The Montreal Canadiens put forth a valiant effort, but they were simply outmatched by a much more talented team in the Tampa Bay Lightning, who managed to become just the second team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the cap era.
Despite the disappointing final result, it was a thrilling season for the Habs; they stumbled midway through the season, which cost Claude Julien his job, and stumbled into the playoffs and fell to a 3-1 lead in the opening round before flipping the script. It was a surprising performance, and now that the season is over, there’s one thought lingering in everyone’s minds: Can the Habs do it again next season?
The turnaround was so swift GM Marc Bergevin went from being rumoured to being on the chopping block to garnering 13 first-place votes for the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award, one more than eventual winner Lou Lamoriello. Obviously, some luck was involved in the Habs’ magical run, but there were two distinct features of this Habs club: staunch defensive play led by four solid lines led by key signings through free agency and superhuman performances from Carey Price. Bergevin will have some tough decisions to make again this offseason and cross his fingers they can rekindle the magic.
One of the keys to answering the repeatability of the Habs’ performance lies in the fate of Phillip Danault, who finished top-seven in Selke Trophy voting for the third season in a row. He turned down a six-year, $30-million deal during the season, according to the Montreal Gazette, and time will tell if that was the right decision, but if the Habs want to maintain their current style of play, they have to find a way to keep him. He was instrumental in limiting Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point to just two points in the final four games of the series.
According to Natural Stat Trick, over the past three seasons among forwards with at least 2,000 minutes played at 5-on-5, Danault ranks fourth with a 58.08 CF%, fifth with a 57.90 xGF% and fourth in xGF and xGA differential at 36.38. He’s been one of the best even-strength forward duos in the league with Brendan Gallagher, and when they’re not on the ice, the Habs’ CF% drops by 7.93 percent.
Translation: Danault has been one of the big reasons why the Habs have been such a good puck possession team – typically a good indicator for playoff success – for the past few seasons, and when paired with Gallagher they create a lot more shot attempts than they allow.
They do this with their ability to move the puck up the ice, drive the net and retrieve loose pucks. Along with Tomas Tatar, who had been a fixture on the Habs’ top line up until this season and played in just five playoff games, only one other trio can claim to have made such an impact: Boston’s Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
Danault and Gallagher’s scoring fell off in the playoffs – as did most of the team, especially the blue line – posting possession numbers well below their usual standards and mustered just three goals, but Danault was still a key part of the Habs’ depth down the middle, a big reason why they were able to defeat the Maple Leafs, Jets and Golden Knights, all of whom had top-six centers who missed time due to injury or suspension.
Of the 491 faceoffs the Habs have taken in the defensive zone in the playoffs, Danault had taken 301 (61.3%) of them and was also the only regular to win over 50 percent of his draws overall. It wasn’t until the Habs faced the Lightning, who also boasted quality depth down the middle, did the Habs really struggle.
Danault was central to the Habs’ identity as a defensive team, and his departure will also disrupt his budding bromance with Cole Caufield, who has been effusive about Danault’s contributions despite his lack of scoring.
If Danault leaves, that leaves Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who is an RFA, as their top two centers, who are stylistically very different from Danault. It’ll force the Habs to potentially have a more traditional setup with two scoring lines and two checking lines with Jake Evans as one of the bottom-six centers. That’s not saying the Habs can’t succeed with Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, but they’ll certainly be a very different team and may have to play a different type of game, and also find someone who they can deploy in the defensive zone.
Using hockey-reference.com’s Point Shares, which calculates the number of points a player contributes to his team over the course of a season, we can quantify how much the Habs’ potential roster turnover may impact the team. Adding the Point Shares of each player who suited up for their respective team should add up to the team’s point total in the standings with an average absolute error of 5.05 points per 82 games. The Habs’ players accumulated 57.4 Point Shares during the 2021 season and the team finished with 59 points in the standings.
Losing Danault means losing their top forward by Defensive Point Shares (1.3), and Danault (1.9 PS total), Corey Perry (1.9), Joel Armia (1.6), Tomas Tatar (3.0) and Eric Staal (-0.3) combined for 8.1 PS, which is equivalent to roughly four wins. Suzuki and Kotkaniemi alone would be hard-pressed to make up that difference, and those Point Shares would’ve meant the difference between making or missing the playoffs in the North Division.
The other big question is Carey Price, who was very pedestrian during the regular season but ranks first in save percentage (.928) and second in goals against (2.13, behind only Andrei Vasilevskiy) over the past three seasons among goalies with at least 10 games played in the playoffs. When the chips are down, Price is still capable of shutting the door and this year’s playoff performance reinforces his sterling reputation around the league.
Price’s advanced numbers were very good, with a .878 Sv% in high-danger chances and .934 Sv% overall at 5-on-5 entering the Stanley Cup Finals, though those numbers fell to .843 and .921 entering Game 5. Maintaining that kind of elite level is difficult, and Price had really received strong support from his top-four defensemen, most of whom had played hurt. He was not particularly sharp in the first three games, and when he did manage to turn it around it was already too late against a supreme Lightning squad. The Habs’ chances of winning the Cup were directly tied to Price’s performance, and anything below elite just wasn’t going to cut it.
Could the Habs make the finals again next season? Hypothetically, anything can happen, but without Danault they’ll have to forge a new identity and count on Suzuki and Kotkaniemi to continually improve and be reliable playmakers.
They’ll need Price to be good enough to clinch a playoff berth, and after that play at an elite level for a gruelling two months. With the Lightning, Bruins and Panthers in the same division again, the Habs’ road back to the finals seems much, much tougher.