Call of the Wilde: Time is running out for the Montreal Canadiens. What’s going on here?

The Canadiens management does not seem to understand that they need 45 points in 31 games to make the playoffs, writes Habs columnist Brian Wilde.
The Canadiens management does not seem to understand that they need 45 points in 31 games to make the playoffs, writes Habs columnist Brian Wilde. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

It’s difficult to understand what the Montreal Canadiens organization is thinking. It doesn’t make any sense.

What is going on here?

Canadiens management don’t seem to understand that they need 45 points in 31 games to make the playoffs. That’s a record of 22-9 or 23-8 to get to the 96 points that is likely necessary. It feels like they don’t seem to understand, because they’re still desperately trying to win games this season, instead of concentrating on the future.

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In the last 30 years of NHL play, there have been three outstanding closes to the season after the all-star break to produce a playoff spot: the Pittsburgh Penguins after Michel Therrien got fired, the Hamburgler’s miracle in Ottawa, and the St. Louis Blues of last season. That’s three times that a miracle has been pulled off in 30 years when each season there are about 10 teams playing .500 hockey hoping for that miracle.

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Simple math says that’s three actual miracles out of 300 teams looking for a miracle — one per cent. If you want to say there aren’t 10 teams at .500 hockey looking for a miracle each season after the all-star break, but only five teams each year for the last 30 years, then that’s two per cent of the wannabes who got their miracle finish to make the playoffs.

Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens take on the Calgary Flames
Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens take on the Calgary Flames

People seem to think that the Blues did it, so why not us? Because 98 per cent of the time, it is not us. It does not happen. Raise your hand if you think the Habs are going to pull off a two-per cent chance in the next 31 games. No? That’s why the Habs need to play for and make decisions for the future. They should be considering options right now for the 2020-2021 season, not for Jan. 30 against the Buffalo Sabres.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi is the future, so he needs to play games. He also needs a lot of ice time in those games. It was written here last year, with much criticism levelled, that Kotkaniemi needed to have the puck on his stick to develop his skills. One does not learn skills with a stick without a puck on it. Doing the activity leads to a learning of the activity, and having no time to do the activity doesn’t lead to learning it.

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It was recommended in Call of the Wilde last season that Kotkaniemi should go to Finland or Laval to own the puck, developing stick skills against lower competition where the speed of the game allowed him to develop. He is now two years into his pro career (two years of his ELC burnt, as well) and the organization clearly sees a problem.

The head coach wants to put him in the press box, rather than play him in games that are meaningless to the club’s standing this season. They can’t possibly think they are going 23-8, do they? They can’t possibly think that benching Kotkaniemi for Nick Cousins is how to get there, can they? So they are desperately trying to win games to have a worse draft pick?

Of course, you never ask a player to tank — that’s sacrosanct. However, you do make sure that when you have nothing to play for at the end of one year, you’re preparing for the next. Are they showcasing Nate Thompson for the big trade? GMs are pretty sure what Thompson brings. This can’t be it. There’s no one to showcase. You want to showcase Tomas Tatar for a trade? He already plays big minutes, and Kotkaniemi is not taking his opportunity away.

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Kotkaniemi is 19; he’s going to be fine. His upside is likely second-line centre, but he’ll be fine. However, will the people who are managing him be fine?

Is there a plan here? What is actually the goal? Is it 23-8? Are the GM and head coach all about the appearances of finishing with 88 points instead of 78 points to keep their jobs? It’s confusing.

I’m not trying to be difficult, but it’s genuinely confusing. The last time the club missed the playoffs, they had 96 points and everything seemed quite rosy. The previous year before the 96-point year, which was a success in their eyes, they completely fell apart, and owner Geoff Molson promised a better in-game entertainment offering, as well as a better team.

They seem to feel the need for big changes and apology letters to explain away the difficulties when there are 70 points on the board, but when the playoffs are missed four years out of five, there are no changes and no apology letters. Here, the appearances they’re keeping up seem to be to keep winning as many games as possible, even though the playoffs are a long shot, by playing the veterans who will make them look just slightly better in their failure. And make no mistake, this is a failure.

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The apologists can celebrate all they want, but four years out of five without a playoff standing isn’t success for anyone. And it sure isn’t success for the storied Montreal Canadiens, who have 21,273 fans just about every night paying top dollar to watch fewer than a dozen home wins this season.

Is this cool now for the Canadiens?

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Here’s what should be happening: all of the young players should be sent to Laval and put on the ice to develop their skills. Every game, they should be out there so often that their legs are ready to fall off from exhaustion. Jesperi Kotkaniemi needs to get 20 minutes a night in Laval. Same for Ryan Poehling; same for Cale Fleury; same for Nick Suzuki when the season is over in April.

They all need to develop their skills with the puck, even Suzuki. Anyone who does not have to clear the waiver wire needs to go to Laval to get a playoff run for the experience of it and for their development. Bring all the Karl Alzners you can find in Laval onto the NHL team and play them until they drop, so you can make sure that you end with 74 points instead of 86. Sure, it’s a draft lottery, but you don’t attempt to decrease your chances to draft high, you increase them by smartly not worrying about saving your own skin with a slightly better point total in the standings at season’s end.

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At the same time, you put your young players in the best positions possible to develop: with great linemates, big power play time, and a lot of ice time. And if you can’t stomach doing that at the NHL level, then give them all of that in the American Hockey League. Just don’t let them flounder on the fourth line with 10 minutes a night in a wasted season.

Are the Habs good enough?
Are the Habs good enough?

The Habs must prepare for next season right now. The best way is to give youth a chance to play. If you don’t want to play them in Laval, then play them in Montreal. No one should be worrying about Nick Cousins’ development, and no one should be concerned if Nate Thompson is getting enough ice time. No one should be playing Shea Weber 30 minutes a night. Weber needs to not play now, so he can play more later next season when you actually need him.

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The body has a tendency to get injured when it’s tired, so don’t let Weber get tired. Carey Price doesn’t need to play two out of three here. He, too, is not getting younger, and will be needed going forward.

Every player should have his own individual mandate of what the future holds for him in the Habs organization. If you want to showcase a player, showcase Tomas Tatar. He’s coming on 30. You want to get a first rounder for him? Now’s the time to see if you can score big when someone needs him now. Or is the plan to sign him as a 30-year-old for five seasons to watch him inevitably diminish in skills?

Here’s a hard truth: A lot of this is common sense.

Have a plan that’s filled with more foresight than an attempt to finish with 86 points this season instead of 76, so you don’t have to write an apology letter to the fans.

The goal has to be more lofty here than avoiding the embarrassment of writing a letter.