Eleven hours to puckdrop and the annual season-opening loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. By now, every hockey fan has foisted their season predictions on you, whether you solicited them or not. Most people I've come across that I totally did not just look up as I was writing this have the Canadiens at third place in the Atlantic Division, behind Boston and Tampa Bay, and most predict a rematch with Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
There is a tendency to overreact to preseason or early season predictions , especially in
this every fanbase. This team made the conference finals last year. They made a series of upgrades this year, while Boston is slowly fading. Of course they can challenge for the division if not win it. Of course they can come out of the East. Don't they deserve better predictions?
If only that's how it worked.
Don't get me wrong. From backup goaltender out, the Habs have made a lot of positive roster changes. The team is younger, faster, and more skilled. They have some cap room. Their core players are in their prime years. They have decent reserves in Hamilton. Based on the playoffs last year (as compared to the regular reason), the coaching and roster decisions should improve, and there has already been evidence of that in the preseason.
However, Boston is still probably going to win this division, no matter how much we don't want them to. They have a year, or most of a year in the tank. If they don't win it, a much-improved Tampa Bay will. Toronto and Detroit could very well give everyone headaches. It's not the best case scenario, but it's the most likely scenario: the Habs will finish third in the division, with roughly the same number of points as last year.
Which isn't necessarily bad news.
Adam Gretz wrote a fantastic piece in SB Nation's NHL Preview about the mediocrity of the Eastern Conference, especially relative to the West, and how less than elite teams can (and do) make the Stanley Cup final.
"That's resulted in a collection of less-than-great teams from the East reaching the final -- the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, the 2012 New Jersey Devils and the 2014 New York Rangers -- and ultimately losing to powerhouse Western foes. You can call it parity if you like, but the lack of a great team in the East allows anybody to simply win the right matchups in the postseason and emerge from the pile of mediocrity."
In this conference, it's not going to be about whether the Habs are, all things considered, good enough to make a Stanley Cup final. It's going to be about whether they can be the least mediocre at the best times.
Can the Habs make the Stanley Cup final? Sure, thanks to the relative lack of competition. Is it unlikely? Well, yes, it is. Is it completely out of the realm of possibility? No, and unless Carey Price, P.K. Subban, or Max Pacioretty go down for an extended period of time this season, do not let anyone convince you of that. The ceiling for the Habs this year is, as Gretz put it, to "emerge from the pile of mediocrity," and until they are eliminated from playoff contention, don't stop believing in them.
Do not stop believing in them. Enjoy the season!