Fans of 30 NHL fanbases had to watch along as the Montreal Canadiens played in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. It was a surprising performance from a team that didn’t look much like a contender leading into the post-season.
The debt owed to the hockey gods for that run came due this year, as the Habs ended up dead last in the league. The organization now looks ahead to the draft, but there are some storylines still to follow in the post-season before the team adds a bucket load of prospects in July.
Several of the draft picks the Habs now hold were returns for some of their more valuable players, ones who had been with the team for quite a while. After coming up short in 2021, they have another shot at winning a championship, and they all find themselves on some of the better teams to make the post-season. As we run through the eight series that are set to begin this week, we find several former Habs on top teams in the west, starting with the best of them all.
Colorado Avalanche (1st in Central) vs. Nashville Predators (Wild Card 2)
Vying for a second consecutive Western Conference title is Artturi Lehkonen, a player originally drafted late in the second round in 2013, and who became a fixture of the Habs lineup starting in 2016-17. He was the only Canadiens player whose play didn’t fall off a cliff in the first half of this season, and that standout effort netted defence prospect Justin Barron and a second-round pick from the Avalanche at the trade deadline.
In Colorado, he kept his great year going, scoring six goals in 16 games to set a new career high of 19, eclipsing the mark he set in his rookie year. Lehkonen is a proven playoff performer who reaches his best form when the games matter most, and that could be just what the Avalanche need to complement all of their superstars to get to the top of the mountain.
Michael McCarron has become an everyday NHLer in Nashville, playing a career-high 51 games and posting 14 points this season. Montreal’s first-round selection the same year Lehkonen was drafted, McCarron has finally found his home at 27 years of age, and will be a key depth piece for the Predators in a post-season environment.
Calgary Flames (1st in Pacific) vs. Dallas Stars (Wild Card 1)
Tyler Toffoli was worth a haul of assets to the Calgary Flames, including their first-round selection this year. He and his family really embraced the Montreal experience, and he led the team in scoring a year ago before heading off for greener pastures, so he’s an easy player to cheer for.
That trade has Montreal slated to make two selections in the opening round for the first time since 2007. The worse the Flames do, the higher that pick becomes, It could be anywhere from 32nd if Calgary wins the Stanley Cup to as high as 25th in the unlikely event that they and every team currently ranked above them get upset in the first two rounds.
On the other side, one-time Hab Alexander Radulov is trying to win his first Stanley Cup, but he and the Stars face a tough road right from the outset.
Minnesota Wild (2nd in Central) vs. St. Louis Blues (3rd in Central)
There isn’t much in this series to hold the interest of a Canadiens fan, except for those who grew attached to Jordie Benn or Jon Merrill in their time in Montreal, both of whom now play for Minnesota. It is nice to see the Wild becoming such an offensive powerhouse, and that alone may be worth cheering for.
Edmonton Oilers (2nd in Pacific vs. Los Angeles Kings (3rd in Pacific)
This will be one of the more complex situations to be found in the opening round. Brett Kulak was a divisive player among the Habs fanbase, loved by those who enjoyed his puck-moving abilities when they worked, loathed by those frustrated by his turnovers and lack of physicality on defence. His transition game has filled a desperate need for Edmonton, and he is one of the reasons why the Oilers go into the post-season as one of the hottest teams.
Kulak brought a decent return himself, as Edmonton sent a roster player, seventh-round pick in 2024, and a conditional second-rounder at the trade deadline. It’s that condition that makes the Oilers’ run so interesting. As is the case for the Flames, the worse Edmonton does, the better the pick is this year, but if they go all the way to Stanley Cup Final, the pick moves to 2023, which is regarded as a deeper draft. Maybe the Oilers do better next year and it would be best to take the pick now, or maybe they don’t have as good a season and the pick is even higher in a year’s time.
On the opposite side of the ice will be Phillip Danault, who left the Habs for no return whatsoever in the off-season as he sought a more offensive role in free agency. His wish was granted in Los Angeles this season with an output of 27 goals; the second-highest mark on the team. Whether you root for him depends on whether your scales tip more toward appreciation for what Danault did in his years in Montreal or bitterness about him deciding to leave last summer.
Florida Panthers (1st in Atlantic) vs. Washington Capitals (Wild Card 2)
One of only a few former Canadiens players on the eastern half of the bracket plays on the league’s best team, the Florida Panthers. They spent a lot to get him to Florida, and a first-round pick was most valuable of all.
These playoffs don’t affect that selection because it is for the 2023 NHL Draft. So far it’s one of only two first-round selections for next year that have traded hands as teams cherish their vouchers for a strong 2005-born class (yes, players born the same year Carey Price was drafted). It’s also the only one to not be top-10 protected. Given how strong the Panthers’ roster is, it’s unlikely that comes into play at the end of next season, but it’s still a notable concession made by Florida, and an indication of just how much they wanted Chiarot for their run.
Washington is still the home of Lars Eller, a player like Lehkonen who worked hard in his years in Montreal. It has been six seasons since Eller was traded, and he has since had his named inscribed on the Stanley Cup, but he’s still a tough player to root against.
Carolina Hurricanes (1st in Metropolitan) vs. Boston Bruins (Wild Card 1)
Jesperi Kotkaniemi may not get the same treatment from those who cheer for his former team. Kotkaniemi is one of the few players in NHL history who have been involved in a successful offer sheet, inking a deal with the Hurricanes that wasn’t matched by the team that selected him third overall in 2018.
Your other option is to cheer for Brad Marchand and the Boston Bruins in this case, so there aren’t many Habs fans likely to be cheering for a team in this series at all.
Toronto Maple Leafs (2nd in Atlantic) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (3rd in Atlantic)
It’s Montreal’s “forever rival” versus the team they challenged for the championship belt last year and lost. It’s also the only series that’s guaranteed to promote an Atlantic Division team to the second round.
It’s doubtful that many will be cheering for the Lightning to win it all for a third consecutive time (unless you’re intrigued by the prospect of a dynasty in a 32-team league). And never in a million years would a Habs fan cheer for the Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup, which happens to be about how long it’s been since they last did.
New York Rangers (2nd in Metropolitan) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (3rd in Metropolitan)
The New York Rangers are just getting started after loading up on young talent in the past few years, while some of the stars on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster are entering the twilight of their careers. The series pits the NHL’s seventh-youngest team (an average age of 26.5) versus its fourth-oldest (29.2).
It will be interesting to see how Jeff Gorton’s last project fares in a post-season environment to see his vision plays out, though the city of New York remains a more coveted destination for free agents than Montreal. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a full rebuild for the Rangers as there was a decent amount of veteran talent brought in to join all the rookies, and some of the moves made since Gorton arrived in Montreal suggests that the Habs will employ a similar philosophy.
Which team will you be cheering for in the playoffs?
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Los Angeles Kings
New York Rangers
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs