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Montreal's Struggles Have Been Due to More Than Just Poor Play

For the rest of this season, Montreal is strapped in for what will be a bumpy ride. Canadiens fans can take some solace this season from hell is not coming from a lack of trying by Habs players. They just haven’t had enough NHL-caliber talent on a nightly basis.
Brendan Gallagher

When someone asks the question, “How do the Montreal Canadiens go from being a Stanley Cup Finalist one season to being arguably the worst team in the NHL the next year?” the clear answer is, “They’ve been decimated by injuries and COVID-19, especially to a couple of their key players.” 

But that answer really doesn’t illustrate just how much of a bite the injury bug has taken on their lineup this season. Indeed, according to man-games lost-to-injury expert @NHLinjuryviz, the Canadiens are on pace to set a new record for man-games lost in a single season.

If you read through this Twitter thread, you’ll see that the unofficial record for man-games lost is a whopping 629 games, a record set by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2003-04 campaign. But this year’s Montreal team is on pace to lose 729 games to injury, a number that would smash L.A.’s record. 

That said, the projection may be a little high, given that serious injuries like the ones that have sidelined star Canadiens Shea Weber and Carey Price aren’t likely to be replicated by other Habs players. But even then, just the fact Montreal is remotely close to setting a new record should be all the explanation needed for their all-around awfulness on the ice.

Would any other NHL franchise be able to rebound from major injuries to two of its top players, as well as injuries to complementary players (in this case, backup goalie Jake Allen, forwards Brendan Gallagher, Tyler Toffoli, Mathieu Perreault, Mike Hoffman, Joel Armia and Christian Dvorak, and defensemen Jeff Petry and David Savard, among others. Only center Nick Suzuki has appeared in all 44 Canadiens games this year, and only four Habs – Suzuki, Savard, D-man Ben Chiarot and winger Arrturi Lehkonen) have played in 40 games or more. That is just an astonishing amount of unfortunate data for the Habs.

No wonder, then, that Montreal is worse than the intentionally-abysmal Arizona Coyotes and the unintentionally-terrible Buffalo Sabres this season. (Montreal’s current record is 8-29-7, while Arizona is currently 10-29-4, and the Sabres are 14-23-7.) When you’re icing a lineup that is closer to a full American League squad, it should come as no wonder their competitiveness is as brutal as the Canadiens’ is.

All of this leads to a Canadiens team on pace for 43 points. For reference, only Buffalo (37) had fewer points last year in a season where every team played 26 fewer games. It simply can't get much worse than that.

This isn't to suggest the Habs’ fortunes will be markedly better next season if everyone gets back to full strength. There’s no guarantee either Price or Weber ever will play again, and new Canadiens GM Kent Hughes has already spoken about the long road Montreal has to get back into true Cup contention. For much of last season, when injuries and COVID-19 absences weren’t nearly as much of a factor, the Canadiens were far from a regular-season beast. That’s probably not going to change in 2022-23.

But you know how NHLers and management types like to trot out the cliche about injuries not being an excuse for their quality of play? That’s true, but only to a degree. There are situations that arise – situations no GM or head coach could prepare for – that completely demolish a team’s chances at a playoff berth. No amount of AHL depth could make up for the type of calamitous situation the Canadiens have endured this year.

There are occasions in which your team is victimized by the hockey gods, and there is nothing you can do about it. The good news is, it can’t get much worse for the Canadiens, health-wise. They’re in the process of setting a new record for player absences, and they’re unlikely to go through something like this again anytime soon.

But for the rest of this season, Montreal is strapped in for what will be a bumpy ride. Canadiens fans can take some solace this season from hell is not coming from a lack of trying by Habs players. There just hasn’t been enough NHL-caliber talent ready to step on the ice night after night. No amount of coaching, waiver-wire pickups, and good puck luck can change that.

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