Hard Times for the Habs

<em>Sabres Not the Only Team Struggling</em>

It’s been difficult for Buffalo Sabres fans this past decade plus. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, and the franchise has been plagued with bad management, frequent coaching changes, injuries, and seemingly endless COVID setbacks.

It could be worse... if your favorite team is the Montreal Canadiens.

This once-storied franchise that competed for a Stanley Cup last season sits at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. The Habs have fewer points than the Devils, the Coyotes and the Kraken and are, at the moment, the worst team in the NHL. How did a team that won the most Stanley Cups in NHL history and played against Tampa in last year’s finals fall so far so fast?

The answers are complex.

Part of the problem seems to be coaching. After starting the COVID shortened 2020-21 season 5-1-2 in January, in February the team slumped 4-5-3. After losing back-to-back games against Ottawa on Feb. 21 and 23, 2021, the Habs fired longtime coach Claude Julien on Feb. 24th. They replaced him by promoting assistant coach Dominique Ducharme to the head coaching job.

This seemed to work, at least at first. Montreal did much better in March and April and finished the season 4th place in the all-Canadian North Division. The Habs would beat their playoff rivals to advance to the finals, before falling to the Lightning 4 games to 1.

The next season (this season), 2021-22, Montreal ended October 2-8-0, and finished November 4-8-2. After the Habs lost 6 of their last 8 games, the Canadiens sacked GM Marc Bergevin, assistant GM Trevor Timmins and senior VP of public affairs Paul Wilson. Bergevin had been both GM and executive VP of hockey operations since 2012-13 and the team had gone to the playoffs six out of nine seasons under his tenure. Ducharme stayed on as head coach, but the organization hired Jeff Gorton as executive VP of hockey operations and, on Jan. 18, 2022, Kent Hughes as the new GM.

In spite of these management changes, the Canadiens are still 8th place in their division, and their December and January record was 1-6-2 and 1-7-3, respectively.

Coaching isn’t the only factor to contribute to the Habs’ woes. Injuries have also taken their toll. Only four players on their roster have played 40 games or more this season and only center Nick Suzuki has appeared in every matchup on the ice. It’s safe to say that the Sabres would be bottom dwellers if Montreal hadn’t been so injury prone.

Like the Sabres, COVID-19 has also been a problem for the Canadiens. Montreal endured a COVID pause from Dec. 20-26, and another pause in early January. During the January pause, the number of players on COVID protocols grew to 24. After coming out of the pause, the Habs placed Cole Caulfield and Joel Armia on the COVID reserve list. It’s clear that COVID has contributed to Montreal’s struggles this season.

The combination of poor coaching, injuries and illness has affected Montreal’s winning record and as a consequence, the team’s psychological well-being. Defenseman Jeff Petry told the Montreal Gazette back in December, “It’s frustrating. It’s the same thing over and over. We’re not playing as a team. We’re not playing as a group. It’s like you’re searching to find where people are. It seems like there’s no structure out there.”

Petry may be part of the solution, but unfortunately for Canadiens fans, not in Montreal. There are rumors that the Habs want to trade him, and Scott Matla of SB Nation’s Canadiens blog, Habs Eyes on the Prize, recently speculated on where he might end up. Petry’s possible destinations include the Red Wings, Predators, Ducks and Oilers. If Montreal does decide to trade the veteran defenseman, the team isn’t going on a fire sale and they won’t let him go for very little in return.

Trades and drafts are one way to build a team. Player development is another. Finding the right talent is definitely part of the Canadiens’ efforts to climb out of 8th place in the Atlantic Division. The new GM, Kent Hughes, is a former player agent, and his background in player management made him an unusual choice. Montreal selected him over 11 other candidates. Hughes has his work cut out for him and based on the team’s history, the Habs will bounce back, but Sabres fans probably hope it won’t happen too soon.