Canadiens eliminated, doomed by absences of Price, Weber, slow start

The Montreal Canadiens failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs one season after reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Montreal (17-37-10) was eliminated from contention when the Washington Capitals defeated the Buffalo Sabers 4-3 in a shootout Friday. The Canadians can finish no higher than fifth in the eight-team Atlantic Division. The top three teams from each of the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions, plus the next best two teams in the Eastern Conference qualify for the playoffs.

It’s the second time in the NHL’s modern era (since 1967 expansion) that the Canadiens have missed the playoffs the season after reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Montreal, which lost the Cup Final in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, won the Cup in 1969 and finished fifth in the six-team East Division and out of the playoffs in 1969-70.

Here is a look at what happened in the 2021-22 season for the Canadians and why things could be better next season:

The skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Mathieu PerreaultF; Laurent DauphinF; Tyler PitlickF; Chris WidemanF

Potential restricted free agents: Rem PitlickF; Michael PezzettaF; William LagessonD; Alexander RomanovD; Corey SchuenemanD; Kale Clague, D; Samuel Montembeault, G

Potential 2022 Draft picks: 14

What went wrong

Price, Weber, Edmundson absences: The combination of major injuries and personal absences to No. 1 goalie Carey Pricecaptain and defenseman Shea Weber and sturdy defenseman Joel Edmundson devastated the Canadians structure. Price has not played this season, recovering from offseason knee surgery and time spent in the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program being treated for substance use. Weber has not played this season due to a foot/ankle injury, and it’s likely he never plays again. Edmundson missed the first 58 games of the season due to a back injury, being in COVID-19 protocol and an absence for personal reasons, returning March 12 against the Seattle Kraken.

bad start: Montreal lost its first five games and 11 of the first 14 (3-10-1), then proceeded to have separate losing streaks of seven, six and 10 games to reach a record of 8-33-7. Those results are not surprising given that the Canadians were last in the NHL in goals per game (2.48) and goals against per game (3.82), third lowest in team save percentage (.887) and fourth lowest in penalty killing (74.3 percent) .

Organizational chaos: The results from the start of the season put immense pressure on ownership and eventually changes began. General manager Marc Bergevin was fired Nov. 28 after a 6-15-2 start. Jeff Gorton was hired as executive vice president of hockey operations the same day and Kent Hughes was hired as GM on Jan. 19. Coach Dominique Ducharme was fired Feb. 8 with a record of 8-30-7 and replaced by interim coach Martin St. Louis.

Reasons for optimism

The new regime: Gorton, Hughes and possibly St. Louis deserve a chance to show how they’re going to correct the Canadiens trajectory. A fresh start with a clean slate next season will be their opportunity. The management team has added former NHL forward Vincent Lecavalier as a special advisor to hockey operations, hiring him Feb. 18. That adds depth to the management team. St. Louis, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player in 2018, has guided Montreal to better results (9-7-3) since being hired and likely has the inside track for the job next season, if he wants it.

Abundance of draft picks: Through trades, Montreal has accumulated extra picks and has 14 for the 2022 NHL Draft at the Bell Center on July 7-8. That includes two first-round picks this year. Unless it wins the lottery, the picks from this year are unlikely to impact the roster for the coming season. But if Montreal takes advantage of the volume of picks with strong scouting and astute selections, it will go a long way toward shoring up the foundation of the franchise, a narrative already begun with the emergence of young impact forwards Nick Suzuki22, and Cole Caufield21.

Price’s return: There is no timetable for Price’s return, but the 34-year-old, who was 13-9 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in the playoffs last season, is back in regular practice with the Canadiens, a strong step in his recovery. Given his career credentials (360-257-79, 2.50 GAA, .917 save percentage, 49 shutouts), the impact of his potential return, especially with a fresh start next season, should not be underestimated.

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