It was just a little more than five months ago that the Canadiens were playing in the Stanley Cup Final, only a couple of wins away adding to the team’s championship collection.
Today, they are objectively one of the NHL’s worst teams across the board, have already fired their general manager, and after losing to the Penguins, 5-2, on Tuesday night have lost seven in a row and 16 of their past 19 games. The only team with a worse record is Arizona, a team that spent its offseason tearing its roster down to the foundation to accumulate as many future assets as it could. The main difference between Arizona and Montreal right now is the Coyotes’ season is mostly going to plan. The Canadiens really put in an effort to be good. Or to at least try to be good. That makes the current results even more disappointing.
Following Tuesday’s loss in Pittsburgh veteran defenseman Jeff Petry sounded like a player that is out of answers.
“It’s frustrating. It’s the same things over and over,” said Petry. “We are not playing as a team. We are not playing as a group. It’s like you’re searching to find where people and it seems like there’s no structure out there.”
Tuesday’s game was Petry’s first game back in the lineup after missing two weeks, and even the perspective of watching the games did not offer any answers.
“You watch it up top and there times where you’re scratching your head,” he said. “It feels like everybody knows where we should be, but we are not going to those places, we are not making it easy for anybody on the ice except, most of the time, the other team.”
So how do you go from the Cup Final, to whatever that is.
[MORE: The highs and lows of the Marc Bergevin era in Montreal]
For starters, the Cup Final run probably raised the bar too much because it was the perfect storm of circumstances, from the playoff format, the division they played in that allowed them to get into that playoff format, to Carey Price putting in a Conn Smythe worthy performance in goal. And that does not even include a 6-1 record in playoff overtime games, including 2-0 in the First Round when one shot in either game going against them would have resulted in a First Round loss, and a 2-1 mark in the Semifinals against the Golden Knights. There is a fine line between winning and losing there, and the Canadiens consistently came out on the right side of it in the playoffs.
There were some things to like about that Habs team and the way it played, but at the end of the day it was still a .500 hockey team that probably would not have sniffed the playoffs in a normal season. But even that was better than this, and even if you expected the Canadiens to regress, nobody expected them to be this bad.
Petry’s comments are certainly not a glowing endorsement for the job head coach Dominque Ducharme is doing. But structure and systems and being on the same page can only take a team so far. It still comes down to talent, and the Canadiens lost a lot of talent from last year’s roster.
Price, the driving force behind their postseason run, has yet to play in a game this season, leaving the net in the hands of Jake Allen, Sam Montembeault, and Cayden Primeau. They have not come close to matching what Price did in the playoffs.
On defense, Shea Weber is sidelined for the season and probably for his career. That is a huge loss that was never going to be adequately replaced by free agent acquisition David Savard (nothing against him. He just is not Shea Weber).
Then there is the talent that exited the roster in free agency, including Philip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Corey Perry, Eric Staal, and Tomas Tatar.
For the past couple of years the Canadiens had one of the best, most productive lines in hockey with Brendan Gallagher, Danault, and Tatar working together as a trio. Between 2018-19 and 2020-21 when that group was on the ice together during 5-on-5 play they outscored teams by a staggering 94-49 margin and controlled more than 61% of the total shot attempts. That is as good as you can get in the NHL and it was a game-changing, shutdown line that could also score.
Two of those three (Danault and Tatar) left in free agency.
Even if you rightly point out that Tatar did not play much in the playoffs, the loss of Danault is still significant given how well he and Gallagher played together. When it was just Gallagher and Danault on the ice last season, including playoffs, the Canadiens outscored teams by a 27-7 margin. With neither on the ice, they were outscored by 11 goals.
It is difficult to replace that many players in one offseason, especially when it comes to the guys at the top of the lineup (Price, Weber, Danault).
What’s made matters worse is the returning players that were supposed to take big step forwards to help make up for that.
Nick Suzuki has been good, but his production has taken a small step backwards.
Cole Caufield, who was supposed to be a Calder Trophy contender, has one goal in 22 games and spent time in the American Hockey League.
But it’s not just the young players that have regressed. After finishing as a top-five goal scorer a year ago, Tyler Toffoli has five goals in 26 games. Gallagher’s production has dropped. Off-season additions Mike Hoffman and Christian Dvorak have not really made much of an impact yet. Adding to all of that is the fact that injuries and COVID-19 protocols have also mounted, with Toffoli, Gallagher, and Josh Anderson all being sidelined.
While the 2020-21 season was the perfect storm of everything going their way, with some outrageously strong performances from veterans sprinkled in, the 2021-22 season has been the complete opposite. Players that were supposed to take big steps forward, have not. Core players that were expected to be there have not been. The new additions have not been able to replace some of the talent that left. Add in the fact they are now back in the Atlantic Division and not playing the same six Canadian teams over and over again, and you have the situation that is playing out now. They lost too much, too quickly, and do not have the people that can make up for that in a tough division.
Given how long players like Toffoli, Anderson, and Weber (all season in this case) are out, it is difficult to see any of this improving anytime soon.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.