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Friday, January 27, 2023

Canadiens have to deal with pain before they make gains

MONTREAL—The Montreal Canadiens have been humbled.

Canada’s oldest and perhaps proudest hockey franchise — one that has always handled itself with dignity — will face the indignity of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second season in a row.

It will be only the fourth time in the history of the Canadiens that the team has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

That won’t matter one iota when the Maple Leafs visit their old friends at the Bell Centre on Saturday night. The standings never seem to matter when hockey’s oldest rivalry is renewed. Doesn’t matter which team is good, which team is bad; it’s always a battle.

“Growing up here, Saturday nights watching hockey with my dad, Toronto-Montreal, those are always special,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said. “Looking forward to it.”

The Canadiens have bragging rights that go far beyond winning the season opener: They have more Stanley Cup victories than Toronto (24 since joining the NHL, compared to 13 for Toronto) and one stinging first-round playoff victory in 2021 that spurred Montreal to its 35th trip to the Stanley Cup final.

Montreal has always been the model franchise, from its performance on the ice to the way it handles its history and the celebrations surrounding the team. Now the Canadiens are following the Leafs in their rebuild.

The Leafs tanked under president Brendan Shanahan. They built around high draft picks: William Nylander, eighth overall in 2014; Mitch Marner, fourth in 2015; and Auston Matthews. first in 2016. The group sprung to life in 2016-17 and hasn’t missed the playoffs since, with other young players (Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, Pierre Engvall) coming through the system.

Other teams, such as Vancouver and Philadelphia, have refused to go bare bones for a rebuild. Detroit took some time to figure out it no longer wanted to be in the murky middle of the pack.

The Canadiens realized they were out of gas after that failed Cup run in 2021. Ownership brought in Jeff Gorton, who rebuilt the Rangers, as team president. He brought in bilingual former agent Kent Hughes, who this week passed the one-year mark as the Canadiens general manager.

The team is now brimming with young prospects and facing a trade deadline in which more draft picks will be accrued for a draft teeming with the some of the best talent available since Connor McDavid in 2015 and Matthews in 2016.

Not only do the Canadiens have their first-round pick — and 11 in all — they have Florida’s first pick and it’s not lottery protected. If the Panthers miss the playoffs, Montreal could end up with the best chance of any team to land Regina Pats phenom Connor Bedard. And there are franchise-type players who will follow, like Swedish defenceman Leo Carlsson and University of Michigan standout Adam Fantilli.

The recently completed world junior hockey championship was like a get-to-know-your-Habs party with so many prospects: Canadians Joshua Roy and Owen Beck, Slovakia’s Filip Mesar, Finland’s Oliver Kapanen, Lane Huston of the United States, Sweden’s Adam Engstrom and Austria’s Vinzenz Rohrer.

“We have a lot of good, young, talented prospects,” Hughes said this week. “Figuring out how that talent transitions to the pro game, how do they handle it mentally, those are things we don’t know until we know. We like it, but I wouldn’t want to get carried away with it until they are here earning their spot on the biggest stage.”

Hughes’ job won’t be easy. He is under heavy scrutiny for the drafting and handling of Juraj Slafkovsky. Hughes surprised many in the hockey world by taking the Slovak with the top pick of the 2022 NHL draft and the development of Slafkovsky, a winger, will be forever measured against the likes of Logan Cooley and Shane Wright, highly-ranked centres whom the Canadiens might have needed more.

Montreal chose to keep Slafkovsky in the NHL rather than send him to the AHL for development, and now Slafkovsky is hurt, done for the season with a lower-body injury. He had four goals and six assists in 39 games in his rookie campaign.

“Whether we’re right or wrong, I don’t know, because there is no one path,” Hughes said. “We’re going to go by trial and error as we go through all of this, but we’re coming with a certain background and it’s probably a strength of ours as an organization, from management to coaching.”

The Canadiens’ path to the playoffs is tougher than Toronto’s in 2017. The Atlantic Division was much weaker then and one of the titans, Tampa Bay, was dealing with an injury-filled season that dropped them from contention. The Leafs snuck in and haven’t looked back. Six years later, Boston, Toronto and Tampa show no signs of slowing down, Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit all seem on the rise, and Florida is in between.

But while Leafs fans might rejoice in the humble pie served to the Canadiens, Montreal’s future is certainly bright.

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