Behind the Bench, Sports

How the Habs let down their stars

The Montreal Canadiens are having nothing short of an absolute dumpster fire of a season this year. Currently sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic division, the Canadiens have a 0.1 per cent chance of making the playoffs, on par with their performance last season. With troubles coming from every direction imaginable, many are claiming this year is the beginning of a much-needed rebuild.

In the latest of their series of unfortunate events, the team announced that Cole Caufield, the Habs’ leading goal scorer and prized possession, would miss the remainder of the season due to a surgery for a shoulder injury sustained earlier in the year. 

Montreal has not had more than a three-game win streak all season. Despite abysmally low playoff chances, the administration allowed Caufield to play with a serious injury, which likely aggravated it and made the recovery period lengthier and more tedious.

The loss of Caufield in a season with so few bright spots is damaging in many respects. Not only is he one of the Canadiens’ best players, but Caufield is also one of his teammates’ biggest supporters. An undeniable fan favourite, Caufield’s absence will be felt by Habs fans and players alike, both on and off the ice.

As a selfless teammate, it checks out that Caufield would want to set aside his own pain to help shine some light on an otherwise dark season. But at 22 years old, the Wisconsin native who currently ranks 11th in the National Hockey League (NHL) for goals scored has an incredibly bright future ahead of him—that is, if he stays healthy. In allowing Caufield to play while injured, the Canadiens’ medical staff were careless and placed the player in dangerous conditions for what can only be described as a throwaway season.

This isn’t the first time Montreal stars have been permitted to play despite lingering injuries. Carey Price and Shea Weber—both forced into retirement by injuries (among other factors)—were permitted to play with serious ailments that they never quite recovered from. Creating an environment where star players feel safe and taken care of is imperative to the long-term success of any team.

With 11 players currently out of the Habs lineup with injuries, Caufield isn’t the only one who was encouraged to play through the pain, calling into question the  competence of the Canadiens’ medical staff. In early December, Sean Monahan, who is currently fifth on the roster in terms of points, showed up to a game in an ankle boot and was still allowed to play. 

At this point, many Habs fans are just hoping for the season to end as quickly and as painlessly as possible. With 35 games left in the regular season, many are calling on them to “tank for Bedard.” Actively tanking, the practice of intentionally weakening a team in the hopes of falling in the standings and gaining a better slot in the next year’s draft lottery, is becoming more and more popular with teams hoping to get their hands on World-Juniors phenom Connor Bedard with a first-round pick.   

The tanking strategy, though, has already proven unsuccessful for the Habs. After a dreadful 22–49–11 season last year, the Canadiens were fortunate enough to choose first overall in the 2022 NHL Draft and selected Juraj Slafkovsky. Unfortunately, Slafkovsky continues to struggle at the NHL level, missing three months due to a lower-body injury, and is currently part of the slew of injured players.   

The answer to the Habs’ woes is not as simple as another first overall pick. As we have seen from failures such as the Edmonton Oilers and the Buffalo Sabres, even multiple consecutive years of superstar draft picks do not guarantee success, because even the strongest players cannot rebuild a broken system. 

With Caufield’s contract with the Canadiens coming up at the end of this season, an extension is beginning to seem more and more unlikely. Montreal must start putting the safety of its players first, and focus on the talent they do have instead of each “shiny new toy” dubbed to be the next Maurice Richard. If they are unable to do so, they run the risk of losing their stars to teams that protect their players’ health and still manage to bring home the cup.

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