Pat Hickey: Canadiens can reach the playoffs if they stay healthy

The NHL’s promotion of Hockey is for Everyone has been exposed as a callous lie with their banning of the use of Pride Tape on sticks.

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Hockey people are fond of saying things can change quickly and the Canadiens have some recent evidence to support that belief.

Montreal reached the 2021 Stanley Cup final under the COVID protocol in what would effectively be the swan song for Carey Price and Shea Weber.

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A year later, they finished dead-last in the NHL standings and a serious rebuild began with Jeff Gorton, Kent Hughes and Martin St. Louis replacing Marc Bergevin and Dominique Ducharme.

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There was progress last season when the team played .500 hockey over the first two months with a record of 11-10-1, only to go 9-17-3 in December and January.

An NHL record 751 man-games lost to injury played a key role as the Canadiens finished fifth from the bottom, good enough for as spot in the draft lottery but not bad enough to win the Conner Bedard sweepstakes.

Going into this season, one element of the fan base is hoping to see a team that produces entertaining losses. Those fans’ reasoning is that this team is not good enough to win the Stanley Cup and the goal should be to celebrate with Celebrini. That would be Boston University freshman Macklin Celebrini, who is touted as the top choice in next June’s NHL entry draft.

I believe the Canadiens will be entertaining. And I have been telling people for several months I believe the Canadiens can reach the playoffs. I am in the minority because the oddsmakers think only the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks have less of a chance to make the playoffs.

A lot of things have to go right for the Canadiens and it starts with staying healthy. The team has more depth than in the past with the additions of Tanner Pearson and Alex Newhook, but they can’t afford a repeat of last year.

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Nick Suzuki has shown steady improvement and, while he’s not yet an elite centre, the Canadiens have balance in the middle. Suzuki and Cole Caufield have great chemistry and 40-plus goals is a realistic target for Caufield.

The defence was particularly hard-hit by injuries last season, Johnathan Kovacevic was the only defenceman who played more than 65 games. The revolving door on defence made it difficult to create chemistry between the pairs and between the defence and the goaltenders.

Goaltending has been a concern since Price’s departure. Down the road, the Canadiens will have to find a goaltender through a trade, free agency or, less likely, through the draft, but for the time being, St. Louis will alternate Sam Montembeault and Jake Allen. They are hard-working, but their numbers scream backup goaltender.

The hope is that as the defence improves, they will relieve some of the pressure on the goalies. The Canadiens can’t afford many nights like Wednesday’s opener in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs fired 42 shots at Allen.

The Canadiens can draw some inspiration from the Vegas Golden Knights. They won the Stanley Cup with career backup Adin Hill in net because the best defensive corps in the NHL forced the opposition to shoot from long distance.

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NHL turtles on Pride issue: The NHL’s promotion of Hockey is for Everyone has been exposed as a callous lie. This week, the league announced that players would not be allowed to use multicoloured Pride Tape on their sticks in games or practices.

The NHL said it was an extension of a June decision not to allow teams to wear any theme jerseys for warm-ups after a handful of players opted out of those situations during Pride night last season. The league said players opting out of Pride nights served as a distraction to the work its teams were doing in the community.

The league took pains to avoid charges that the gutless decision was homophobic by also banning theme jerseys for Hockey Fights Cancer and military recognition nights although I suspect the Canadiens and other teams will continue to sell green jerseys for St. Patrick’s Day.

The NHL decision has been criticized by players such as Connor McDavid and Morgan Rielly and former NHL executive Brian Burke, who said on social media Wednesday that the league’s decision to ban on-ice support for community causes is a “surprising and serious setback.”

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Burke, now the executive director of the Professional Women’s Hockey League Players’ Association, says it strips teams and players of a powerful way to support causes they care about to protect the small minority of players “who do not want to answer any questions about their choices.”

Burke was the driving force behind the You Can Play Project after his son Brendan, who was gay, died in a car accident. The group partnered with the NHL on the Hockey is for Everyone campaign.

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