The Montreal Canadiens lost in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a quick exit from the Stanley Cup Final. To the credit of the Lightning, they’re a deep, well-coached, experienced team, arguably the best put together in the modern salary cap era.
This, however, doesn’t mean the Canadiens should hang their heads in shame. They defied the odds all playoffs long to reach the Final, then ran into a buzzsaw that few teams could have hoped to match. Carey Price shouldered a mammoth task to help carry his team into the ultimate series. The emergence of young stars and the presence of some wily veterans helped bolster the team even when the chips were down. It wasn’t always pretty, but when it’s the playoffs you don’t ask for pretty, you ask for wins.
But given that it ultimately didn’t pan out, how can the Canadiens build on their performance?
In 2021-22, the divisions return to their pre-COVID alignment, meaning Montreal will now be contending with four teams that made the playoffs this year in Toronto, Boston, Florida, and Tampa Bay. The North Division housed some struggling teams this season, and the Habs snuck in despite being the 18th-place team in the league standings. In the playoffs they made the most of their opportunity, but fumbling through the regular season is not a recipe for sustained long-term success.
The organization has a lot of pieces to build upon, pieces that very clearly should be making up the core in the near future, especially if the team wants to make a deep run again in a deep division. Nick Suzuki finished seventh in playoff scoring with 16 points in 22 games. Cole Caufield outscored players like Max Pacioretty, Sebastian Aho, and Cale Makar despite being a scratch to start the post-season, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi was tied for third in five-on-five goals, with five in the playoffs.
All three of these players are under the age of 22, and should be the focal points of Montreal’s offence going into next season. The synergy between Caufield and Suzuki is plain to see, and keeping them together feels like an absolute no-brainer. Kotkaniemi, however, ended the playoffs as a healthy scratch, and while he’s had his struggles, the coaching staff needs to trust him to make those next steps even if there’s a bump in the road. The young stars are going to be crucial to whatever success the Canadiens have next year, and there should be no reason to go the safe route and try another Eric Staal experiment.
There’s plenty of other young pieces who will be looking for NHL time after strong AHL seasons as well in Jesse Ylönen, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, and a rejuvenated Ryan Poehling. Not to mention the North American arrival of Mattias Norlinder, a more experience Alexander Romanov, and Kaiden Guhle, who had a strong showing in his time with Laval as well as at this year’s World Juniors.
Look at how Tampa Bay has gotten to where they’re at right now: a strong AHL team (thankfully Joël Bouchard has brought this to Laval), and putting their young players in spots to succeed and allowing them to grow into strong NHL players.
Relying on youth also comes with the need for balance, and the Canadiens seemed to find the right mix in the post-season. The expected stars like Jeff Petry and Phillip Danault were doing their part, and the new arrivals of Corey Perry and Joel Edmundson far exceeded expectations. In that same timeframe, Ben Chiarot struggled with his defensive game, and the arrival of steady vet Jon Merrill did little to help. Until Brett Kulak and Alexander Romanov were re-inserted into the lineup, the third pair was playing less than eight minutes a night.
It’s one of those learning moments where the move looks great in a vacuum, but it doesn’t quite fit the team. Perry worked because he fit the system and the role, and the same can be said of Joel Edmundson who was everything that Marc Bergevin could have hoped for when he signed him last year. Edmundson is obviously staying, and many fans want to see Perry come back as well, but the Habs need to make sure they’re not falling into a nostalgia trap because of this run with their veteran unrestricted free agents.
Finally, there’s the coaching staff, which looked woefully out of its depth in the regular season, but found itself able to make crucial adjustments when the games mattered most. Against Toronto they found ways to exploit the defence using their speed and frustrated the Leafs around the net. Against Winnipeg they put together a heavy cycle game that the Jets failed to contain at any point in the series. Then against Vegas they pressured the forwards so much that all the offence ended up running through the point — the same strategy that had failed Montreal in the regular season — which allowed Price to hone in and shut that down.
It’s shown that Dominique Ducharme, Luke Richardson, and Alex Burrows can adjust on the fly, something that the regular season lacked. Getting beaten by Tampa doesn’t change that fact, because as we said above Tampa is just that good.
That’s the crux of where the Habs are at. They learned a lot about what this team is, but also where the flaws are. The run to the Cup Final was equal parts great luck, and well-timed arrivals by multiple players and the coaching staff. The Canadiens cannot rest on the success of this run and just expect to be there again next year. There are areas to improve all around, and the opportunity to do so.
This improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final should serve as a massive building block and learning experience for the Canadiens. Tampa Bay learned from their loss to Chicago years ago, retooled and got better every year en route to consecutive Cup wins, the Penguins got bounced in the first round in 2015, then won back-to-back Cups afterward.
That’s not a guarantee that the Canadiens can pull off the same feat, but if they want to find long-term playoff success the blueprint is there to follow. It’ll involve tough choices, but that’s the business of hockey in the end. If not, this run eventually gets looked at like the one of the 2006 Oilers, or the 2012 Devils: a one-off, soon-to-be-forgotten experience in a blizzard of mediocrity.
This loss in the Stanley Cup Final stings, but what actions the Canadiens take next will define this current era in the long run.