July in the year 2021. The first time in the over 110-year history of the Montreal Canadiens that Les Glorieux played in July.
It was a remarkable achievement what the Habs did these last seven months.
To have managed to play five games in eight nights for the last two months of the regular season because of a COVID-19 scare and still get to this moment is something truly special. So there will be no lamenting after a game five defeat, 1-0, gave the Tampa Bay Lightning back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Instead, this Call of the Wilde is a look ahead to next season and seasons beyond to what this proud franchise can become again. It’s a world where playoff hockey excitement isn’t the outlier, it’s the norm.
Let’s visit it, shall we?
When you look at the roster as it progresses next season and the following years, you see a club that has so much promise in front of it.
Let’s start with the top scorers in the playoffs for the club. The top man is Nick Suzuki, who is turning into a first line centre at the age of 21. This is a remarkable turn of fortune for a club that didn’t have a number one centre this century. Add to that the fact that Suzuki was only available because the Vegas Golden Knights preferred to protect Cody Glass who is still finding his way into the league. Suzuki is going to provide years and years of great memories for Canadiens fans. It looks like he has a point-per-game in him while also being a responsible 200-foot centre.
The second leading point-getter in the playoffs was Tyler Toffoli, who also led the club in goals in the regular season. Again, you have a player in the prime of his career signed for a long-term deal for outstanding money, all because of the tight cap situation starting this season due to COVID-19. Add to that that Toffoli absolutely loves it here in Montreal as he commented in an essay that he wrote.
That’s two players who will be at the top of the scoring ledger for Montreal next season.
The third leading point-getter, even though he missed the first two games of the playoffs, was Cole Caufield. Again, here you have a 20-year-old who has been scoring goals at will at every level his entire life. He’s a natural goal scorer and he’s so enjoyable to watch. He can find the corner he wants at will. We have also seen an intelligence to his game that seems to have ramped up even more since he won the Hobey Baker Award as the best collegian in the United States.
Caufield has gone from Wisconsin to the NHL playoffs in about three weeks and he looks like he’s been in the battle like a veteran. He actually played more games this year for the Canadiens than he did for the Badgers. There’s no question that signing him this year was a brilliant decision.
One of the top goal scorers in NHL history before his 21st birthday is Jesperi Kotkaniemi. In fact, he just turned 21 and has already played at a very high level in his NHL career. You give kids like this a taste of the speed and dedication it takes to go to the NHL final, it will make the regular season seem easy by comparison.
Kotkaniemi continues to improve his game, and as he finally grows into his lanky frame and fills out his skating legs, there’s reason to be hopeful that he has big improvements still to come.
Overall, look at the nucleus of young talent. It’s remarkable that in many cases the best players are so ahead of their years of experience in what they have already offered to the franchise. Some of these kids have six rounds of playoff hockey in them already in the last two years. That means a lot — six rounds of playoffs. You cannot beat that experience to feed the hunger of wanting a championship, and an idea of what it actually takes.
On defence, you can add Alexander Romanov to a bevy of high quality young prospects. Imagine if just one or two of Jayden Struble, Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, or Mattias Norlinder lands as an NHL regular displaying big talent? All four could land as regular blue-liners. That’s five blue-liners potentially for the future right there.
You have to ask what room there would be in a couple years for the regulars that you already know who can perform in the playoffs, like Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry.
That’s a potential for an extremely rich blue line in two or three years. It will be captivating to see how it turns out, but keep in mind the most salient point, that being a battle for spots. A general manager and head coach can’t hope for more than internal battles when nothing is a given and all is earned. That will be the blue line of the future.
In goal, Carey Price is still the one holding the torch, but Cayden Primeau is going to keep improving his game as well after being the goalie of the year in college hockey. Jake Allen may be lost in the expansion draft. That will be interesting to see who Seattle takes.
You can go on, of course. Jake Evans, Ryan Poehling, Josh Anderson, Philip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, Paul Byron, and too many more to mention truly.
Sure, there are holes that will be listed below in the Wilde Goats, but the foundation that’s already here is solid and getting better. There could be a little lull next season after a Stanley Cup run letdown in October, but the far future is outstanding for this franchise as the guard continues to change, and certainly better than it has been in a long time.
