Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens conclude a season of development with 5-4 loss to Bruins

The Boston Bruins are favoured to win the Stanley Cup. The Montreal Canadiens are fifth favourite to win the lottery. Two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum concluded the season at the Bell Centre.

The Canadiens concluded the year with a hard-fought loss to the Bruins 5-4.

Wilde Horses 

Hockey for the Montreal Canadiens in 2022-2023 has finally concluded, with many believing that it was a lost season. On the contrary, it was an outstanding year for General Manager Kent Hughes in his rebuild. The key is to understand that to create a champion it does not matter if one misses the playoffs with 55 points or 75 points. The goal is a sustainable future.

If the Canadiens are going to win the Stanley Cup, they need the players that can reach that goal. Statistically speaking, those players are found in the first 10 picks of the NHL draft. A full 70 per cent of the stars in the league are drafted in the top 10.

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Certainly, there are stars found with amazing and shocking picks like Patrice Bergeron or Nikita Kucherov in later rounds, but the math says players are drafted top 10 for a reason — they have the best chance to become stars of the league.

There is only one champion this century that didn’t have the star factor in their lineup and that’s the St. Louis Blues. Almost every other year in NHL history, the champions have had a Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky up front or a Nicklas Lidstrom on the back end. The best players are supposed to win the team trophies. It wouldn’t be much of a sport, if being talented didn’t matter.

This is a concept that Hughes completely understands as he is making sure that the club completes the components of a successful and sustainable rebuild before rising up the standings. Hughes even said last month that he would not sign a 28-year-old free agent just to improve the club in the short term. He understands that a short-term solution isn’t the answer to a long-term problem. The problem is the club needs stars.

Nearly every champion has two strong centres, five top-six forwards, a shutdown defensive pair that can play 30 minutes and neutralize the other club’s top players, and three top-four players on the blue line. Without these players, the club will remain, even after a rebuild, in the middle of the pack behind the teams who do have these components.

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This is why Hughes is patient and keeps using words like ‘sustainable’ — because he wants seven-year assets or longer that can star in the league.

This is why the Canadiens had an outstanding season, despite what the standings say. They started the year not sure whether Cole Caufield could become a 40-goal scorer. The answer is clear that he can and he is. They started the year with only one centre in Nick Suzuki. They finish the year with two top-six centres, adding Kirby Dach. Suzuki improved as well with a new career high of 66 points.

On the blue line, they started the year with zero top pair blue liners, but finish the season with Mike Matheson a complete lock as a top pair defender as he shone at the highest level for the first time in his career at the age of 28.

They also added five rookies to the roster on the defence. This is a remarkable achievement considering the blue line was in complete disarray to start the season. No one knew whether any of the five could play NHL defence, and one can see now that five are just getting started. Defending takes a certain maturity, and if these five can show this much in year one, then look out for year three and four. They all have exceptional potential.

The prospect pool also is overwhelmingly positive as the club continues to examine who can become top-six and top-four. At forward, Sean Farrell, Joshua Roy, Riley Kidney and Filip Mesar all have top-six potential, and Owen Beck looks like a lock as a third line centre with a strong defensive posture. From Laval, Raphael Harvey-Pinard was the top goal getter amongst rookies since his call-up to Montreal in mid-January.

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On defence the prospects have outstanding potential, especially for the power play that has been brutal since the club lost Andrei Markov. Lane Hutson completed the best draft plus one season in college history, and Logan Mailloux was one of the top defenders in the Ontario Hockey League leading it in goals for a blue liner.

There was actually only one negative in terms of development. Juraj Slafkovsky didn’t get an opportunity to grow his game in his first season. He was overmatched at the NHL level where he should not have started. He then got injured too early, so didn’t get an opportunity to get comfortable. The second season of his development will be important.

Slafkovsky needs to stay healthy as the first priority. He then needs to get many more touches of the puck, and shots on net. He also needs to get stronger on the puck, so he wins some battles. He is big, but he doesn’t play big. He also needs to get more comfortable with the speed of the game. He is young. There are many more years left in this story, but for year one for the number one pick, this was not a season of progress. He didn’t go backwards, but he didn’t move forwards either.

The only negative in the rebuild was essentially that a key player didn’t get to play enough. Other than Slafkovsky, absolutely every other development went well.  No player who was key to the future took a step back. Even goalie Samuel Montembeault took a step forward as one of the best in Goals Saved Above Expected in the NHL.

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It was not a lost season. It was a season of almost perfect development. In the 2023 draft, another top player is coming as well. This can take some time. Patience is required to get the type of roster that can win titles. That’s the goal.

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The goal is not to get into the mushy middle again and hope for the best in the playoffs. The playoffs are won by the best players almost exclusively, even in hockey.

Don’t get excited if someone suggests that the Canadiens could be good enough to fight for a playoff spot next season. Who cares? Track instead how many players have proven themselves to be top-six forwards, or top-four defenders. That’s the profile of cup winners — when the most important shifts are played, it is a best-on-best tournament.

The best teams have eight top players of which five are forwards and three are defenders. The Canadiens stand at four proven top half of the roster players: Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach, and Mike Matheson. Four more to go to join the likes of Colorado, Edmonton, New Jersey, Boston, and about five more who can be in the mix as champion.

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It is true that there is a St. Louis Blues champion every generation. However, that’s not a formula. It’s an anomaly. It’s not math, it’s an anecdote. The Blues picked the Jack of Hearts out of a 52-card deck. The goal is to have two top-six centres, a high scoring winger, two top pair defenders, and three other top half of the roster players, then you’re sitting on an ace and only need a face card to beat the house.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.

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