Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages… Accueillons nos Canadiens!!! And the crowd goes wild. A Bell Centre packed with over 21,000 delirious fans, most of them wearing the team’s colours. Some jerseys with the names of current players, many with the names of legends of seasons’ passed. All pulling in one direction, cheering for the team with the most Stanley Cups wins in NHL history. They want to get entertained. They want to see their team have success. They want nothing short of a Stanley Cup. Luckily for them, the Canadiens count 24 Stanley Cup banners, an astonishing 12 more than second place arch-rivals Toronto Maple Leafs.
New players walk into the Canadiens dressing room at awe with the history, the pictures, the names that wore the same uniform they are now wearing. They see for the first time the Flanders’ field quote, notorious in Montreal…
The last Stanley Cup
It was 1993. Jacques Demers was the head coach. Patrick Roy was the team’s biggest star, he who already had a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy in his pedigree. Not the best team in the NHL, but a very good team. They went on a run at the right time, winning a record 10 games in overtime during those playoffs. That was the last time Habs’ fans experienced the euphory surrounding a Stanley Cup win in Montreal. Many of you were too young to remember, some of you not even born. But you remember… you were told countless times about the rich history of this team.
And with history, often comes expectations. A history of defeat will bring a feeling of defeat and one of winning will bring the expectations of winning again. That’s perfectly normal. But this being the franchise’s 26th season without a Championship, fans are disgruntled, to say the least. They want a Cup and they want it now!
Years of futility
It has been a rough ride for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge since ’93. The team has only gone past the second round of the playoffs twice in the last 26 years. The team has missed the playoffs just under 40% of the time! Here’s what their record looks like since their last Stanley Cup victory:
It’s not a pretty picture and certainly not one that’s worth the glamour and the name “Sainte Flanelle” for sure. Since 1993, the Canadiens have:
- Lost in round 1: 9 times (including 2020)
- Lost in round 2: 5 times
- Lost in round 3: 2 times
- Out of Playoffs: 10 times
But how do you explain such futility? This is the Montreal Canadiens! It’s inexplicable and certainly unacceptable! Or is it really? Let’s try to look deeper into it, shall we?
There are two types of factors that have played a role (and still do) when trying to dissect the reasons for the Canadiens’ lack of success throughout those years.
1- Out of the team’s control
➡️ Draft changes
Since the team’s creation in 1909, the Montreal Canadiens have had some sort of privilege to French Canadian prospects in the province of Quebec one way or another. The franchise was created with predominantly French Canadian players to create a rivalry with the Montreal Maroons. In the 60’s, the NHL granted the Canadiens the choice of either drafting in turn with other teams or selecting the two French Canadian players of their choice before any other team drafted. While this wasn’t a huge factor in the team’s success, it was still an option to the team, one that other teams didn’t have. It’s not up until 1969 that the league changed all of that. The days of the Habs buying an entire league to get the rights to Jean Béliveau and Bobby Rousseau are well passed.
At one point, with this practice, there were 10,000 players on 750 teams across the continent that were considered a part of the Canadiens’ farm system. This created a stable of future prospects larger than that of the five other NHL teams combined. The NHL Draft is now (somewhat) fair and equal amongst all teams. Although pundits will argue that rules are changed regularly to favour a team or another… but not the Habs.
➡️ League expansion
Simple math here folks. Your odds of winning the Stanley Cup are much better with a 6-teams league than they are with 32 teams when the Seattle Krakens join the activities. All but two of the team’s Cups happened with 24 of fewer teams in the NHL. That doesn’t explain how the Habs were more successful than the other teams in the league, but it certainly plays in the change to today’s so-called lack of success.
➡️ Salary cap
There’s no denying that the Canadiens, along with the Rangers and Maple Leafs, have always been amongst the richest franchises in the NHL. Prior to the implementation of the hard salary cap back in 2005, they had that ever slight advantage at being able to throw more money at pending UFAs. Further, that wealth allowed them to do “cash deals”, where they were including substantial sums of money to a team in difficulty in trades for players.
As teams now all have a salary cap to respect, and the fact that no cash (except keeping some cap hit) can change hands in trades anymore, it creates a more level playing field. Further, not only can the richer teams have the advantage, revenue sharing makes that they must share their profits with other not so fortunate teams. That’s how the Arizona Coyotes, amongst others, have sort of kept afloat for all those years. That and the league buying them while looking for a new owner. But I regress…
➡️ Canadian dollar
For the most part in the olden days, the Canadian dollar was on par or higher than the American dollar. This hasn’t been the case for years now. Once is a while, the value of the dollar in Canada gets closer to the US one, but it’s usually not long lived and it’s certainly not something Canadian teams owners can count on.
