Jack Todd: Stop the tanking talk and enjoy the Canadiens' fine start

Tanking betrays a fundamental pact between a team and its fans, the pact that says organizations will do their best to win every game.

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Tanks are big, rumbling, noisy things for Ukrainian troops to blow up, not a reliable means to a Stanley Cup parade.

Tanking is regressive. It’s cowardly. It destroys your morale, fosters a culture of losing and, ultimately, it’s cheating. Cheating your players, cheating your coaching staff and cheating your fans.

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Every time the Canadiens win a game, there are brisk firestorms on social media, with tankers and anti-tankers alike ready to fight a duel at dawn.

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The Canadiens (as you may have noticed) are better than expected. If not for the catastrophic injury to Kirby Dach, they would probably be second in the Atlantic Division behind the surprising Boston Bruins and tied with Toronto.

At the 10-game mark of the season, the Habs are 5-3-2 for a dozen points. Maintain that pace the rest of the way and you have a 98-point season, well beyond any thought of a lottery pick. They’re doing it without Dach, without David Savard, without Kaiden Guhle for a stretch and now, perhaps, without Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who was injured twice in that 3-2 loss in Arizona Thursday night before leaving with a lower-body injury, prognosis unknown.

They’re doing it despite taking far too many penalties, with a mediocre power play and with virtually no production from the alleged second line of Alex Newhook, Josh Anderson and Juraj Slafkovsky.

Yet every time the Canadiens win or pick up an unexpected point, as they did against the Knights in Las Vegas, there are stricken fans caterwauling over their supposed fate, with no shot at a Cup until the 22nd Century.

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So what, pray tell, is the club to do? Tell fire-eating Martin St. Louis he’s supposed to lose? Bring Dominique Ducharme back from behind the Las Vegas bench, where he somehow ended up? See what Karl Alzner is up to these days?

Tanking is a betrayal of the unwritten but fundamental pact between a team and its fans, the pact that says organizations will do their best to win in return for the loyalty of the good people who will pay $300 for a ticket, $400 for a jersey and $20 for a beer. If you’re not playing to win, then you shouldn’t charge admission.

When a team openly tanks (see the Maple Leafs, the Oilers and the Blackhawks in recent memory) you think of the parent who scrimps and saves for years in order to take the kids to a single game, only to see a collection of AHL players and a couple of retread NHL stars get shellacked 6-1 on home ice.

And what of the season-ticket holders who have paid thousands of dollars for a pair in the reds, only to watch you stagger through a 64-point campaign in order to make the lottery, where you draft a guy who won’t have a real impact for three more dreary seasons?

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No, there are three solid reasons why a tank should be avoided at all costs: Toronto, Edmonton — and Boston. The Leafs and Oilers tanked their way to a list of names ranging from Connor McDavid to Auston Matthews to the regrettable Nail Yakupov, so far without so much as a sniff of the Cup. The Bruins, on the other hand, have lost Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and the great Patrice Bergeron since 2020. They’re one of the two best teams in the league and have been up there for the past 15 years, without tanking.

So far, fans have been patient with a Canadiens rebuild that was not a tank but the result of an accumulation of disastrous moves by the previous management. At the same time, they have not been at all patient with first overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky.

True, the big Slovak has not been productive, with only one assist this season. True, he has to shoot more than his current shot-a-game pace and he might benefit from a stint in Laval to regain his confidence. But for Slafkovsky, Dach’s injury was almost as serious a blow as it was for Dach himself. They clicked as a combo during the exhibition games, but had only four periods during the regular season to see how things would work.

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Instead, Slafkovsky has found himself with Newhook (whose long-term spot is on the wing) and Anderson (who is going through one of those phases when he creates chance after chance without finishing.)

A better solution than Laval would be to pair Slafkovsky with Sean Monahan. Monahan is currently on a line with fellow veterans Tanner Pearson and Brendan Gallagher that is statistically one of the best in the league — but in the long term, he could do more for the team by winning faceoffs and setting up Slafkovsky in the offensive zone.

There have been mutterings that Slafkovsky is another Nail Yakupov, which is absurd. He has size, he has speed, he has a shot. All he needs is confidence. Give him a month with Monahan and if it doesn’t work, Laval may be the only solution.

But be patient, please. Remember Peter Mahovlich. Remember Slafkovsky is only 19 and that big guys take longer to develop. And get off his back.

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