The Montreal Canadiens have enjoyed more success than expected in the first half of the 2023-24 season.
A 17-17-5 record is nothing to scoff at for a team that’s in the midst of a rebuild.
However, the relatively successful start of the year also poses a problem for Kent Hughes’ team. The Habs aren’t good enough to qualify for the playoffs, and they’re not quite at the point that we should expect another top-5 draft pick at the 2024 NHL Draft.
The greatest fear for any fanbase is seeing the franchise they adore fall into no man’s land, which is currently the case for the Habs. In professional sports, the unfortunate reality is that it only pays to be great, or terrible.
Anything in between tends to lead to lost years.
But for fans that are still firmly on ‘team tank’, there is some good news on the horizon. For fans who are still hoping for a miracle run that leads to the playoffs, you may want to look away.
Strength Of Schedule
The Canadiens have enjoyed a fairly easy schedule to this point in the season. They’ve faced a bevy of teams who are on the second leg of back-to-back games, as well as their fair share of bottom feeders.
Going forward, things will become much more difficult.
They don’t have the most difficult schedule in the league, as was the case in the second half of the 2022-23 campaign, but they’re still among the top 10 teams at the moment in terms of the strength of their upcoming opponents.
Hockey is a fickle sport, and bad teams can beat good teams on any given night, which means the increased difficulty in the schedule does not guarantee more losses, but it does present the rebuilding team with a rather tall task in the second half of the season.
The game is played on the ice, not on a spreadsheet, that much we know. But we’d be remiss if we did not mention that relative to their underlying numbers, the Canadiens have overachieved this year.
Consider this: the Montreal Canadiens rank 26th in the league in shots share (CF%), 24th in goal share (GF%), and 27th in expected goal share (xGF%).
They’ve been saved time and again by Samuel Montembeault’s awe-inspiring work in the crease.
Sam Montembeault was named 1st star in last night's 4-3 win vs Dallas – his 4th steal of the season. A look at all goalies who have stolen wins in over 20% of their starts……
Canadiens 9 steals leads the league.
(Steal = goals saved above expected >goal differential) pic.twitter.com/omZopvWTB7
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) January 3, 2024
War Of Attrition
The Habs happen to own one of the youngest lineups in the NHL. That’s great news for the rebuild, but it also carries certain caveats when discussing the team’s play down the stretch.
One of the main things prospects will discuss upon their promotion to the professional ranks is how difficult the change can be on their bodies.
It takes several years for a professional athlete to adapt to the rigours of an 82-game professional hockey season. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in this case, younger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to endurance.
Players lose a lot of weight by the time the season winds down, which has an impact on their muscle mass and their condition.
Some deal with the change better than others, and elite players have enough skill to overcome their stamina, but for the most part, younger players tend to fade down the stretch. We shouldn’t be surprised if some of the players who started the season with a healthy dose of youthful exuberance end up slowing down in the second half of the season.
Except for Nick Suzuki, whose stamina and endurance would put a prime Wolverine to shame.
Statistically speaking, the Canadiens will have a hard time losing enough games to secure a season finish below clubs such as the Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks.
But there’s still hope the team could finish below the Columbus Blue Jackets, and thus improve their overall Draft Lottery odds.
Alternatively, if Montembeault stops channelling his inner Jacques Plante, there’s a very good chance the Montreal Canadiens could finish the 2023-24 season with a much-needed top 5 pick at the upcoming Draft in Las Vegas.