Now the NHL Draft is over and the dust has settled on the 2022-23 season, we take a look at what may lie ahead for the Montreal Canadiens.
One of the most common questions we receive in our weekly Habs Mailbag centers on where the Canadiens will end up in the Atlantic Division next season, and if it could lead to yet another high-end pick for Kent Hughes and Co.
The first thing we must establish is that other than the Detroit Red Wings, every team in the Atlantic Division is poised to challenge for a playoff spot. Not every team will qualify for spring hockey, but clubs like the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres will do everything in their power to earn a playoff berth, unlike the Canadiens.
Teams like the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, who may be exiting their Stanley Cup Window, still have much better rosters than the one that will be controlled by Martin St-Louis next season.
And now, something is interesting happening in Detroit, as well.
Steve Yzerman may be heralded as a roster-construction genius due to his work in Tampa Bay, and there’s ample evidence to suggest his work with the Lightning was a significant reason why the team won back-to-back Stanley Cups just two years after he left the team to join the Red Wings.
But his work in free agency as Detroit’s general manager has been questionable, at best. Beyond signing former Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot to a four-year contract extension, Yzerman has made a series of high-priced free-agent signings that you rarely see from a team that is undergoing a proper rebuild.
This year, the Red Wings signed both J.T. Compher and Shayne Gostisbehere, with the former signing just a one-year deal with Yzerman’s club, a strong indication that the team thinks he will help them compete for a playoff spot.
Detroit's last 2 Free Agencies:
JT Compher — $5.1m x 5 years
Justin Holl — $3.4m x 3 years
Gostisbhere — $4.1m x 1 year
Ben Chiarot — $4.8m x 4 years
David Perron — $4.8m x 2 years
Andrew Copp — $5.6m x 5 years
Ville Husso — $4.8 x 3 years
How we feeling about the Yzerplan? pic.twitter.com/DlV5NvyNIu
— Big Head Hockey (@BigHeadHcky) July 3, 2023
On top of it, the trade negotiations between the Red Wings and Ottawa Senators regarding Alex DeBrincat are ongoing, with a deal seeming imminent.
If we also consider that the Red Wings lost patience with Filip Zadina, the 7th overall pick at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, and placed him on waivers for the purpose of a mutual contract termination, it’s starting to become clear that the Red Wings are no longer interested in taking the slow approach to becoming a contending club.
Unfortunately, they haven’t added enough talent to break through the Atlantic bubble, but the players they added to the roster should ensure they accumulate more points in the standings than the Habs.
The Canadiens, on the other hand, have taken a much slower approach in the last two years. Free agency has led to short-term contracts for role players and AHL depth, and the high-profile names they’ve acquired, such as Alex Newhook and Kirby Dach, have been projects rather than an immediate influx of established talent.
Habs Point Of View
And while there’s certainly reason to think the Canadiens will be an improved club next year, especially if they avoid leading the NHL in injuries by a significant margin again, there are other reasons to believe that yet another basement finish in the Atlantic is a very possible reality.
The Canadiens didn’t just have questionable underlying numbers last season, they produced some of the worst statistics in the NHL over the last few years, and that includes comparing their results to the Canadiens team that finished 32nd in the league in 2021-22.
To give you an idea of how things went last year, the Canadiens controlled just 43 percent of the expected goals (xGF%), 45 percent of the shots (CF%), and 42 percent of the high-danger chances (HDCF%), with all three of the crucial statistics seeing a significant drop compared to the previous season.
And while there’s something to be said about the potential for growth in the Canadiens’ roster, it’s also fair to say they’re a country mile behind the rest of the teams in the Atlantic Division when it comes to their current form, which is why the team’s decision to tear everything down while the rest of the division enters an arms race is perfect timing for a rebuild.
Again, injuries will play a significant role for the Canadiens, but we must also remember that simply replacing the head athletic therapist will not result in an immediate uptick in health for the team, seeing as it’s the same players on the roster as last year.
If the Canadiens can stay healthy, they will win more games than anticipated, but as it stands, they’re clearly the team in the Atlantic Division with the lowest chances of earning a playoff berth, which should lead to yet another high-end pick for the franchise.
It may not be what fans want to hear, but in the long run, adding a very talented prospect at the 2024 Draft will be quite beneficial for the long-term outlook of the Montreal Canadiens.
All Montreal Canadiens statistics via NaturalStatTrick.