Not to ruin the suspense, but the Habs rank much closer to the bottom of the latest edition of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rankings than they do to the top. Electrifying four goal performances aside, this still looks like a lost season for the Canadiens. Paradoxically, however, a lost season does not necessarily mean that all is lost – smart teams can use trying stretches such as these to re-assess, re-evaluate and begin to rebuild. With that in mind, we are taking a slightly different approach to this edition of the power rankings – rather than merely recap each team’s strengths and weaknesses, we’ll take a look at what lessons the struggling Habs can take from the NHL’s other 29 franchises. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and there is plenty that Montreal can learn by simply looking up in the standings. The few teams still below the Habs, meanwhile, serve as valuable cautionary tales and the Canadiens would be wise to avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared the league’s other basement dwellers.
As always, a note on methodology – These rankings reflect each team’s play thus far, with an emphasis on recent play and an eye towards what each team will likely accomplish from this point forward.
1. Boston Bruins (25-10-1)
What can the Habs learn from the Bruins? Size matters.
Bruins fans and their many media propagandists can be irritating in their glorification of the Big, Bad Bruins but you can’t deny the role that ‘old time hockey’ has played in building the league’s strongest, toughest and best team. Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton and Zdeno Chara effectively combine grit, size and skill in a way no one on the Habs roster can match-up with. The B’s have predictably cooled-off slightly following a record-setting hot streak but they remain the odds-on favourites to repeat as Cup Champions.
2. New York Rangers (24-9-4)
What can the Habs learn from the Rangers? Big market teams can bury their mistakes.
In today’s parity-driven NHL, there are few institutional advantages that the league’s haves enjoy over the league’s have-nots. This makes it all the more frustrating, therefore, that Montreal has been unwilling to use the one trump card that it still maintains, namely the financial wherewithal to effectively buy-out onerous contracts. No NHL team has handed out more outrageous contracts than the Blueshirts, yet New York has managed to largely escape the debilitating effects of these deals by buying-out the likes of Wade Redden and Chris Drury. Montreal, meanwhile, remains curiously unwilling to let go of underperforming, overpaid duds like Scott Gomez and Andrei Markov. If the Habs ever hope to join the Ranger’s amongst the NHL’s elite, they need to admit their mistakes, flex their financial muscle and cut ties with their most burdensome contracts.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (24-11-4)
What can the Habs learn from the Blackhawks? Don’t take your fans for granted.
It’s difficult to remember now that the ‘Hawks are selling-out the Madhouse on a nightly basis and playing in front of one of the league’s most rabid fan-bases, but there was a time not too long ago when Chicago was essentially a hockey ghost-town. Clearly Montreal will never abandon the Canadiens the way Chicago (justifiably) abandoned the Blackhawks earlier this decade, but the Bill Wirtz-era is a good example of how quickly a storied franchise can tailspin when its fans become embittered by on-ice mediocrity and front office arrogance.
4. Vancouver Canucks (25-13-3)
What can the Habs learn from the Canucks? Depth is key.
Sedin twins aside, one could make the argument that the Canadiens top-level talent is relatively comparable to the top of the Canucks roster. What makes Vancouver so insanely efficient (4th in Goals For, 7th in Goals Against, 1st in Power Play Pct., 6th in Penalty Kill Pct.), however, is their depth. The Canucks boast no fewer than 9 forwards with 25-goal ability, a defence that may be the league’s best 1 through 6 and a back-up goalie talented enough to start for two-thirds of the teams in the NHL. That, boys and girls, is where juggernauts come from.
5. Detroit Red Wings (25-13-1)
What can the Habs learn from the Red Wings? Sustained excellent is possible.
With 21 straight postseason appearances, 9 division titles in 10 seasons and 4 Stanley Cups in the last 15 years, the Red Wings are the NHL’s model franchise and proof that it is possible to avoid the boom and bust cycle that plagues most teams. Detroit was one of the league’s biggest spenders in the pre-lockout era but their most recent run of success has largely come from an ability to unearth hidden gems late in the draft. Despite never picking higher than 22nd overall since 1992, Detroit has managed to draft and nurture players such as Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall pick), Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall pick), Johan Franzen (97th overall pick) and Jimmy Howard (64th overall pick). The streaky Wings are getting up in years but one last Cup run isn’t out of the question due to the stellar scouting and player development of the league’s best front office.
