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The Canadiens are farther along the path to contention than anyone expected

Five months after the regular season came to a merciful end, excitement is now building for next year.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

I usually reserve this space to break down clips from the previous game: specific shifts, the application of a system, or a particularly interesting goal. But frankly, video breakdowns don’t really matter at this point. The Habs played a good game and they lost. That’s how it goes sometimes; you do enough to win, but the play just doesn’t flow your way.

These last few weeks were great lessons for the youngsters. It’s hard to win. Pucks have to trail through the opposing team multiple times at just the right angle to hit the back of the cage and open up a path to the Stanley Cup.

It’s why details matter so much. An extra faceoff won, an extra zone entry, a stick placed in the right passing lane, one more block or a timely pass, those are all details that can transform into an extra offensive attempt, an extra chance at a goal. In the end, they make or break a series.

Players don’t necessarily see it in the moment, but when they look back a few hours after the handshake line, those elements that at first seemed insignificant are all they obsess about for a little while. It’s a good thing. They become the fuel needed for growth.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s disappointments this season gave him the motivation to train and approach the game in a different way, and he was rewarded for his work. He became a pillar of the team, scored important goals, and earned more minutes than ever before. And now he knows that even that wasn’t enough.

The same holds true for Nick Suzuki. He isn’t owed a magical playoff run. He might have scored a bunch of points just like with the Guelph Storm in 2019, but this time his offensive spurts weren’t great enough to carry the team.

We could easily go down the list and say the same thing for everyone on the team. And the fact that we can should ultimately be regarded as an immense positive. The Habs were close to an extended playoff run — much closer than we thought.

They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins quite handily and matched up as equals with the Philadelphia Flyers. I certainly would not have expected that. I spent July mentally reworking future Habs lineups to fit in one of Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti, or Alexander Holtz.

But this is much better, no? Instead of hypothetical scenarios that we wouldn’t have seen materialize for a season or two, we saw tangible progression in the actual core of the team. And that team will still get to add another player that will very likely slide into the top of the lineup.

It might take a little while longer for a Dawson Mercer, a Seth Jarvis, a Dylan Holloway or a Kaiden Guhle (keep that last name in mind, especially) to reach an impact role in the lineup. But the organizational picture looks more promising with a 16th overall pick and significantly improved young NHL players than with the ninth overall pick and a bunch of unanswered questions.

The Habs played 10 games in this tournament. It’s not the length of a season, but considering the importance of those contests, it remains a big enough sample size for some things to have become very clear for Marc Bergevin.

The core of this team has shifted. Two young players now sit at the centre of it, pushing some other elements that would have been considered key just a year ago to the outside. It doesn’t mean that the general manager will necessarily tweak with the current structure of the team, but now he has options with such a critical position filled, especially with other prospects waiting in the wings.

After these playoffs, Bergevin knows that his team is building in the right direction. It can compete with some of the stronger formations in the league. Of course, it still needs depth and high-end talent to prevent and repair on-ice mistakes, but the system is working. The team has a clear identity and players are developing around it.

Hopefully, Bergevin now also understands how fragile the team remains. His next moves could just as easily clip its wings as accelerate the organization’s ascent towards contender status, or arguably a worse fate, have it remain in limbo, stuck in mediocrity for years.

The team might have been eliminated, but all avenues remain open for the organization in the next few months. They just need a smart approach to the changes.