The Montreal Canadiens had a feeling things weren’t going well from the start of training camp.
They didn’t, as the team plummeted from 103 points and a division title in 2016-17 to 71 points to finish well out of the playoffs this season.
As players emerged from exit meetings with management on Monday, many spoke of a season that started badly and never got better.
“I don’t think you can pinpoint one thing, but right from the start, you can go right back to training camp, we weren’t good enough,” said forward Brendan Gallagher, one of the few bright spots with a career-high 31 goals this season. “We were searching for solutions every day.
“That was probably the hardest part. We’d come to the rink every day, talking to you [media], thinking we had the answer and obviously not having it. I am proud of the guys because even when we were out of it, we continued to come to work every day, but we failed by being in that situation so long and not finding a solution.”
The Canadiens finished with the fourth-worst record in the 31-team NHL. They missed the playoffs for a second time in three years while tying a team record with 40 regulation losses en route to a 29-40-13 campaign. It included a league-worst road record of 11-26-4, in which they were outscored 147-93.
The Canadiens put themselves in a hole by winning only one of their first 10 games and were never able to dig themselves out.
“Early on, there were definitely some warning signs,” captain Max Pacioretty said. “As early as the preseason, we struggled heavily to score and struggled to win, and it seemed like that kind of stayed with us throughout the year.
“At the moment, you’re not getting too caught up with it, but as early as training camp things looked negative and never really seemed to get positive from there.”
It really goes back to last summer and some questionable moves from general manager Marc Bergevin.
It started with a promising trade that sent defence prospect Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay for gifted forward Jonathan Drouin, with the hope he could become the productive first-line centre the team has been missing for several years.
But then Bergevin watched as right-winger Alexander Radulov, who made an impressive return to the NHL last season, signed as a free agent with Dallas. Then he couldn’t make a deal with 38-year-old defenceman Andrei Markov and lost him to the KHL.
That left Montreal, a rich team, with about US$8-million in unused salary cap space and two gaping holes in its roster.
The off-season signing of defenceman Karl Alzner was also a bust, while Drouin struggled to adapt to playing centre for most of the season.
It also hurt that top defenceman Shea Weber injured is left foot in the opening game of the season. While he tried to play on, he was shut down in mid-season for surgery.
Then star goalie Carey Price, who signed an eight-year contract extension worth US$84-million that begins in 2018-19, had a horrible start, letting in uncharacteristically soft goals. He recovered from that, then missed 15 games with a concussion. He finished well off his career numbers with a 16-26-7 with a .900 save percentage and a 3.11 goals-against average in 49 games.
Pacioretty also seemed to lose the touch that saw him score at least 30 goals in his past five full seasons, dropping to 17 goals in 64 games. He ended the season on injured reserve with a strained MCL.
There were rumours about Pacioretty at the trade deadline that will carry into the summer. He is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season.
“I was more frustrated with my game when it got to the point where those rumours were surrounding me,” Pacioretty said. “I’ve said it so many times before: I love playing in Montreal.
“I take a lot of pride in playing for Montreal. I’ve had a lot of success playing in Montreal and ideally, I want to be a Montreal Canadien for life. But things aren’t ideal now. Obviously things will change. I’m not sure what. We’ll see what happens.”
Injuries to regulars such as Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw also hurt, but the team was losing even before the injuries hit.
Defenceman Jeff Petry said it didn’t help that they played a heavy preseason schedule while trying to learn a new system under coach Claude Julien, who was hired late in the 2016-17 campaign.
“It had a bit to do with it – not fully understanding the system and not having the ability to practise the system,” he said.
A surprise was a penalty kill that was 30th in the league with a 74.1-per-cent kill rate.
Changes are expected this summer. The Canadiens still need a competent offensive centre and are hurting on the left side of the defence, among other deficiencies.
But most players believe that the same team returning healthy next year would do much better than this season’s squad.
“I’m not worried about the future of this team,” Price said. “We just had a bad year.
“A lot of underachieving performances, myself included. It’s disappointing, but next year’s a brand new year and we have to go in with the most optimism.”