6. Philadelphia Flyers (22-11-4)
What can the Habs learn from the Flyers? It’s possible to rebuild at light-speed.
The 2006-2007 Philadelphia Flyers entered training camp two seasons removed from an appearance in the conference finals and fully expected to qualify for the playoffs and potentially contend for a Stanley Cup. They finished with the worst record in the NHL.
The 2011-2012 Montreal Canadiens entered training camp two seasons removed from an appearance in the conference finals and fully expected to qualify for the playoffs and potentially contend for a Stanley Cup. They are currently mired in 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers, however, were able to rebound from their disastrous ’06-’07 season and a series of shrewd front office moves had them back in the conference finals a year later and in the Stanley Cup Finals two seasons after that. Philadelphia’s rebuilding effort is proof that a lost season does not always necessitate a full-blown rebuilding effort. There is still talent on the Habs roster –a couple of tweaks and Montreal could be back amongst the Eastern Conference contenders in 2012-2013.
7. San Jose Sharks (21-11-4)
What can the Habs learn from the Sharks? Smart teams benefit when stupid teams panic.
Whatever his failures as a postseason leader of men, the fact remains that San Jose acquiring Joe Thornton for Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart remains one of the great heists in hockey history. It’s the type of one-sided deal, fueled by impatient fans and a reckless media, that the Habs have been on the wrong end of far too often lately.
8. St. Louis Blues (22-12-5)
What can the Habs learn from the Blues? If your coach is a dead man walking, act sooner rather than later.
Canning the coach has largely failed to turn things around in Montreal, Washington, Anaheim or Carolina but the St. Louis Blues, who were the first team to bring down the axe when they fired head coach Davis Payne after 13 games, have managed to salvage a once-lost season by going 21-11-4 under Ken Hitchcock. Kind of makes you wonder what the Habs season could have been had they severed ties with Jacques Martin in October or November.
The other thing the Habs can learn from the Blues? Jaroslav Halak was a flash in the pan – the former playoff hero currently carries a .911 save-percentage and is buried behind Brian Elliott on the Blues depth chart.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins (21-13-4)
What can the Habs learn from the Penguins? Injuries aren’t an excuse.
The Penguins have understandably cooled off since Sidney Crosby’s return to the injured reserve list, but the mere fact that Dan Blysma’s squad is still contending for the top spot in the Eastern Conference despite Crosby having played only 8 of a possible 38 games is remarkable. While some Montreal fans have conveniently used the absences of Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta to explain the team’s struggles, the deeper and mentally tougher Penguins continue to go about their business.
10. Los Angeles Kings (19-14-7)
What can the Habs learn from the Kings? Andrei Kostitsyn looks good in black and purple.
If current trends continue, the bumbling Habs will likely head into the trade deadline as sellers while the surging Kings will be looking to buy. At the top of LA’s wish-list will likely be another top-6 forward to energize an attack that stubbornly remains last in the NHL in goals scored. If Montreal is looking to make a deal, sending an Andrei Kostitsyn or a Brian Gionta to Hollywood could be a mutually beneficial move that would kick-start the rebuilding process.
11. Nashville Predators (21-14-4)
What can the Habs learn from the Predators? Consistency is key.
Nashville ranks near the middle of the pack in almost every key statistical indicator while playing a largely unremarkable brand of defence-first hockey. But the ‘Preds remain near the top of the league’s power structure due to the high levels of mental toughness and intensity installed by head coach Barry Trotz. Nashville has only gone more than two games without gaining at least one point once this season. That type of consistency is what allows a middling roster like the Predators to continually punch above their weight. Montreal, on the other hand, has had their season submarined by blown leads, losses to seemingly inferior opponents and an inability or unwillingness to play consistently smart and efficient hockey night-in and night-out.
12. Florida Panthers (20-12-7)
What can the Habs learn from the Panthers? Teams regress to the mean.
