At this point in the season there are really only seven or eight teams that you can safely say are out of the playoff race.
The Montreal Canadiens, sitting nine points out of a Wild Card spot and in 14th place out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, are almost certainly one of those teams.
The entire season has been a disaster on the ice.
Carey Price, the most important player and perhaps most important person in the organization, has had an uncharacteristically down year. The Canadiens have proven over the past few years that they only go as he goes, and when he is not one of the top-five goalies in the league their chances of success are virtually zero.
Shea Weber, the team’s best defenseman, has been limited to just 26 games this season due to injury, and even when he has played the team is only 10-13-3. That means they actually have a better record, 9-9-3, when he doesn’t play.
Max Pacioretty, the team’s best forward (and still one of the best bargains in the NHL under the salary cap) went through one of the worst goal droughts of his career in the middle of the season. He has since snapped out of it in a big way, but his struggles still hurt.
We still don’t really know how good Alex Galchenyuk is, and neither, it seems, do the Canadiens. He hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t really taken a big step forward, either. He’s a good, but not great player. Maybe this is what he is?
Jonathan Drouin, their biggest acquisition of the offseason, has spent the season playing out of position (something that has hurt him by the Canadiens’ own admission) and currently has fewer goals and points on the season (seven and 22) than the 19-year-old rookie defenseman he was traded for (Mikhail Sergachev has eight goals and 27 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning). That’s not to say the trade can’t ever work in the future, but if this is what you expected from him this season you’re lying.
There is probably more — there is definitely more — but those five developments alone are enough to sabotage an entire season for any team.
Now the Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin are left with the difficult task of trying to figure out how to fix it. According to Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column Bergevin is looking to be active ahead of the trade deadline, and that outside of Price, Weber, Drouin and 19-year-old defenseman Victor Mete they would probably listen on anyone.
There seems to be some debate as to what it should be called — a rebuild, a re-tooling, something else — but the end result should be the same: The Canadiens should probably burn it all to the ground.
Here’s the problem with the way the Canadiens are currently constructed: They not only have some devastating flaws, from not having a No. 1 center, to being overly dependent on their goalie, to having an older and expensive defense, but it’s hard to see a path that will enable them to quickly turn it around fast enough to still be able to win with the core they have committed to.
Starting next season Price’s new $10.5 million per year contract kicks in. That will run alongside the $7.8 million per year price tag that Weber will carry for another nine seasons. After next season Pacioretty — assuming he has not been traded by then — will be playing on a new contract that will probably be paying him close to double what he is making now.
I am generally all for teams spending big bucks on their core.
The concerns over teams committing too much salary cap space to a small handful of players are almost always overblown because the teams that win Stanley Cups all do it. They have to do it.
But the Canadiens’ roster construction is a little different than the teams that have won Stanley Cups with that sort of roster construction. Most teams are paying that money to players (usually forwards — and specifically centers) that are still in their mid-20s or still closer to the prime of their careers.
Starting next season the Canadiens are going to be paying more than $18 million to a 33-year-old defenseman and a 31-year-old goalie through the end of the 2025-26 season.
No other team in the league has built its core around similar players. Certainly no successful team.
Bad news, folks: No matter how great Weber and Price have been in their careers, they are going to start slowing down and perhaps even breaking down. Their best hockey is probably in the rear view mirror. And again, the best forward on the team is going to need a new contract within the next year, at which point he, too, will be over the age of 30.
They have six defensemen under contract for next season (at more than $23 million in combined salary) and only one of them will be under the age of 30 (Victor Mete will be 20).
This is a team that this season is giving up more than 32 shots on goal per game. This is a team that is giving up 60 total shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Both place them in the bottom half of the league. In other words, it is already a mediocre at best defensive team and it’s not likely to get much better with the current cast of characters because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is what they are.
In his 31 Thoughts column Friedman mentioned the Colorado Avalanche and their turnaround as a reason as to why the Canadiens don’t want to use the word “rebuild,” and that it’s possible to turn things around quickly. And that’s fair. But are the really a lot of parallels here between this Canadiens team and the Avalanche? Is Jonathan Drouin capable of becoming a potential scoring champion and MVP next season the way Nathan MacKinnon is? Does Montreal have a Mikko Rantanen ready to break out? Are they going to pluck an Alexander Kerfoot out of free agency and get an immediate impact? Then there is this: Even with a 10-game winning streak and all of the things just mentioned, Colorado is still only a fringe playoff team more than halfway through the season and far from a lock to actually make the playoffs.
There just doesn’t seem to be a lot here to inspire much confidence that a sudden turnaround is right around the corner.
Sure, Carey Price could very easily rebound and return to form next season, but even if he does that only puts the Canadiens right back to where they were in recent years — a flawed team that has to rely on its goalie to carry them.
That recipe won the Canadiens one playoff series the previous three seasons and only got them out of the first round twice in seven years.
This team probably needs more than just a few tweaks here and there. It needs core players. It needs young core players.
It is not a great spot to be in, and the Canadiens really shouldn’t take any half measures. They need to go all in in one direction. Given the makeup of the roster the most sensible direction at this point would seem to be to just put up a for sale sign in the front yard.
Then comes the big question: Do you trust the current front office to actually orchestrate that type of rebuild? This roster pretty much belongs entirely to Bergevin. The only players that predate his time as general manager are Pacioretty, Price, Gallagher and Galchenyuk. The rest of it, including the defense, belong to him.
He brought you here, Montreal. Can he get you out of it?