This will surprise you, but I don’t completely love the construction of the team right now to win a Stanley Cup.
Here are the things that we know by simply looking at history at what wins a cup. At least 90 per cent of the time, the winner of the cup has dominating centres. Win the middle, win the game. About 90 per cent of the time, the winner of the cup has a pair of defencemen that play 30 minutes a night and dominate.
Finally — and people do not realize this — only 50 per cent of the time does the champion have an expected dominating pedigree goalie.
Let’s flesh out the goalie thought a bit for everyone. What does this mean, 50 per cent of the time the goalie is not pedigree, and why is that important? For every Carey Price, there is a Jordan Binnington. For every Patrick Roy, there is a Chris Osgood. For every Martin Brodeur, there is an Antti Niemi. It’s split right down the middle who hoists the cup: the expected pedigree dominating goalie, or the fairly good goalie who gets hot at the right time.
With those three points as the backdrop of how to create a champion, let’s examine what the Canadiens need to do to get closer to that elusive cup.
Firstly, the five and six defencemen was a large issue these playoffs. The club struggled when they had to put the third pair out. The coaching staff did a good job of protecting the issue by putting out one of the big four with someone from the third pair, but as evidenced in the end, there is only so much protecting you can do. When the five and six are on the ice, a good coach will expose them.
Secondly, even with a better five and six defenceman, the club lacks puck movers. This has been a theme the entire season, and it will remain one. The Dutch brought in what was called ‘total football’ many years ago. Today, we are approaching ‘total hockey’. It means that each defender can be an attacker, too. That each defender can join a rush and finish a rush, while the forward covers as a capable defender skating backwards well and handling those duties should they arrive.
We all saw Victor Hedman joining the rush. We all saw three capable defenders on Vegas join the rush the series before. We saw how successful they were at playing ‘total hockey’. We also all saw Shea Weber joining the rush as well and having partial breakaways, because the coaching staff knows that the Habs also must play ‘total hockey’.
However, the Canadiens defenders, as a whole, were not up to the challenge of joining a rush like Shea Theodore can. It’s a new era coming in with force, and the Canadiens have to adapt to it. The construction has to change to not only have a better third pair, but a better overall design to reflect a changing league.
The second reconstruction needs to happen in goal — not now, but eventually. Now, the Canadiens are locked in. In the equation that is 50-50 between the goalie expected to shine and paid accordingly with high pedigree versus the goalie who surprises, gets hot, and is paid accordingly, the Canadiens are on the side of pedigree.
It’s a 50-50 prop and they are where they are and that shall continue. Price is their man as long as he wants to be. He’s the pedigree goalie and that’s their construction now.
Eventually, though, they’ll have to consider the advantages of the other side of that coin. If you are not spending $15 million on your goalies, then you are spending it on better defenders.
For me, a better construction of the team has Doug Hamilton signed as an unrestricted free agent. Hamilton would usher in the greatest, most powerful change to the team’s design in a long time. He is elite. However, where is the money coming from in that signing? It doesn’t exist unless there is some sort of trading miracle that GM Marc Bergevin can pull off.
Don’t expect it to happen. Also, don’t expect that Hamilton’s first choice is Montreal. However, that is the type of player that changes everything. What the club lacks most is a 30 minute stud defender who is also a puck mover — a complete player on the blue line. There are not many. They need one.
The third construction of a championship team is the centremen can control the game. Here is where the Canadiens might just be in the best position that they have been this century.
Nick Suzuki, it appears, is a first line centre. He is scoring like one. He plays a 200 foot game like one. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is 21 years old and already has vast experience in the playoffs, and continues to improve. He, too, can win the middle. Philip Danault needs to be resigned as he, too, can win the middle in a different way. The club is in very good shape here. They may not have a Connor McDavid, but they have such strength and depth here that they can win the middle most nights.
Down the road, Price and Shea Weber will fall victim to Father Time. During those days, the money needs to be re-allocated to a stronger ‘total hockey’ blue line. For now, the club is committed to these two and that’s going to be the way it is and everyone knows it.