Having missed the postseason for 10 years running, the Panthers hot start was one of the feel-good stories of the first half of the season. Florida, however, has cooled off of late. While still well-positioned to qualify for the playoffs, the Panthers have regressed to their talent level, as most teams are bound to do once the sample size of games played grows. This is actually good news for the Canadiens – while the playoffs remain a long-shot, the Canadiens are more talented than they showed in the first half of the season and their record is likely to improve as that talent rises to the top.
13. Washington Capitals (21-15-2)
What can the Habs learn from the Capitals? Mental toughness matters.
The Capitals have reeled off 4 straight wins and appear as if they are finally rounding into form after sleepwalking through the first portion of the season. Yawn. The ‘Caps remain a mentally weak team, ‘led’ by the most over-rated player in the NHL and bound to disappoint come playoff team. Whatever direction Habs management decides to go this offseason, they would be wise to remember that more than just stats and raw ability comes into play when constructing a true Cup contender.
14. Ottawa Senators (20-15-5)
What can the Habs learn from the Senators? A team’s decline can be rapid and steep.
Yes, the Senators have exceeded expectations by posting a decent first-half and currently sit sixth in the Eastern Conference. It says here, however, that Ottawa remains too weak in nets, too old and too top-heavy to make the postseason. The decline has been precipitous for a team that was amongst the league’s elite not too long ago. Perhaps that is merely the price to be paid for a decade-plus of consistently competitive hockey, but the Canadiens should look to the Senators as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a roster is allowed to become bloated, old and complacent.
15. New Jersey Devils (21-16-2)
What can the Habs learn from the Devils? Zach Parise is not the answer.
If Montreal does indeed miss the playoffs, it’s a sure bet that certain portions of the fan base and media will be clamouring for a big-splash free agent signing to reverse the team’s fortunes. Zach Parise headlines this year’s free agent class and his name will undoubtedly be linked to the Habs – signing the talented winger, however, would be a mistake. Parise (13 Gs, 18As) is a borderline elite talent when healthy, but he is sure to command $7 million-plus on the free agent market and his history of knee injuries should be a major red flag. Signing Parise would not be a Scott Gomez level disaster, but the team would be wiser to spend their resources on cheaper, more under-the-radar type deals.
16. Winnipeg Jets (19-15-5)
What can the Habs learn from the Jets? A supportive home crowd goes a long ways.
The Jets roster is essentially the same as the one that finished 4th in the Southeast Division last season while playing in front of apathetic home crowds at Atlanta’s half-empty Philip’s Arena. The Jets, however, are in thick of the playoff race this season thanks to a 14-6-1 home record. The boost provided by the rabid yet supportive Winnipeg fan base stands in stark contrast to a Montreal fan base that seems to take a perverse delight in cannibalizing their ‘beloved’ home team.
17. Colorado Avalanche (22-18-1)
What can the Habs learn from the Avalanche? Patrick Roy is the man for the job in Colorado.
The streaky Avalanche has largely surpassed expectations this season, yet it remains unlikely that head coach Joe Sacco will keep his job if Colorado misses the playoffs. The Avalanche job-search should begin and end with Patrick Roy, the greatest goalie in team history and the man who led the team to two Stanley Cups after childishly forcing a trade away from the franchise that drafted and nurtured him.
18. Minnesota Wild (21-14-6)
What can the Habs learn from the Wild? The ‘system’ can only take you so far.
Even with the off-season additions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, the Wild’s first- half success was largely due to a defence-first system that stifled offensive creativity but kept Minnesota competitive in most games. The Wild, however, have fallen back to earth lately, proving yet again the limitations of the trap in today’s NHL. ‘System’ teams appear to have a glass ceiling in the post-lockout era – the Canadiens season was sunk by a strict adherence to Jacques Martin’s soul-sucking system. Minnesota’s once-promising season may be about to do the same.
19. Dallas Stars (22-16-1)
What can the Habs learn from the Stars? Don’t give up on young players.
