Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The 18th place team is on the verge of a Stanley Cup. It has to mean something. But what?

Here are the facts: The Montreal Canadiens went 24-21-11 this year, losing eight more games than they won. They finished with the 18th-best record in a league where 16 teams make the postseason, earning the last spot in the North Division by a mere four points. They were 19th in goals differential, and finished tied with Chicago and Arizona for 19th in wins. They were 17th in goals scored and 18th in goals against, the latter partly due to their star goalie finishing the season with the seventh-worst save percentage among goalies who played at least 25 games. They were the only playoff team to hit double-digits in loser points, with 11. They fired their coach a month into the season, then saw their record get even worse under the new one. Then they went into the playoffs cold, on the heels of a season-ending five-game losing streak.

Now they’re in the Stanley Cup final.


On the surface, this doesn’t make sense. It’s sports, and sports is supposed to have upsets and underdogs, but this seems extreme. If you just look at those basic numbers up above, then what’s happening in Montreal seems borderline impossible. We haven’t seen a team turn a regular season like this into a championship since 1949, but the Habs are on the verge of doing it. And they’re kind of making it look easy.

It has to mean something. But what?

Spoiler alert: I have no idea. But I want to think it through, so I’ve come up with ten theories about what’s happened to the Montreal Canadiens over the course of this run, and what the rest of us can learn from it. There may be some truth to a few of them, or even most. They may all be wrong.

Let’s try to find out. I’ll give you ten theories, why they work, and why they might not, and then you head to the comments and tell me which ones I should buy into.

Theory #1: The Habs aren’t a bad team and never were

The theory: Let’s start with what might be both the easiest answer, and also the most complicated: The standings lied. The Canadiens went through their ups and down like any team, but they were always a good team that was a threat to have the sort of run they’re having. If you missed that because you didn’t look any deeper than what the standings page said, that’s on you.

Why it might work: There’s a decent argument to be made that a simple glance at the Canadiens’ record is at least misleading. For starters, they got all those loser points because they went 3-8 in overtime and 1-3 in shootouts; in regulation, when real hockey is played, they basically broke even (20 wins and 21 losses). That late-season losing streak came when they already had a playoff spot largely wrapped up, and they were tired from a condensed schedule due to COVID delays. Carey Price was hurt for a lot of the year, so throw his stats out the window. And the team’s underlying numbers were good, with Natural Stattrick’s numbers having them 10th in 5-on-5 expected goals percentage and second in 5-on-5 Corsi, but the seventh worst PDO in the league (and worst among playoff teams).

Why it might not: All of that does seem like a pretty convincing argument that the Canadiens weren’t a bad team, but I’m not sure it adds up to them being especially good. The various models out there, including Dom’s, all take underlying numbers into account, and most of them still didn’t think much of Montreal’s chances. So at best, this theory only gets us part of the way there. Let’s keep going…

Theory #2: The playoffs are just different and Marc Bergevin understood that

The theory: We’re constantly told that the playoffs are a different game. Marc Bergevin knew that, and he built a team that was designed for the postseason.

Why it might work: Go down the list of postseason cliches, and the Habs do check a lot of boxes. They play defense. They block shots. They’re good on special teams, especially the penalty kill. They don’t have any big-name stars who rack up stats and personal glory, but they do have a bunch of guys willing to lay it all on the line for the team.

Maybe the playoffs really are different. And more intriguingly, maybe Bergevin understood that in a way that most of us don’t, and built a team that was just good enough to get into the postseason and perfectly positioned to be a force once they were there. He added veterans with Cup rings, including Corey Perry and Eric Staal. He went out and got a big body in Josh Anderson, even coming off of a terrible season, because those are the guys who are hardest to handle in the playoffs. He had guys like Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault and Paul Byron who’d leave everything on the ice. And he built it all around Carey Price and Shea Weber, two Team Canada veterans who’ve played on the biggest stages but are hungry for their first Cups.

He built that team knowing that if they could be good enough during the season and have the old Price show up in time for the playoffs, they’d be contenders. He was right.

Why it might not: It starts sounding a little too convenient, right? Sure, the playoffs aren’t the same as the regular season, but it’s not a whole new sport. And it gets a little too easy for those of us in the narrative business to just wait until the final, then knowingly point at the two teams left and say that they “knew how to play playoff hockey” and all the other teams didn’t. It’s weird how we never manage to figure any of this out until we already know the right answer.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to this idea, or that Bergevin doesn’t deserve credit. But if he’s truly cracked the code, this success should be sustainable and not just a one-year wonder. I guess time will tell.

Theory #3: It’s time to accept that the regular season doesn’t matter

The theory: This is a slightly more nihilistic version of Theory 2. It’s not just that the playoffs are different. It’s that they’re practically random, with tiny two-week sample sizes that lend themselves to flukes, hot streaks and weird bounces.

The regular season tells us which 16 teams make the playoffs, and that’s it. Once the postseason starts, we’re just flipping coins, which is why the 18th best team in the league basically has as good a shot as anyone.

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