The NHL is about six or seven games into its 2021 season and there has been no shortage of fans, players, coaches, general managers, and owners holding their breath as they watch the game unfold in terms of outcomes that they hadn’t framed prior to its start. One of the teams searching for answers has been the Montreal Canadiens as they opened with five straight losses, struggling to score more than one goal per game and often looked disorganized, disinterested, and distraught. Online armchair owners have already fired the coach, the gm, traded half the team, and called for intervention by the Prime Minister of Canada as their expectations from last year’s Stanley Cup finalist haven’t transitioned to the reality of a new season with a team that has gone through competition structure, roster, and leadership changes.
The best measure of success or failure is usually best achieved from within, however looking around the league can add some valuable perspective. Last year’s Stanley Cup final four teams have all struggled out of the gate this season. The Canadiens sit at 1-5, the Lightning at 2-2-1, the Golden Knights at 1-3, and the Islanders at 2-2-1. As the league emerges from two seasons of pandemic structure competition through re-drawn divisions and conferences, a reduced game schedule, and preparation and practice routines that were out of the norm. While the Canadiens emerged as the “Kings of the North”, they did it in the isolation of a 7-team division and playing every game against the same 6 teams, 8 times over a span of 56 games, falling into the playoffs. The Canadiens were re-tooled to meet a tournament style competition with a mix of youth, veterans, and lunch-pail structure that just might not work over a “normal” NHL season. Other teams made their own adjustments and we’re seeing the results of those transitions as well. The competition structure returning to pre-pandemic normal doesn’t mean that the teams will immediately transition to normal-it will take time.
The Canadiens have also gone through a significant roster change, losing key players like blue-line warrior Shea Weber, defensive specialist and often #1 centre Phillip Danault, speedy special teams forward Paul Byron, Joel Edmundson who was one of the 4 playoff blue-line horses as he deals with a personal family matter, and the streaky youngster Jesperi Kotkaniemi who hasn’t reached his potential, taking his services elsewhere as he sulked on four fingers over wanting un-earned respect. As the season started, they lost their star goalie Carey Price as he is in self-care mode, who often adds elements beyond goaltending. They also lost some other veteran pieces in Corey Perry who took the longer-term deal to go to the Lightning, and Eric Staal who hasn’t found a new home in the NHL yet. Those are a lot of pieces to transition out of your team and still expect some of the same playoff success. When you consider that the HABS also added 9 new pieces in Hoffman (F), Dvorak (F), Perrault (F), Paquette (F), Savard (D), Wideman (D), Niku (D), Brooks (D), and Montembeault (G), all of who either have to learn the system or be part of an overall team adjustment to a new system in a normal-sized NHL season, it would be unfair to expect last year’s playoff outcomes without allowing adjustment to this season’s process.
In losing some of the players they have, the Canadiens also lost a leadership core that is hard to replace. Replacing a leader like Shea Weber is not something that can be achieved by dropping in a couple of new players who might have the on-ice skill, but don’t quite have the presence and respect that earns that little bit of extra space to make a play. Although Philip Danault wasn’t putting up massive points, he was a big part of making sure other teams didn’t and his post-game interviews during the playoffs also showed how he helped shelter some of the youth on the team. The calm of Carey Price is also missing as someone who can settle the team down during tense moments while employing a demeanour that says, “it will be ok”. Leadership is often recognized through titles and hierarchy, but the reality is that leadership isn’t who you say you are, but rather what you show you are and a lot of that has fallen on Brendan Gallagher to carry the load until either others step up or he gets support from returning players.
The fact that the Canadiens started the season with five losses has a different lens on it than had those losses come in the middle of the season, especially after clawing their way to the Stanley Cup finals and showing a level of perseverance that reignited the torch. Everyone understandably had high expectations and while they’re not the only team adjusting back to normal, the Canadiens’ fans demand performance and results with often little patience while their finger is always gently pressed against the panic button. This team and this new almost post-pandemic season need the fans, players, coaches, general manager, and owner to show more patience than panic and re-evaluate the outcome based on process adjustments over a larger body of work than the less than 10 games that have been played so far. Otherwise, that panic can set the team back in ways similar to their last 0-5 start that saw the departure of Patrick Roy and arguably took over a decade before they could even take a sniff at success consistency.
For sports content, please consider The Coach's Call YouTube Podcast.