the Lightning though. In 2007-08, they finished dead last themselves and in second-to-last place in 2008-09, resulting in key cogs Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman as draft picks.
If the Lightning are the gold standard in terms of sustained NHL success, the Canadiens are on the right track. It’s not just the Lightning either. If you look back at the last decade, the list of Stanley Cup champions is littered with teams that had to bottom out before they got good.
Penguins & Blackhawks & Kings, oh My!
The Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have combined for 10 of the last 13 championships. The Penguins missed the playoffs four straight seasons from 2002-06. They finished in last place in 2003-04, leading to the selections of Evgeni Malkin at No. 2 overall in 2004 and Sidney Crosby No. 1 overall in 2005 (following the lockout-canceled 2004-05 season).
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs from 2003-08. While they never finished last, they did come close, with some truly bad teams, “earning” Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the process.
There are of course a few caveats here, namely how we’re just talking about a single sordid Canadiens season (in principle). Based on the successes of the above teams, sure, the Canadiens would theoretically need to languish at the bottom of the standings for an extended period of time to truly become elite.
Firstly, it doesn’t make the high draft pick they’re poised to get in 2022 any less valuable, though. Plus, even though the Kings had an even longer playoff drought than either the Penguins or Blackhawks, missing the postseason from 2003-09, only one of their Top-10 picks really panned out (Drew Doughty and, to a lesser extent, Brayden Schenn).
Canadiens Will Improve… Eventually
Granted, the Canadiens did kind of recently let two third-overall draft picks go to waste in 2012 (Alex Galchenyuk) and 2018 (Jesperi Kotkaniemi), after finishing 28th overall each of those seasons. However, the Canadiens arguably rebounded in 2013, finishing first in the Northeast Division, and 2019, missing the playoffs by just two points (when the 96 they earned probably would have been enough to make them any other year).
It all goes to show last overall is not the death sentence some may instinctively make it out to be, especially with the Habs having just brought in a new front office, officially hiring Kent Hughes as general manager to complement Jeff Gorton, their executive vice president of hockey operations. After almost missing the playoffs in four of five seasons under Marc Bergevin, there’s a welcome level of self-awareness around the team that things need to get better. And they will, eventually.
For now though, why shouldn’t that self-awareness extend throughout the fanbase? The Canadiens are historically bad. There’s no use denying it. After all, things can only go up from here. Isn’’t that the point of rock bottom?
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.