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Quarter-mark review: Canadiens’ early-season pain paves road to Shane Wright

A snapshot of the Montreal Canadiens through the first 20 games of the 2021-22 season is almost too grotesque to look at, but we’re presenting it anyway.

Our editor asked us for a quarter-mark review — a report card of sorts.

This one will read as the kind you’d want to hide from your parents.

How did the Canadiens get to 5-13-2?

Let us count the ways.

They allowed more than five goals in eight of their games. Their power play scored on less than 15 per cent of its chances and now ranks 28th in the NHL, and their penalty kill is 29th after operating at less than 70 per cent. Also, only three teams have scored fewer goals per game, and only two teams have given up more goals per game.

That’s a capital F all around. It can stand for “Fail,” or another word of your choosing that starts with F.

It’s not just that the Canadiens have been bad; they’ve also been unlucky. At 5-on-5, they’ve controlled more than 50 per cent of the shot attempts and close to 50 per cent of the expected goals, but they have the third-worst shooting percentage (6.12) and the 12th-worst save percentage (91.75) in the league.

It was expected they would struggle coming off an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final that shortened their off-season considerably, that Christian Dvorak and Jake Evans might not be able to fully offset the loss of Phillip Danault in free agency and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet, and that the team would be seriously challenged by Shea Weber being too injured to continue his playing career, by Joel Edmundson being too injured to play through the first quarter, by Mike Hoffman being unavailable to start and Paul Byron being unavailable until late December at the earliest.

When Carey Price checked into the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program just days before things got underway in Toronto, everyone knew the Canadiens would be in tough to get themselves into a favourable position in the standings.

However, with the depth of quality players still available to them and the good chemistry established on their run to the final, it was unanticipated they wouldn’t be competitive at all, that they would drop their first five games of the season by a combined score of 19-4.

With other injuries incurred and confidence plundered, the Canadiens weren’t able to do much better over the next 15 games, giving us the hideous picture described above.

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Can they change it?

As unlikely as it is — especially with Price nowhere near prepared to resume playing — it’s still possible.

Assuming it’ll take 97 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference (the New Jersey Devils are occupying the second wild-card position at the moment and are on pace for that many), the Canadiens will have to earn 85 points over their last 62 games to qualify.

There are currently five teams in the league that have produced at the clip the Canadiens need to produce at for the rest of the season, so they can draw a bit of inspiration from there.

Even if we feel the Canadiens aren’t good enough to do it, they believe they are. They believe they’re much better than they’ve shown, and they’re going to push as hard as they can to prove it.

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Should they?

We asked Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin last Saturday and he was unequivocal about it.

“Players have pride,” Bergevin said. “You don’t go out there just to blow up games. That’s insane to think that way.”

We didn’t expect him to say otherwise.

For as bad as things have gone, it’s only November. Three quarters of the season remain, and hope remains and must be sold.

Tickets and merchandise must be sold, too.

But even if the Canadiens rebound this season, they aren’t structured to contend for a championship, and they won’t be for the foreseeable future if they damage their chances at drafting in the top five and perhaps even first overall.

That’s their only out here. As we suggested to Bergevin, the Canadiens didn’t try to land in the spot they’re currently in, but they’re there and it’s worth taking advantage of because they aren’t in a position to embark on a rebuild.

According to CapFriendly.com, including long-term injury reserve dollars designated to Weber, they have $84 million committed to 14 players next season. Six forwards — Dvorak, Evans, Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Joel Armia and Nick Suzuki — are signed through the 2024-25 season or beyond. Defencemen Jeff Petry and David Savard are inked for just as long. Hoffman and Tyler Toffoli are under contract for two more seasons after this one, as is Edmundson, and Price’s $10.5-million cap hit is on the books through 2026.

Bergevin would be selling these assets at major losses if he went to market at this point, especially with the salary cap expected to remain within one or two million dollars of the $81.5-million upper limit for the next couple of years.

Not that he should want to, anyway. There are good pieces to move forward with there, and a quick injection of talent through the coming draft — in addition to some promising prospects taking the next step in their development — could bring the Canadiens back to prominence in a hurry.

Still, there are steps Bergevin should take, even if he said if he manages the team to lose games he should be fired immediately.

He said it wouldn’t be right, that only generational talents like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid would be worth potentially doing it for and they don’t come around in the draft more than once a decade.

But Shane Wright, by all accounts, is a clear-cut No. 1 in this year’s draft, and he can make a huge difference for anyone who gets him.

The Canadiens have already taken a step towards Wright with their start, and Bergevin can improve their chances of attaining him in Montreal this summer.

He can move impending unrestricted free agent Ben Chiarot to the highest bidder, trade other players on expiring contracts for depth picks, gauge the market on Byron and Jonathan Drouin (who each only have one year left under contract after this one) and try to move one or both, tell any player playing through injury to rest and heal and anyone in need of surgery to do it now before the Canadiens hurt their chances at Wright with a winning streak that likely won’t save their season and definitely won’t turn them into a Cup contender.

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Written by Sportsnet

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