The Stars have regressed after a scorching start, but remain in the thick of the playoff race thanks largely to the contributions of several former Habs. One could easily argue that Montreal was smart to cut ties with both Michael Ryder (17 Gs, 12As) and Sheldon Souray (4 Gs, 12 As) despite the fact that both have been stellar in Dallas. The losses of Mike Ribiero (8 Gs, 21 As) and Stephane Robidas (2 Gs, 9 As), however, are less defensible. Even if Ribiero was unlikely to ever reach his potential in Montreal, the 2005 trade which netted only Janne Niinimaa in return remains one of the worst in recent Habs history. Robidas, meanwhile, was never given a fair shot in Montreal – he was inexplicably placed on waivers in 2002 and has since developed onto a borderline All-Star. Further proof that the harsh glare of the Montreal spotlight is not always conducive to player development…
20. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-15-5)
What can the Habs learn from the Maple Leafs? Absolutely nothing.
The Montreal Canadiens taking lessons on winning from the Toronto Maple Leafs would be like Thom Yorke taking music lessons from Chad Kroeger. Let’s move on.
21.Tampa Bay Lightning (17-19-3)
What can the Habs learn from the Lightning? Guy Boucher is a horrible coach.
Tampa is one of the few squads’ having an even more disappointing season than the Canadiens. After advancing to Game 7 of the Conference Finals a year ago, the Lightning has spun their tires all season long and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs altogether. Clearly the blame lies with head coach Guy Boucher – the McGill grad and former Hamilton Bulldogs coach should be fired immediately. And if his hometown team happens to sign him as their coach of the future, so be it…
22. Phoenix Coyotes (19-17-5)
What can the Habs learn from the Coyotes? Be thankful we play in the Eastern Conference.
Even if the Eastern Conference has closed the gap with the Western Conference in recent seasons, making the playoffs remains a much more difficult proposition for teams on the other side of the Mississippi. Phoenix is yet again punching above their weight this season yet remains mired in 11th place. The postseason remains a looooooooooooong-shot for the Habs but Montreal’s chances of qualifying are much higher in the top-heavy East. It’s yet to be seen how the NHL’s realignment will impact the league’s competitive balance but if, as expected, Phoenix ultimately relocates to Quebec City and joins the Canadiens conference, that will be one more tough opponent that Montreal will be forced to contend with.
23. Buffalo Sabres (18-17-4)
What can the Habs learn from the Sabres? Montreal isn’t the only disappointing team in the Northeast this year.
Fresh of a promising 2010-2011 season and a buzz-worth offseason, the Sabres entered this year as a trendy pick to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo hasn’t been quite as disappointing as the Canadiens, but the underachieving Sabres have been stuck in neutral all season long. Ville Leino, who struck gold in July with a six-year, $27 million contract, has only 3 goals thus far and is beginning to look like the Sabres version of Scott Gomez.
24. Edmonton Oilers (16-21-3)
What can the Habs learn from the Oilers? Build through the draft and trades.
While a 4-13-1 tailspin has spoiled a once promising season, the future remains bright in the City of Champions thanks to a talented young nucleus constructed mainly through draft picks and trades. I am by no means arguing that the Canadiens should undergo an Oilers style rebuild but the Edmonton model is a valuable reminder that successful teams tend to be built internally rather than through pricey free agent acquisitions. Edmonton’s emphasis on home grown talent has largely come about due to necessity as marquee free agents have repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to play in northern Alberta.
Montreal is obviously a much more attractive destination for free agents, but recent history has also proven that the Canadiens often need to overpay in order to attract top talent. There is nothing inherently wrong with this if managed correctly, but the Oilers burgeoning success is proof that draft picks and trades are still the best way to build a cohesive team.
25. Calgary Flames (18-19-5)
What can the Habs learn from the Flames? Bad contracts = hockey purgatory.
The worst case scenario for the Habs is that the 2011-2012 season is the beginning of a Calgary-esque spiral into irrelevance. The Flames were a borderline Cup contender as recently as three seasons ago yet it could be argued that no NHL team has a less rosy short- to medium-term future at this point. Bad contracts, front-office arrogance, outsized expectations and short-sighted decisions have all contributed to Calgary’s demise. While the Canadiens still have far more young talent than the Flames, the contracts of Scott Gomez, Andrei Markov and Tomas Kaberle are nearly as burdensome as the ones granted to Alex Tanguay, Matt Stajan and Jay Bouwmeester.