Everyone believes the Canadiens simply pick it up where they left off this summer. The truth is if you look at the East Conference and the division the Canadiens play in, they might not make the playoffs next year. That, of course, sounds preposterous to you all that have watched this playoff run.
The Atlantic Division has Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Florida, and Montreal as the big five. Where do the Canadiens fit in there? The Northeast Division has Washington, the Islanders, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, and Carolina. That is 10 very strong teams, and the Canadiens have to finish top eight. It will not be easy.
There is a lot of blue line talent coming through the Canadiens draft picks. It is exactly what the Canadiens need, but that talent is not arriving next year. There may be a bit of a lull here before the reconstruction finds Montreal at a higher level. What must happen is a reallocation of funds to improve the blue line to reflect the need for a 30 minute stud and a puck mover or two, and it’s also a development of young blue line talent in Laval leading to a maturing process and better days ahead.
Those are the issues. They are not so severe anymore. However, they do remain. A little bit of patience will likely be required here and that’s okay. The hardest issue to tackle in sports sometimes is when your hero ages, but they all do. It’s just a matter of when, and when it does happen, the opportunity arises to get even better.
I see a lull next year due to a Stanley Cup Finals hangover, before great success in the coming seasons. I see in the passing of not too much time a Canadiens team who has an appearance in the final four not as an outlier, but as the norm. So let’s enjoy the growth of the best components, and the excitement of the eventual reconstruction.
Here’s one thing though that I haven’t mentioned a single time, but it needs to be mentioned in fairness to all of the participants who tried to be as good as Tampa Bay this playoffs: the playing field was not level and that needs to change.
Put Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the Canadiens and what kind of series do we have? Put McDavid and Draisaitl on the Islanders and do the Lightning even make it to the finals at all? How far would the Lightning have advanced if everyone was allowed to spend $18 more million?
They deserve the cup because they managed to carry $18 more million into the playoffs than everyone else. That’s not their fault. They played the cap system perfectly. They read the CBA and they followed it to the letter. The other 15 teams in the playoffs didn’t do that.
Were they legitimate injuries to Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov? Sure they were; of course they were. Does that change that they carried $18 million more of payroll through the playoffs? It does not. Legitimate or not, injuries or not, no one else took advantage of this rule.
Gary, you need to close the loophole, so each team has a equal chance based on your own salary cap designed to create that equality. It’s an easy loophole to close. It takes absolutely nothing. Play to a hard cap in the playoffs as well. Don’t stop counting the cap when the regular season ends.
GM Julien Brisebois pulled this off beautifully. How he isn’t the GM of the year is ironically hilarious. He had $18 million playing the playoffs more than your GM. The man is a genius. He should win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
In the new CBA, make every team cap compliant every game in the post-season, too. Imagine the roster moves the Lightning would have been forced to make to have Kucherov and Stamkos in the line-up. Imagine the third and fourth line talent that would have been forced to sit to bring in vastly inferior $750,000 players in order to be cap compliant. You wouldn’t even recognize their line-up.
They would be forced to remove about five $5 million players. As an interesting exercise for yourself, remove $18 million from the Tampa line-up. Make Tampa cap-compliant. Good luck to you. When I did it, they had to remove some of their best players of the series on their third and fourth lines who hurt Montreal significantly. Imagine some AHL forwards playing instead doing nothing, but hurting their team against Montreal’s cap-compliant third and fourth lines.
Congratulations,Tampa, but I think some teams could have beaten you if they had $18 million more to spend on their roster like you did.
You think Tampa would have won the cup if the Hurricanes had McDavid and Draisaitl or the Islanders had McDavid and Draisaitl? The Islanders were only one goal shy without them.
The media wants to tell you the asterisk to the season is that it was only 56 games. That’s silly because all the teams played 56 games.
Why put an asterisk beside something that had equality? The asterisk belongs beside a team who was 20 per cent over the salary cap in a salary cap league.
Step back from it and honestly contemplate it for a second without an agenda, because I can’t stop shaking my head about it.
Twenty per cent more money spent in a salary cap league for four playoff rounds. That’s a really big number.
What a league.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.