by Gregorio Lentini, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
Even with the recent wins, many still feel that the playoffs are out of reach for the Montreal Canadiens. Currently, Sports Club Stats lists the Canadiens chances of making the playoffs at 11.9 per cent. If they manage to make it into the playoffs, it’s hard to believe that the Habs can realistically contend for the Stanley Cup without changes.
This is why the idea of ‘rebuilding’ has been floated by some fans and a soccer-loving personality on Montreal radio.
The concept of rebuilding advocates that the Canadiens would identify a small core of players and then trade other assets, particularly older ones while stocking draft picks and adding young prospects. A more extreme rebuilding approach would involve trading elite players such as Shea Weber, Carey Price and Max Pacioretty.
The Canadiens could then start from scratch, tank to the bottom of the standings, draft high and build a strong team with younger, elite players. Just that easy.
Though this sounds enticing, I have several issues with embarking on this endeavor at this moment. I’d like to start by dispelling a commonly-held notion. Despite popular belief, rebuilding is never guaranteed.
When discussing rebuilding, proponents point to the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins as prime examples of successes. Chicago made the playoffs once in ten seasons between 1998 and 2008 during which they drafted superstars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons while drafting Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Over the past decade, Pittsburgh and Chicago were both able to win three Stanley Cups each. However, supporters of rebuilds overlook the quality of the players available for Chicago and Pittsburgh to draft.
Generational talents are not available in every draft. Game-changers such as Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are extremely rare. Teams may end up with very good first overall pick such as Taylor Hall or Aaron Ekblad, but these types of players cannot single-handedly reverse the fortunes of a franchise.
Other times, teams may even end up with first overall duds, such as Nail Yakupov, who appear to be full of promise until they actually play in the NHL.
The problem with drafting very good-but-not-generational players is that a team can easily become a middling team. They are not good enough to contend for the Cup (or even make the playoffs), but not bad enough for the highest draft picks.
These teams are left stuck in the middle.
A prime example is the Edmonton Oilers. They only made the playoffs once since 2006. During that time, they were able to get six top-four draft picks. However, even with all the talent they drafted, even with the phenomenal Connor McDavid, they are currently second-last in the league. They missed the playoffs for nine years, and yet they sit in the same neighbourhood as the Habs, near the bottom of the standings.
For another example, look at the New York Islanders. After two years of missing the post-season, they drafted John Tavares first overall in 2009, and yet they only made the playoffs three times since then. The furthest they went was the second round in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres drafted the stellar Jack Eichel and still haven’t turned their team around. The Colorado Avalanche made the playoffs once since 2010, scooped up Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon in the process, and only got 48 points last year. Arizona has been at the lower third of the league since 2013 and it looks like they will stay there for a while longer.
The truth is: drafting high can take many years and there is no guarantee of real progress.
In addition to all the unsuccessful rebuilds, teams nowadays are even less likely to get the highest draft picks.
In order to encourage real competition, the NHL imposed weighted lotteries for non-playoff teams for the first three draft picks. Unlike Pittsburgh in 2005 and Chicago in 2007, teams that end up in last place are not automatically granted the first overall pick. In fact, they have only an eighteen percent chance of getting it.
Last season, the New Jersey Devils jumped up four spots to claim the first overall pick while last-place Colorado was forced to pick fourth overall. Two seasons ago, the twenty-second placed Montreal Canadiens were reportedly one number away from winning the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.
Lotteries make orchestrating a successful rebuild even more uncertain.
However, these facts are not meant to completely dismiss the importance of rebuilds. For some, rebuilding is a necessary part of the game. The point I am trying to make is that they can be very risky.
Selling all your prominent players now in hopes of getting younger, elite players later can actually make your team worse in the long-run.
Subjecting the fan-base to a decade of terrible hockey without any certainty of success is an option which should never be actively pursued. Rebuilds should occur only when there are no other alternatives.
Rebuilding is a plausible strategy when all the team’s stars have either left or retired. It should occur when a team’s top players are no longer playing at an elite level either because of age or injury. And it can happen when a team has no noticeable youth to replace its veterans. But it should never be used when the entire team is either in their prime or entering it.
The Montreal Canadiens only have two important players older than thirty on their roster: Shea Weber and Tomas Plekanec. This means that the majority of Habs’ players still have a lot of good hockey left in them. In fact, most of their stars are still young.
Victor Mete (19), Jonathan Drouin (22), Artturi Lehkonen (22), Alex Galchenyuk (23), Charles Hudon (23) still have several years before they reach their prime.
Meanwhile, Max Pacioretty (29), Carey Price (30) and Shea Weber (32) are all still in their prime and will remain at that level for at least three more years.
I know it seems hard to believe now, but with a little more confidence and possibly one or two more moves, the Habs have the pieces to jump back to the top of their division.
So, with all the uncertainty surrounding rebuilds and the fact that the Habs still have many excellent players, this is not the time to scrap everything and commence a rebuild.