It has been a very difficult year so far for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans. To say they have underachieved is an understatement. The Habs struggles this year has led to an outcry for the team to rebuild. Carey Price has returned from injury and looks back to his normal self. His return has sparked the Habs on a four-game winning streak. The win streak has vaulted the Canadiens into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Now is not the time for a Montreal Canadiens rebuild.
Now Is Not The Time For A Montreal Canadiens Rebuild
Part of the frustration with the Habs is one of their chief rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, seem to be on the fast track to contending. They performed a substantial rebuild that included trading away star players and enduring poor play. Their reward was winning the Auston Matthews sweepstakes in the 2016 NHL Draft. The team is definitely ascending, but they haven’t won anything yet. While it is easy to point to the Leafs as the example of a rebuild success, there are more than enough examples of teams that went the rebuild route and have yet to emerge.
The temptation to call for a rebuild of the Montreal Canadiens is great. The team has several holes in the roster and does not look like a legitimate Cup contender. Still, the undertaking of a rebuild is a serious task. They are also dangerous and risky. As Johannes Wheeldon points out, tearing down the team involves moving on from several key players on the roster. It also means enduring some pain from losing seasons. The problem is, there is no guarantee the team will return to glory.
It is Not A Sure Thing
The tricky thing about a rebuild is that if it is not done properly, it can set a team back for a long time. It is easy to get seduced by the success of the Leafs and their rebuild, even if they haven’t won yet. They are an exciting and fun team to watch. The truth of the matter is they also got very lucky.
If you look at the other rebuilding teams, the story can be quite startling. They may make it to the playoffs once in a while, but there is no sustained level of play. In reality, there are two teams, Chicago and Pittsburgh, that have successfully rebuilt and become a Stanley Cup winner in the past 20 years. In Pittsburgh’s case, there was also a significant amount of luck involved, namely winning the 2005 NHL draft lottery so they could draft Sidney Crosby.
Winning the draft lottery or drafting in the top five or 10 picks is supposed to help infuse a roster with a young talent that will lead a turnaround. Unfortunately, drafting is an inexact science. There are been several teams that have had high draft picks for many seasons in a row that have yet to turn their team’s around.
If you look at the bottom of the NHL standings today the teams at the bottom have been in a state of rebuild for some time. Taking a look at some other rebuilding teams, like the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers provide a cautionary tale that rebuilding is a risky proposition. These teams have all been, in one way or another, rebuilding their teams for the better part of 10 years. They have been able to load up on young talent but it hasn’t translated into much success. That is the biggest risk involved with a rebuild, there is no guarantee of success.
The Sabres have picked in the top 10 for the past five seasons. Those picks include Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart. Despite their drafting high-end prospects, the Sabres have not seen much in the way of team success. The Sabres have finished eighth in the Atlantic division three of the last four seasons. This season they are faring no better, posting a 6-15-4 record, good for 30th in the league. They also have not made the playoffs in six seasons. They have not won a playoff series in 10 seasons. The Sabres have also had four coaches since 2013.
The Florida Panthers example might be low hanging fruit, but it still applies. While the team has not had much-sustained success in their 24 seasons (five playoff appearances and no series winqus since 1996). Since the 2005 lockout, the Panthers have only made the playoffs twice. They have shown spurts of success, both playoff appearances they won their division, but no long-term success. The goal is to be good for several years, not just a flash in the pan for one season. From 2005 on, the Panthers have had six picks inside the top ten, including four in the top three. They have assembled a team that includes Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov. They still are searching for long-term success.
Probably the most disappointing team this season (so far) has been the Edmonton Oilers. The team had its breakout season last year, making the playoffs after a 10-year absence and came within one game of the Western Conference finals. The team is loaded with young elite talent acquired from re-building. Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Leon Draisaitl are the young core of this team. All were drafted within the first three picks of the draft.
The thing is, it took the Oilers ten years to make the playoffs after starting their rebuild. Since 2010, the Oilers have had four first overall picks and six in the top seven picks. The Oilers should have been on the fast track to success, especially after having the number one pick three years in a row (2010 to 2012). Still, the Oilers are searching for sustained success.
The East Is Wide Open
Even when the Montreal Canadiens were slumping, the playoffs were never truly out of reach. The Eastern Conference, right now, is a bit of a mess. The Habs had no business being a four-game win streak away from a playoff position after starting 1-7-2. The East and namely the Atlantic Division is very weak this year and kept the Canadiens afloat during their struggles. The Habs have found their game a bit and have clawed their way back to .500 and sit in third in the Atlantic (In a playoff spot). While the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs have some cushion atop the division, Montreal, Boston, and Detroit are all clustered together. The three teams are only separated by two points. The one things going for the Canadiens has been their play against their Eastern Conference opponents.
So far this season, the Habs have struggled against Western Conference teams. Their record against the West is 3-9-1. Against the East, however, the Habs have been strong. They have a 9-3-2 record. Specifically, against the Atlantic, the Habs own a 6-1-1 record. If the Habs can continue their strong play against their division and conference, they should be in a solid position come April. With the East being so open, who’s to say the Habs can’t make a run.
Play The Kids
One thing Johannes mentioned that I agree with is that the Canadiens should play their youth. The team has shown signs of moving in this direction this year. The Habs were playing Nikita Scherbak before a knee injury sidelined him. The Canadiens also traded veteran Torrey Mitchell to give more youthful players ice time. Moving forward the Canadiens need to do a better job of maximizing the youth on the team. Jacob de La Rose has been a mainstay on the team this year. Charles Hudon has looked very good with the team this year. While he only has three goals and 10 points on the year, he seems to always be creating offensive zone opportunities. Jakub Jerabek has been very solid since he was called up on November 22nd. Daniel Carr has been enjoying a strong season in the AHL was called up as well on November 29th. All these players should see a more regular role with the Canadiens moving forward. Playing the kids is not a sign of defeat. Looking at most successful teams in the NHL, they take advantage of their youth at the NHL level.
Unfortunately, there are only so many roster spots on a team. The Canadiens have been dealing with some injuries this year and once everyone is healthy, some difficult decisions will have to be made.
Don’t Blow It Up
If the Canadiens fall back in the standings, I think some difficult decisions need to be made about the team, but they should be addressed in the offseason. This year, the Habs are still very much involved in the playoff race. With a healthy and focused Carey Price, the Habs should be in most games and have a chance to win. He is that good. Having a chance to win every night is what all teams want.
The Canadiens are in no way a complete team. They have significant holes that can hold the team back. Still, a rebuild is not the answer. The risks involved are too great. The plan might be to rebuild and be a contender over three to five years, but the reality is rebuilding can set a team back for a long time.