Let’s get to the confessional right now: the title was meant to grab your attention…you’ve probably guessed it already.
In a near-perfect season, the Canadiens would have surprised all observers and finished in the top five overall just like the Vegas Golden Knights did in their first year in the NHL five years ago.
But the Knights’ feat comes once a century. Rebuilding teams don’t make the playoffs, so imagine reaching the final.
The management of the CH did not shout it from the rooftops, but they had three main objectives at the dawn of the season: to give maximum chances to young people, to be competitive in the majority of matches and to position themselves advantageously in the race. at the lottery. She achieved all of her goals.
Sean Farrell became the eleventh rookie to wear the Canadiens uniform in 2022-2023 on Tuesday, along with Cayden Primeau, Juraj Slafkovsky, Johnathan Kovacevic, Jesse Ylönen, Kaiden Guhle, Justin Barron, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj and Owen Beck.
From training camp, injuries prompted the CH to start the season with four rookies in defense in the regular formation, Harris, Kovacevic, Guhle and Xhekaj. Barron joined the group along the way.
We kept the first choice of 2022, Juraj Slafkovsky, in Montreal despite his 18 years. We wanted to have him around to teach him the right way to play.
Despite his youth and many experiences, the Canadian still won 30 games, six less than Pittsburgh, the last club to qualify for the playoffs. In addition, 24 of his 45 losses have resulted in two goals or less and 32 with three goals or less.
With seven games to go, no one has the morale in the heels at the Canadian despite a 28th place overall. The heart was even at the party when returning to the locker room Monday in Buffalo after the shootout victory.
The CH was able to be competitive with young people on the rise at its head. The first three scorers on the team are 23 or younger. Nick Suzuki, even deprived of his faithful winger Cole Caufield for thirty games, equaled his best production in career, 61 points. If he keeps his pace, the 23-year-old center should reach 67 points.
Dumped by Chicago last summer, Kirby Dach, 22 since January, was a pleasant surprise. He nested in the center of the second line.
He smashed his career-best production in just 58 games. With 38 points, including 14 goals, he is producing at a rate of 54 points over 82 games, in addition to being reliable defensively. He still has to improve his efficiency during face-offs, even if he went from 32% to 38% in this chapter compared to the previous season.
Caufield continued his second half momentum last year with the arrival of Martin St-Louis. He had scored 26 goals in just 46 games when he suffered a shoulder injury in January.
Harvey-Pinard, 24, and Ylönen, 23, weren’t necessarily in the plans this winter, but injuries have forced their recalls and they’re pleasant surprises.
The former scored his 13th goal of the season on Tuesday in just 31 games, as much as Mike Hoffman in… 61 games. And he is much more responsible defensively and valiant than the latter.
Ylönen, without attracting as much attention, earned Tuesday on Harvey-Pinard’s goal a 12th point in his last 17 games, without being employed on an attacking line.
In defense, David Savard and Mike Matheson are obviously the two pillars. Matheson, despite being 29, is progressing amazingly. He produces at a full-season rate of 58 points and averages 24:19.
But at just 20 years old (21 since January), Guhle, the team’s first pick, 16th overall in 2020, has established himself as one of the team’s best in defense, not just defensively, but offensively. Without seeing in him a quarterback in numerical superiority, we can predict a long career in a first pair.
In a slightly more subdued, but effective role, Jordan Harris proves at 22 that he belongs in the NHL. We see him trying more breakthroughs on offense since his return to the game a few weeks ago, hence his two points in his last two meetings. He will have to play like this if he does not want to be condemned to a third pair.
Xhekaj, 22, 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, never drafted, was one of the nice surprises this winter. Not only does he impose himself as a peacemaker, but he is not devoid of individual skills.
Obtained in the exchange of Artturi Lehkonen, right-handed defender Justin Barron, 21, returned improved from Laval in January. He still has some deficiencies in defense, but his offensive talent is not in doubt, as evidenced by his 14 points in 32 games.
Finally, in goal, 26-year-old Samuel Montembeault supplanted Jake Allen. He has as many wins, 15, but in six fewer games, and has a better average and save rate. There’s no dismissing his claim to be the team’s number one long-term keeper.
This constant progression of young people, the Canadian owes in large part to the pedagogical genius of coach Martin St-Louis and his assistants Stéphane Robidas, Alex Burrows and Trevor Letowski.
Not only did the players keep their spirits up, but so did a majority of the fans.
With Tuesday’s loss to Philadelphia, the Canadiens can hardly join the Flyers in 26th place. Montreal is four points behind Philadelphia, with only seven games left, compared to nine for its opponent.
The CH is one point behind the Arizona Coyotes, 27th, and ten points ahead of the Anaheim Ducks, 29th. He will therefore draft fifth or sixth, with 8.5% or 7.5% of winning the lottery.
The first batch will get Connor Bedard, 143 points, including 71 goals, in 57 games at Regina, the NHL’s top prospect since Connor McDavid; the winner of the second batch will inherit Adam Fantilli, 64 points in 35 games at the University of Michigan, or Leo Carlsson, 25 points in 44 games at Örebro, in the Swedish first division (SHL).
In an ideal world, Montreal would be 32nd in place of Columbus, with a 25% chance of drafting Bedard, but Suzuki, Dach, Caufield, Guhle, and the entire team collectively, wouldn’t have progressed. with such a mediocre record.
Not only does Montreal find itself in a favorable position with the fifth or sixth choice overall, but the failure of the Florida Panthers, first overall last year, allows it to hope for a choice between the 11th and No. 14 with the first-round pick obtained for Ben Chiarot.
Nothing is perfect, of course. In an ideal world, the Canadiens would have gotten more by the trade deadline. But injuries to Sean Monahan and Joel Edmundson sabotaged the sale of Kent Hughes.
Monahan started the season on a high note with 17 points in 25 games. Some could then hope for a first-round pick for his services. He probably won’t play again this year. At least Montreal already has a first-round pick in the bank, in 2024 or 2025, courtesy of the Flames who were keen to drop his salary.
Edmundson, now healthy but whose responsibilities have diminished recently, will likely be traded this summer to make way for a younger player on the left side of defence. Regardless of the choice obtained in return, he must give up his position to a younger one.
Jonathan Drouin and Mike Hoffman did not find a buyer by the trade deadline. Drouin’s contract expires at the end of the season, with one year remaining on Hoffman’s deal.
Only Evgenii Dadonov brought something back: Denis Gurianov, 25, a project. Despite his 8 points in 15 games, it is doubtful that he will thrill the leaders of the Canadian. Let’s wait.
Juraj Slafkovsky was the only 2022 player to earn a permanent NHL spot at age 18. And as the first overall pick of an average vintage, he had a modest first half offensively with 10 points in 39 games. He is not and will not be McDavid or Matthews.
But the Canadian did not care about his points. She worked closely with him in order to teach him to play properly and acquire the right automatisms.
Despite his status as first overall pick, Slafkovsky, will not feel the pressure of dragging the club on those shoulders for the next few years, thanks to the presence of Suzuki, Dach, Caufield et al., but at 6ft 3in and 238lbs, still growing, and great offensive skills, he will be worth his weight in gold in the years to come.
In an ideal world, Caufield, Slafkovsky, Xhekaj and Guhle wouldn’t have spent the second half of the season in the infirmary. But the ideal world does not exist.