The Montreal Canadiens are a good reminder of that old saying – “Don’t put too much faith in old sayings.”
On Monday night, Montreal won the Canadian end of the NHL this year (which isn’t saying much, but still). The Habs spent four games slapping the Winnipeg Jets around like they had them under the hot lights. It wasn’t domination. It was something more humiliating than that.
If you spin this chain out – Canadiens sweep Jets who swept Oilers – Connor McDavid should not immediately demand a trade out of Edmonton. He should demand to be moved to a different sport under a new identity.
The knockout of the Jets followed seven games of rope-a-dope against Toronto. That ended with the Leafs TKO-ing themselves.
The Canadiens look as well put together as any of the best teams still in the playoffs. Building a winner in the salary-cap era is tough. How’d the Canadiens manage it?
Simple. They do everything wrong.
They give the bulk of their annual spend – nearly a quarter of it –- to two guys in their mid-30s. Neither one of them scores goals. That’s like buying two anchors for your rowboat, and not having enough left over for oars.
They do have offensive players in their prime, but only if by that we mean that they are 27 or 28 years old and wear skates to work. In a star-obsessed league, the Canadiens don’t have one (that is, if we don’t count the guy in net, and no one does any more).
They have some intriguing young talent, none of which they trusted just a couple of weeks ago.
The Canadiens are built like an old-school news story – an inverted pyramid. There’s a reason they build pyramids the other way around.
The Leafs? Now the Leafs are built right. They conform to the specs laid out by 10 out of 10 currently employed NHL executives, all of whom think, act and talk exactly like one another.
Toronto tanked for years and drafted high. The Leafs lost. They showed patience. They lost. They paid everyone off. They lost. They sat back and waited for the crop to come in. And they lost.
That’s how it works. That’s how it has always worked (since 2010). But right now, it’s not working. The Right Way of Doing Things is making strange popping noises and giving off a funny smell.
Over on the other end, there’s Montreal. The Canadiens are not providing some new vision for how hockey rosters ought to be constructed. Instead, they are a reminder that all such systems are flawed. At worst, they’re delusional.
Not because they don’t work, but because teams are not a machine language. One is filled with humans, and the other with 1s and 0s. The 1s and 0s don’t break up with their girlfriend and have a bad night.
Sports executives – understandably keen to convince people they’ve solved the Rubik’s Cube of performance – talk like a hockey team is a math problem. You find the right inputs (AustonMatthews+MitchMarner+SomeOtherGuy) and it’ll give you the solution you’re looking for (PARADE).
Analytics are the hammer. Players are the nails. If a nail bends, it’s no one’s fault. Nails just bend and no one knows why. That’s how everyone keeps their job.
The elevated guesswork that is the modern management cult does turn out sometimes. But nearly as often, it’s the team you didn’t quite see coming that wins.
Who called the St. Louis Blues in 2019? No one. As soon as they’d won, everyone was convinced the Blues had figured out how to get the Caramilk into the Caramilk bar. Forget about small, quick guys. Get more big, old guys. These aren’t trends any more. They’re fads. They change so often, they’re out of fashion before anyone can implement them.
Are the Canadiens a great team all of a sudden? Define “great.” Then define “are.”
They’ve been great for seven games, and otherworldly for five. Would they be as great if they played those games again? Probably not. Would the Leafs and the Jets both be as flat? Probably not. Combine those two “probably nots” and you get one “highly unlikely.”
Everyone who’s spent time at a craps table understands what’s happening – the Canadiens are on a heater.
No math can explain why a shooter gets hot in craps. But if you are standing there when they do, you can feel it happening.
The Canadiens are the hot shooter of the NHL postseason. It started with a couple of lucky breaks in overtime against Toronto. That got Carey Price in a mood. His confidence was contagious. In the tone-setter against Winnipeg, Mark Scheifele lost the plot for a moment. That wrong-footed his own team, and convinced the Canadiens they were in Winnipeg’s head. All of a sudden, the Jets look like the point of the game is to hit posts and the Canadiens can’t miss.
None of this has anything to do with roster construction. Montreal is objectively less talented than Toronto and Winnipeg.
But when you’re on a roller coaster this short, incremental differences in ability can sometimes stop mattering.
Great teams are not defined by their individual parts. It’s their collective ability to begin and/or end the sorts of runs Montreal is currently on. That sort of team is the Holy Grail of sport.
Are the Montreal Canadiens that sort of great team? No. Not even close.
But they are a great team right now. They are a team that Vegas or Colorado – whichever they end up facing – will say all the right things about. That they’re not overlooking or underestimating them. But that will be a lie. They’ll be thinking, “Who? These muppets that’s the best Canada’s got this year?” That’s human nature.
No one takes Montreal seriously because no one should.
But those teams won’t be playing the Montreal Canadiens. They’ll be playing whatever team is showing up right now in blue and red. The team that doesn’t know it isn’t good enough to be here. The team that just keeps coming out and making its point.