The end of 2022 has arrived and the hope for 2023 has now kicked in.
The Canadiens started off this past October by defying the odds and winning games which saw players such as Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Kirby Dach exceeding expectations at every turn. Sean Monahan was having a bounce-back season before getting injured and the team looked to be ahead of the rebuilding curve. The back end saw breakout performances from four rookie defencemen and we witnessed the slow, methodical development of the prized number one pick Juraj Slafkovsky begin to blossom.
From October to the end of November, the Canadiens were 11-10-1 in 22 games for a .523 points percentage. No one expected them to be hovering around the wildcard race and be a better-than-.500 hockey club.
15 games played to the tune of four wins, nine losses, and two overtime losses. A .333 points percentage.
In those games, the Canadiens dropped several games by big margins including a 5-2 thumping to a lowly Ducks team, 5-1 and 4-1 losses to the perennial powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning, and finally, two truly embarrassing losses to close out the month against the Panthers (7-2) and the Capitals (9-2).
In the final four games of December, Montreal allowed a combined 24 goals and scored a meagre two. Not a recipe for success.
The final game of the season saw the Canadiens players play like the walking dead in front of their own mothers. The look of defeat was written all over the faces of the youngsters and the veterans alike – to the point where when Alex Ovechkin recorded his 30th career hat trick, he looked to take pity on the lowly Canadiens squad and waited a few minutes before skating down the bench for the traditional post-goal fist pumps (perhaps so as to not rub salt into a gaping wound.)
Put simply, December was UGLY.
As of this writing, the team now sits with the 6th best odds at winning the first-overall pick in what is shaping up to be a historic draft. Pundits have reiterated time and again that the Montreal Canadiens’ schedule is the toughest from here on out. As Kent Hughes and Jeff Gordon start their spring fire sale, the blowouts may get more frequent and Martin St. Louis’ job of keeping spirits high, harder.
But hope springs eternal. There are silver linings to hold on to. With what is likely to be a top-five draft pick in the 2023 NHL draft, the Canadiens can look forward to adding to an already stacked cupboard of prospects. If the Canadiens find some luck, their second draft selection may well fall in the top ten and if Hughes can pull another rabbit out of his hat by trading one of his veterans such as Monahan or Joel Edmundson, they may well be picking their third prospect in the first round. That is a boatload of talent to infuse into the system which should help the team end the mirage of a fast turnaround and make it into a reality.
The 2023 draft is loaded with franchise-altering talents such as Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli. It is supported by upwards of eight franchise-type players and potential star-to-superstar talents. Should the Canadiens do the unthinkable and win the draft lottery in back-to-back years, fans will have the joy of watching Bedard decimate opponents for years to come just as he has done as a 17-year-old sensation at this year’s World Junior Championship.
For now, we can take solace in watching the current stars continue to build on their growing legacies. Can Caufield hit 50 goals? Can Suzuki break 90 points? Can Kirby Dach cement himself as a bonafide number two centre? How about the platoon of rookie defencemen – What is their ceiling? What trades are going to come around to continue to set up this franchise for years to come? And the biggest question of all is where will the Habs draft? Answers that will come in a few months’ time.
So while the doldrums of the 2022 December schedule is in the rearview mirror, we can look forward to an exciting 2023 ahead – regardless of mounting ugly losses.
Happy New Year.