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You play to win the game: Why the playoffs are underrated and the draft is overrated

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The playoff dilemma for bubble teams really isn’t a dilemma at all.

Montreal Canadiens v Calgary Flames Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens are currently in a playoff spot, and most forecasts say that they now have a very good chance at making the playoffs at the end of the 56 game season.

A week ago, or even three days ago, it didn’t look as certain. This led people wondering whether the Canadiens would be better off missing the playoffs and getting a higher draft pick.

If this sounds familiar to a conversation people were having in August, well, it’s because it’s pretty much the same conversation.

At that time, my opinion was that you try to win. They didn’t get a top-10 pick. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and ended up drafting later in the first round. Instead of looking at what it cost them, let’s look at what it got them.

First of all, it showed players — and Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin — what this team was capable of. If they don’t play well in the post-season bubble, who knows if they make the decision to trade Max Domi for Josh Anderson. Who knows if Anderson agrees to sign a long-term extension. Who knows if Tyler Toffoli wants to sign in Montreal. Those are key pieces that are going to be a part of this team’s future.

And back to the draft, Kaiden Guhle doesn’t look like a bad consolation prize, either.

As Herm Edwards once said, you play to win the game. You don’t play to just play it. The Canadiens are not necessarily a Stanley Cup contender this year. That doesn’t mean they are better off losing until they are just to collect higher picks.

The draft, and draft position, is perhaps one of the most overrated aspects in sports. Only one team can win the Stanley Cup, but 15 teams have a chance at the draft lottery and the next supposed superstar. It’s the hope that gets you. The fact is, the point of the draft is to offset losing, not incentivize it.

Sure, a player like Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid can turn a franchise around, but people also said that about Rasmus Dahlin and Jack Eichel. Or Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Or Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko. Even when you get one of the top players in the draft, it takes time, and it takes surrounding them. After all, Matthews and McDavid weren’t able to do it alone.

Ask Buffalo Sabres fans if they would rather another high pick or a playoff appearance. I think you know the answer.

You need to draft well. You don’t need a high pick to do that, and getting a high pick doesn’t guarantee you will do that either.

It takes time to build a winning culture. And the only way to build one is, well, by winning. The Laval Rocket are starting that tradition by having one of the best teams in the American Hockey League. A lot of those players will eventually have an impact with the Montreal Canadiens. The path to a strong NHL team is more often than not a strong AHL team, especially with a flat cap.

A playoff appearance for the Canadiens will provide additional playoff experience to a team whose young players could use it. It’s also a team that has a lot of players who have won the Stanley Cup. In fact, rarely has a team added more Stanley Cup champions to a roster in one off-season.

Last year’s team wasn’t built for the playoffs. They traded several players at the trade deadline and had holes in the roster as a result. This year’s team has been inconsistent, especially as they learn a new system. Will they be able to channel their experience to turn it on when they need to? That remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure: watching them try sure beats watching ping pong balls.