Jack Todd: Measuring success during this Canadiens rebuild can be vexing

Game against the Kings on Thursday night showed team has a long way to go, but play of No. 1 overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky was encouraging.

Article content

There was a time when Stanley Cup parades in Montreal were as much a sign of spring as dog poop and potholes.

Trust me. I arrived in this city in January 1971. Between May of that year and May 1979, I witnessed six Stanley Cup parades along the usual route, marvelling at how the players were always pale and beaten-up while the fans trailing along looked tanned and healthy.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

Back then, the Cup belonged to the Canadiens more or less by divine right. It could be loaned to an interloper like Boston or Philadelphia for a season or two, only to be swiftly reclaimed by the latest crop of stars.

Following that stirring run in the 1970s, two Cups (1986 and 1993) in 14 years. Since then, 30 years and no parades.

That is both the legacy and the weight that is on Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes as they attempt a full rebuild — difficult in any market, downright burdensome in Montreal, where mass hysteria is rarely more than a loss away.

Whatever you call it, rebuild, reset or reload, rebuilds are tough. They’re likely to be lengthy and uncertain and they almost never proceed in a straight line, with setbacks and leaps forward strewn along the path.

Gorton and Hughes were able to get a glimpse of where the Canadiens rebuild stands this past week at the Bell Centre. They put up a more or less routine win over a surprisingly poor Seattle Kraken team, then received a heavyweight hockey lesson from the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings are going to do that. They’re big, solid and talented. They have superb leaders in Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar. They might bore you to death, but they grind you down. They may not win the Cup next June, but they will be in the mix and that’s where I would put my five bucks.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

The Kings won 4-0 on a night when Martin St. Louis’s young team actually played well. When the Canadiens made a mistake, even a small one, it was in their net. When the Kings made a mistake — well, they didn’t make many.

Related Stories

There was one tremendous bright spot for the locals. One Juraj Slafkovsky, whose every misstep is pored over like a crime scene, was Montreal’s best player on the night.

Slafkovsky set up a couple of pings off the post that were the best scoring chances the Canadiens were going to get and he did so with authority. The big guy can put on an entirely unexpected burst of speed when he unleashes it and he can handle his stick in close quarters. One of these days, he’s going to start shooting the puck and look out.

If you’re peering at the stats, it might appear Slafkovsky is struggling. He isn’t. As a 19-year-old who spent zero time in the minors, he is visibly progressing, game to game and week to week. For the rebuild, that is absolutely vital. Few will acknowledge it but building a hockey team requires some luck, especially with draft picks. This one is proceeding in dandy fashion.

Advertisement 4

Article content

There are still no guarantees. I read a lengthy pre-season analysis of 10 teams in supposed rebuild mode, for instance, and among other things it assured us that Kyle Dubas’s Fantasy League acquisition of Erik Karlsson was all it would take for an instant rebuild in Pittsburgh. Don’t look now, but the Penguins are next to last in the Metropolitan Division and tied with the Canadiens at 25 points.

That same review of rebuilding teams didn’t even include the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres, two organizations with which Montreal fans are thoroughly familiar.

Every season, it seems, the Senators and Sabres are expected to transcend rebuild mode and every year they come up short. It’s especially true in Buffalo, where the Sabres haven’t played a post-season game since April 2011. Since then, according to The Athletic, every team in the league except the expansion Kraken has played at least 25 playoffs games and six teams have played 100 or more.

Ottawa’s struggles are more recent, with the Senators making a strong run in 2017 when they ousted Boston and the Rangers before falling to the Penguins in double overtime in Game 7.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Even with an impressive win over the Bruins Thursday, Buffalo still trails the Canadiens by a point at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, while the Senators are on the bottom of the division with 20 points and they’re a game below .500. It’s impossible to say more, because they’ve played a ridiculous 21 games, six fewer than the Sabres and seven less than the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Ultimately, of course, the goal is “sustained excellence.” Define that as you wish but don’t dream that it’s six Stanley Cups in nine seasons, because that will never happen again in a 32-team league. To me sustained excellence would mean at least four playoff appearances in five years, a consistent 100 points in the regular-season standings and one or more conference finals.

Establish that plateau, then reach for the stars ­— say two parades in a decade. A modern dynasty.

[email protected]


Article content