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Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.
On June 24, 2021, the Artturi Lehkonen scored in overtime to give the Canadiens a 3-2 overtime victory against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 6 of their semifinals series and send them to the Stanley Cup Final. Less than a year later, Montreal finished with the worst record in the NHL. Sure, the Canadiens’ playoff run was a story about overcoming the odds, but even still, what led to Montreal’s complete shift in fortunes in less than a year? Well, there were a lot of reasons.
A big issue was the absence of some key players. Shea Weber was the foundation of the Canadiens’ defense both during the 2020-21 regular season and their playoff run. However, injuries prevented him from playing at all in 2021-22 and unfortunately his career is likely over. Carey Price is the bedrock of their team, an elite goaltender who got hot during the 2021 playoffs and pushed the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Price wasn’t much of an option in 2021-22 either though. He spent 30 days in the players assistance program to deal with substance-use issues and once he was out, he ran into problems with his surgically repaired knee. In the end, he only played in five contests.
Missing those two players alone was a huge blow to the Canadiens. On top of that though, they saw forwards Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, Corey Perry, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi all depart over the summer. They did attempt to offset some of those losses by bringing in Mike Hoffman, but it’s fair to say that between injuries and summer exits, the 2021-22 Canadiens were significantly different from the team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Even with all that factored in though, the Canadiens disappointed. Under head coach Dominique Ducharme, Montreal had a dreadful 8-30-7 record. They scored just 2.20 goals per game up to that point of the season. Cole Caufield, who showed so much promise in the 2021 playoffs, was struggling in his rookie season with just a goal and eight points in 30 games. Defenseman Jeff Petry also left plenty to be desired, going from 42 points in 55 games in 2020-21 to just a goal and six points through 38 contests in 2021-22.
As weak as their offense was though, their goaltending was so much worse. Through 45 games, Montreal had surrendered 3.98 goals per game, which put them in dead last in the league in that category. Jake Allen was struggling to hold the fort with a 3.15 GAA and .901 save percentage in 24 starts, but the bigger issue was what the Canadiens would do on the nights he wasn’t in net. Through Feb. 8, Sam Montembeault had a 4.10 GAA and .891 save percentage in 19 games and Cayden Primeau posted a 4.62 GAA and .874 save percentage in 10 contests.
It was in that miserable state that the Canadiens parted ways with Ducharme and gave Hall of Fame forward Martin St. Louis a chance to show what he could do as a head coach. St. Louis didn’t suddenly transform the Canadiens into a contender, but he did make them respectable. The Canadiens goaltending continued to struggle under St. Louis, which isn’t surprising given that they still didn’t have Price in net or Weber leading the defense, but Montreal went from averaging 2.20 goals per game under Ducharme to 3.22 goals with St. Louis.
The single biggest benefactor of the coaching change was Cole Caufield, who scored 22 goals and 35 points in 37 contests under St. Louis’ guidance. Petry also did far better with five goals and 21 points in his final 30 games. Montreal also picked up Rem Pitlick off waivers from Minnesota and he ended up earning a regular role while scoring nine goals and 26 points in 46 games with Montreal.
Thanks to that boost offensively, the Canadiens posted a 14-19-4 record under St. Louis. That still left them with a dreadful 22-49-11 record overall, but at least their decent finish gave them some hope for the future.
The Canadiens were also able to add some picks at the trade deadline, including the Calgary Flames’ 2022 first rounder in the Tyler Toffoli deal. Montreal is now projected to enter the draft with 10 picks in the first four rounds, giving them plenty of opportunities to help them build for the future.
Players of Watch:
Carey Price – By the end of the 2021-22 campaign, Carey Price was able to return, but it was clear he wasn’t out of the woods yet. He had a 1-4-0 record, 3.63 GAA, and .878 save percentage in five contests with Montreal. More troubling than that though, his surgically repaired knee was continuing to have swelling issues, making his future very unclear. Price admitted that the swelling was creating challenges in goal and I have to imagine that even beyond that, it’s a generally concerning thing to see happen. Price said after the season that his next step was to get another opinion, but given that we’re now in the offseason, updates might be few and far between. If Price is able to come into the 2022-23 campaign fully healthy then Montreal will have one of the world’s best goaltenders in net. At the time of writing though, that’s unfortunately a big if.
Jeff Petry – While Jeff Petry did respond well to the coaching change and finish the season on a high note, his future with the team is still uncertain. At the age of 34, does he have a role with the rebuilding Canadiens? Does he want a role with them? Petry made a trade request during the season that was never fulfilled and GM Kent Hughes said after the season that he was still working on fulfilling that request, per the Montreal Gazette. A lot has changed for the better in Montreal since Petry made his request and it remains to be seen if he ultimately will be traded. His $6.25 million cap hit through 2024-25 might cause some teams to think twice about acquiring him and his modified no-trade clause is potentially another limiting factor as he can select 15 teams he’d refuse a trade to. If he is back with the team next season, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be one of their most heavily used defensemen.
Cole Caufield – Cole Caufield entered the 2021-22 campaign as one of the early favorites for the Calder Trophy. Ultimately his slow start robbed him of being a serious contender for that honor, but his play under St. Louis gives Canadiens fans plenty of reason to be excited about his future. How he responds to his first full season with St. Louis as the head coach will go a long way towards determining what his future is like in Montreal. A 60-70 point season doesn’t seem unrealistic for Caufield.
Brendan Gallagher – Brendan Gallagher just finished the first season of his six-year, $39 million contract and he left plenty to be desired. He had seven goals and 24 points in 56 contests while averaging 15:01 minutes. Unlike some others who really seemed to benefit from the coaching change, Gallagher had three goals and 14 points in 29 contests while averaging 14:43 minutes under St. Louis. They need more out of Gallagher given the considerable long-term commitment they made to him. Gallagher is 30-years-old so under ideal circumstances, he can serve as a bridge during the Canadiens rebuild and still have relevance when they’re ready to make another push. First off though, he needs to bounce back from his underwhelming 2021-22 campaign.