26. Montreal Canadiens (15-18-7)
What have we learned about the Canadiens thus far? That the Jacques Martin era was always destined to end poorly and that the Canadiens should have pulled the trigger on his inevitable firing sooner rather than later. That it’s rarely a good idea to sign an overrated gimp of a defenceman to a $17.25 million contract. That the oft-rumoured Scott Gomez rejuvenation project is never going to happen. That PK Subban was going to face an undeserved backlash no matter what. That even if Carey Price’s game went from an A+ to a B+, the Habs were going to be in big, big trouble. That, apparently, we measure our head coach in terms of French and English not wins and losses. That Eric Cole was worth every penny. That Eller-for-Halak was a steal. That it’s possible to throw a dildo onto the Bell Centre ice. That Perry Pearn was not actually the root of all evil. That it’s never a good idea to let your lame duck GM make panic moves. That the Tomas Kaberle experiment might not be a disaster. That the Old Goal Song is much better than ‘Elevation’. That Mike Cammallerri will always be incredibly streaky. That Tomas Plekanec is still wildly underrated (even when he’s having a down season). That Louis Leblanc is a nice building block. That Josh Gorges is here to stay.
More than anything, however, we learned how quickly a once promising season can spiral out of control. This has the feeling of a doomed season where bad bounces, bad injuries, bad luck and bad decisions have conspired to sink the Canadiens. While drastic changes are needed; a complete rebuild is not necessary. Montreal still has a decent foundation on which to build (Price, Subban, Eller, Pacioretty, Plekanec, Cammallerri, LeBlanc, Gallagher) – with a couple of tweaks, this disasterous season can end up being a mere aberration rather than a sign of things to come.
27. Carolina Hurricanes (13-21-7)
What can the Habs learn from the Hurricanes? Eric Staal misses Eric Cole more than vice-versa.
Even though the ‘Canes have struggled under Kirk Muller, it says here that the former Habs assistant is a keeper. The real lesson to be learned from Carolina’s disappointing season, however, is that captain Eric Staal appears to be lost playing without Eric Cole on the wing. When Montreal signed Cole this past July, one of the most common criticisms was the he would be unable to put up his usual numbers without Staal manning the pivot. Cole, however, has been the Habs best forward while Staal is sleepwalking through the worst season of his All-Star career. Staal is still an elite-level talent and will undoubtedly rediscover his scoring touch, but it turns out that Cole’s alleged reliance on his former captain was drastically overstated.
28. New York Islanders (14-17-6)
What can the Habs learn from the Islanders? When you have three goaltenders, you really have none.
New York has taken some baby steps in year 2,068 of their rebuilding effort, but the confusion in the Islanders crease underscores just how lucky the Canadiens are to have Carey Price. Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov have actually been solid in nets for the Islanders but their overall lack of consistency demonstrates how valuable and rare a true franchise goalie like Price is. New York, of course, thought they had found their goalie of the future when they inked Rick Dipietro to a 15-year/$67.5 million contract (only 9 seasons left!) but the former standout has been hampered by injuries and has struggled mightily when he’s actually been able to make it on the ice.
29. Columbus Blue Jackets (10-24-5)
What can the Habs learn from the Blue Jackets? James Wisniewski is not worth $33 million.
Pierre Gauthier deserves plenty of blame for the way the Canadiens season has turned out, but give the man credit for avoiding the temptation to overpay for James Wisniewski. Wisniewski leveraged a solid stint with the Habs last spring into a 6-year/$33 million contract with Columbus and that albatross is one of many reasons why the Blue Jackets may be the NHL’s worst team. ‘The Wiz’ is a frightful -18, Jeff Carter (the Blue Jacket’s other big off-season acquisition) has yet to really find his groove and franchise mainstays Rick Nash and Steve Mason are struggling through career-worst seasons. One shudders to think what the Habs salary cap situation would be had they succumbed to the pressure to resign Wisniewski.
30. Anaheim Ducks (10-22-6)
What can the Habs learn from the Ducks? Even talented teams have lost seasons.
Anaheim’s implosion this season remains the league’s greatest mystery. The Ducks have enough top-level talent to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender yet they have struggled in every facet of the game and may very well end the season with the worst record in the NHL. Montreal’s struggles, by comparison, seem positively pedestrian. While there are rumours that the Ducks may blow things up, they, like Montreal, would be wise to tinker around the margins rather than overreacting to one off-year.