What if the Canadiens’ ridiculous injury situation was a blessing in disguise?
The Canadiens woke up Friday sitting solidly 28th overall in the NHL standings, four points out of 27th and six points clear of 29th with 10 games remaining, giving them a great chance to end the season with the fifth-best odds in the NHL Draft Lottery on May 8.
The Canadiens’ 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Thursday capped off a killer stretch of their schedule, going 2-6-2 on a 10-game streak against some of the NHL’s top teams. The Canadiens faced five of the league’s top six teams on Friday afternoon during that streak. Not included in this group are defending Stanley Cup champions, two games (and one win) against the team that won the Cup the previous two years, and two games against teams fighting for their lives to participate. in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Getting four out of a possible 20 points in those games is nothing to cheer about, unless you’re invested in defeating the Canadiens, which many of you are. Frankly, if you gave the Canadiens’ management a serum of truth, they’d probably admit they are too.
But looking at the way Kirby Dach has fared in his first two games after a lower-body injury sidelined him for a month, registering two goals and an assist and generally being a dominant force playing more often on the offensive side of the ice than not, it got me thinking. What impact would a healthy Dach have had on that 10-game streak, one where the Canadiens lost twice in shootouts, another game by one goal and another by two goals with an empty net at the end? Would it have made the difference between a victory and a defeat? How about having a healthy Josh Anderson on Thursday night in Boston? Could he have reversed this result?
The Canadian’s multitude of injuries have been talked about all season. In Dach’s missed opener on Feb. 16 at Carolina, he was one of nine Habs regulars absent, not counting Paul Byron and Carey Price. It’s a staggering number. The Canadiens’ strong performance in a losing effort in Boston was largely due to Dach, Jake Evans and Brendan Gallagher returning to the lineup, providing balance up front. But there were still seven regulars in the formation.
Any time someone suggests the Canadiens are tanked, it assumes some kind of intention in the run of the season, that this team was built to perform that way. Which is not true. A healthy Canadiens team isn’t a playoff team, but that’s not bad either. No, it’s just a positive by-product of the Canadiens’ horrible injury luck this season.
Which begs the question: what would have happened this season if the Canadiens had had a normal chance of injury? If they just had to deal with a few injuries at a time, like most teams?
For some, it might just be a meaningless win in a lost season.
But after weeks of games that gave no indication of what the future might hold for the Canadiens, this game showed so many signs of it.@arponbasu explains: https://t.co/0ABvLlFNaE
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) March 22, 2023
The Canadiens started the season without Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia, Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson. Drouin returned in the third game of the season, leaving three starters on the injured list, a situation that lasted two games before Juraj Slafkovský was injured for three games. When Sean Monahan went down on Dec. 5, never to be seen again, the Canadiens were 12-11-2, and that’s when the injuries — and losses — started piling up. accumulate.
The Canadiens’ underlying numbers at the time suggested an imminent drop, but injuries to David Savard, Brendan Gallagher, Matheson (again), Gallagher (again), Armia (again), Edmundson (again), Slafkovský (again) , Cole Caufield, Kaiden Guhle and others ensured that the downfall eventually came, and it was tough.
What if those wounds hadn’t come? The Canadians probably would have fallen regardless, just not as hard, and they probably wouldn’t be sitting with the fifth-best odds in the draft lottery right now. They could be closer to 10th best. But we also would have had a better idea of what was to come in the future. Let’s look at some hypotheses in this regard.
Matheson was injured for the first time during the preseason and missed the first five weeks of the regular season. He then played nine games, missed four more through injury, returned for one game, and immediately disappeared for another month. All of this resulted in Matheson’s 11th game of the season taking place on January 17.
When Matheson returned from the bye week on Feb. 11 — having played roughly the same amount of time as a typical training camp since Jan. 17 — Matheson took off. Since that date, before Friday’s games, Matheson is the defensemen’s sixth scorer with 17 points in 21 games. His seven goals in that span lead the league.
It’s probably unfair to take that sample of 21 games and extrapolate it to 82 games to arrive at a pace of 66 points, but it’s fair to take that meaningful sample and say that Matheson would have erased his previous career high of 31 points last. season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. As things stand, he needs just seven points in his last 10 games to better that mark despite missing essentially the entire first half of the season.
Let’s be on the safe side and say Matheson could have scored 50 points this season had he stayed healthy. That would have put him somewhere in the top 15 in scoring for defenders. It would have made a huge difference, to the detriment of Canadians’ lottery odds.
By the time Caufield was retired for the season on January 20 to undergo shoulder surgery, he had scored seven goals in his previous 10 games. He has scored 26 goals in 46 games, on pace for a 46-goal season, meaning these last 10 games would be dominated by talk of whether or not he could reach 50 goals this season.
Since Caufield’s fall, the Canadiens have lost four games by one goal and three more in overtime or shootout. So seven games where a goal could have made a big difference. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Caufield made a difference in two or three of those games.
When Guhle was injured Dec. 29 in Florida, he was second among rookie defensemen in points with 14 points and third in average ice time. With all of those 14 points at even strength, Guhle actually led all rookie defensemen in this category (followed by Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj). Had Guhle’s improvement continued uninterrupted, his impact on the games could have increased significantly.
This would have brought additional points in the standings. The Canadians would surely have accepted this compromise – more points in the standings for a more developed Guhle – but Martin St. Louis mentioned several times that they thought they had a sufficient sample with a healthy Guhle to know what they had. to do.
We’ve heard a lot of noise about Slafkovský’s rookie season, how wrong the pick was, how wrong the NHL pitch was, and it could all turn out to be true. It’s just impossible to know at the moment.
By the time of his knee injury on January 15, Slafkovský had gone 15 straight games without even scoring a point. He failed to register a shot on goal in eight of those games. It was definitely trending down.
But do you know one thing Slafkovský did while injured? He returned to Slovakia to complete his high school diploma.
Some perspective is needed here, and to speculate that Slafkovský would have shown some growth over the last 38 games of the season is not a stretch. Would he have been a difference maker like Dach was at that time? Probably not. But many were quick to judge Dach at that age as well, and maybe something could have happened for Slafkovský where he started contributing to winning hockey.
Much like Slafkovský, Gallagher’s game was not headed in the right direction when he was first injured on November 29, but in a season where St. Louis consistently notes the importance of building a culture , a foundation, someone like Gallagher would have helped immensely in this process. Joel Edmundson too. Would that have had a big impact on the rankings? Hard to say. But it certainly would have helped relieve Nick Suzuki, the only Canadian to play every game so far this season, in his first season as captain.
The flip side here is that the sheer number of injuries has allowed players like Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Jesse Ylönen and Justin Barron to gain valuable experience and a legitimate claim to a role at the big club next season.
But when you looked at the overall standings on Friday afternoon and saw the Canadiens 10 points behind the Buffalo Sabers, or 10 points off 11th-best lottery odds and a likely pick outside the top 10 in the draft, the sheer number of injuries sustained by major players, including some not listed here, are starting to look like a blessing in disguise. You can pick up 10 points in four months pretty easily, especially with all the one-goal games the Canadiens have played, and especially with how the replacement squad started reacting to how St. Louis wanted them are playing. Giving a developing coach a relatively healthy squad to work with could have led to very different results.
So while some individual players would likely have emerged victorious had they stayed healthy, a top 5 pick would likely have been out of the question. And ultimately, that’s what will move the Canadiens forward on the path to building a sustainably competitive team.
And while what the Canadiens have right now isn’t exactly perfect, it’s not that bad either, and worth remembering as they play their last 10 games.
(Jake Evans top photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)