Again, do the math folks. Your biggest expense, players’ exorbitant salaries, are all in US dollars. Yet, your revenues are in Canadian dollars. If the Canadian dollar is at 65¢, it costs the team 35% right off the bat. Canadian teams have been trying to get something done about it but Gary Bettman and the other league Governors, likely guided by greed, want nothing to do with it.
➡️ Taxes and players fiscality
Former GM, team President and NHL executive Brian Burke opened a can or worms last week on Sportsnet, claiming that Canadian teams were at a huge disadvantage when it comes to signing UFAs due to the higher taxes in Canada. This prompted players’ agent Allan Walsh to go on with one of his Twitter rants saying that good fiscalists will suggest for players to invest in a league pension fund to save 20% in taxes, an equalizer in his opinion.
What Walsh conveniently “forgot” to mention is that Burke is actually right. For one thing, I’m told that bonuses are tax exempt in the US. The way today’s NHL contracts are constructed, bonuses are a huge part of contract negotiations for players. Further, players much rather have the money in their hands than being forced to invest it at a lower return than the investments they can do elsewhere, at the place of their choice. So yes, Burke was right, taxes play a huge factor in a players’ decision of where to play. The Habs are behind the eight ball due to the high tax rates in Quebec.
Further, the team pays more taxes to the City and Provincial Government as well, which as an owner, cuts on your spending ability… although it doesn’t seem to affect Molson as much as it would others.
2- On the team
The above-mentioned factors are out of the teams’ control. But there are self-inflicted factors that played a role in their demise . Let’s have a look at some of them:
➡️ Poor draft and player development
This has been an achilles heel for the Canadiens over that period of time, since the last Stanley Cup win. On the 1986 Cup, a bunch of players came from the AHL’s farm team in Sherbrooke where they won the Calder Cup. Those players won the AHL’s championship one year (1985) and the Stanley Cup the following year.
It’s hard to put the finger on which, between drafting and developing their own prospects, has been the biggest downfall, so this is why I put them together. It has been painful to watch how few top end prospects have come up through the system over the years, compared to other teams.
➡️ Poor trades
We cannot talk about the lack of team success without talking about the GM job and the decisions made by the organisation. The biggest blunder in Habs’ history might just be on former team President Ronald Corey, when he hired a rookie GM in mid-season. He replaced experienced GM Serge Savard and head coach Jacques Demers by long serving employee and legit good guy Réjean Houle. The former Canadiens’ player was over his head and without preparation, then hired his friend Mario Tremblay as a rookie head coach… and we know the rest. Patrick Roy requested a trade and the trade sent the franchise in a long tailspin.
Thankfully, the Canadiens finally have a very good GM when it comes to trades, as Marc Bergevin is making a name for himself in that aspect of his job.
➡️ Poor coaching
Much has been said about the fact that the Canadiens require for their head coach to be bilingual. We’ve recently demonstrated that it’s not as big of a deal as some make it out to be. But there have been mistakes, no doubt. The Mario Tremblay and Guy Carbonneau experiments didn’t work out. Alain Vigneault is a great coach but he was a rookie back then, with a not-so-good team to coach. Michel Therrien (twice) has had his controversies and Jacques Martin’s smothering defensive system might have kept a few players from choosing Montreal as a destination. Even with Claude Julien and the youth movement the Habs are going through might not be the perfect coach for this group and could use to be replaced by a younger, more progressive coach.
➡️ Poor on-ice leadership
For the longest time, the Canadiens went from some of the best leadership group in an entire era to some so-so leadership. Out went the Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey, and it came the Chris Chelios, Mike Keane, Saku Koivu, Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty. Not downplaying the players but leadership-wise, that’s a huge step down folks. Thankfully, the arrival of Shea Weber, a league-wide well renowned leader, and the emergence of guys like Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry, has turned the clocks.
If you try to explain that to some of the fan base, you will have people who will accuse you of “accepting mediocrity”. Those people are ones who can’t think logically, or separate the perfect word in their head with the reality of life, more particularly NHL hockey in this case. They’re often the ones still complaining about Bergevin for no other reason than because he traded P.K. Subban. They love putting down Weber because they want so badly to be right. They are the few who are complaining today about Petry’s contract extension.
You see, we must considering the source and motives of some fans and media members. The Réjean Tremblay and Richard Labbé in French, and the Brendan Kelly and Tony Marinaro, are attention-seekers who base their success on controversy, even is it’s farfetched.
Far from not “accepting mediocrity”, fans and media who don’t get overly mad and excited are more “understanding that times have changed”. It’s more having the ability to look at the whole picture without being blinded by an agenda against a particular GM, coach or player. In other words, it’s called reality. Go Habs Go!