TORONTO — It was another hard-fought loss for the Montreal Canadiens, a respectable effort from a completely depleted team, a battle to the end against a Toronto Maple Leafs side that added two centres a night prior in one of the biggest trades made this season. It made this an unwinnable war, and that’s all you could really ask for.
It’s that type of result you have to pray for from here to the end if you’re a Canadiens fan, because it’s really the only other way this rebuild will be served between now and the end of April.
The culture that coach Martin St. Louis hoped to instill at the beginning of the season is healthy and established, young players have developed and are continuing to grow, and all of that has led the team to win 23 games and compete in several more than they were expected to before the first of these 56 was played.
It’s what led the Canadiens to keep pushing in this 5-1 loss, even late in the third period on Saturday.
They’re where they hoped they’d be on that side of things, and that’s a big positive that helps offset one major negative — that they aren’t where they thought they’d be approaching the March 3 trade deadline.
The Canadiens aren’t likely to get there between now and then, either.
“We have 10 NHL players not playing,” reminded St. Louis, and it’s hard to ignore who’s among them.
Sean Monahan represented the Canadiens’ greatest opportunity to recoup another first-round pick, but his two-and-a-half-month absence with a lower-body injury has rendered that dream scenario unrealizable.
Earlier on Saturday, St. Louis said Monahan, who’s been skating with the team over the past week, has “plateaued” in his rehabilitation of his injury. “We’ll see what next week brings,” he added, making it open-ended at best he’ll be able to play the five games between now and the deadline, let alone show well enough in them to boost his stock significantly.
If Monahan’s progress has stalled, what’s to say of Joel Edmundson’s?
The six-foot-five, 221-pound defenceman represented a valuable trade chip before suffering an upper-body injury early in a game against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 26, and he hasn’t been able to do anything but skate on his own since. Teams that were leery of his wonky back prior to that haven’t exactly had their fears quelled by this latest developments.
No one is blowing up general manager Kent Hughes’ phone for Jonathan Drouin, even if the skilled winger has put up 11 points in his last 12 games.
The player is doing everything he can to boost his value — not only to make himself attractive to playoff-bound teams but to earn himself a new contract after this one (which counts for $5.5 million on the cap this season) expires — but he’s still goal-less on the season after not converting on one his seven shots against the Maple Leafs.
Hughes will try as hard as he can to move Mike Hoffman, who has 10 points in his last 12 games and had three Grade-A chances to add to those totals against Toronto.
But with the player’s $4.5-million cap hit lasting through the end of next season, that might prove impossible.
That Evgenii Dadonov represents Hughes’ best opportunity to make something happen on the trade market over the next two weeks is a far cry from where this all could’ve gone before the season started. It’s not like the Canadiens were ever going to be on the other end of a deal like the one the St. Louis Blues made with Toronto on Friday to obtain Adam Gaudette, Mikhail Abramov and first-, second-, and third-round picks for pending unrestricted free agents Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, but there was some real promise to be able to turn some of what they had into assets that could help advance their rebuild.
But, hey, things rarely turn out as expected.
The season going as it has to date is a prime example of that, and the Canadiens are thankful on that end.
They’ve built something in the way they’ve competed, and that will be valuable to them down the line. So will the steps forward so many of their young players have taken so far.
And the Canadiens will keep pushing forward on those fronts, even with the losses likely to pile up much more than they have to this point.
“We’ve gotta keep positive with where we are and how many young players we have,” said Drouin. “We want to make sure everyone’s on the right page and everyone’s feeling good for a game. We’re going to have some big games against some really good teams.”
Winning will prove elusive for the Canadiens, with so many of their players nowhere near ready to return to help them navigate the unforgiving schedule ahead.
It’ll keep the Canadiens on the road for six of their next seven games. They’ll travel to New Jersey and Philadelphia, and then to San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Las Vegas and back. They’ll play 16 games over the 31 days of March. And, looking at the whole picture, they’ll play more games against the NHL’s top teams than any other team in the league will from here to the end.
They’ll try to win without expecting to.
“Just be engaged as a player and keep working on the things that we’re talking about and building our brand and the way we want to play,” said St. Louis. “There’s things that we’ve built throughout the season and just stay true to those. That’s what we focus on. That’s the level of expectation I have in terms of how we want to play.
“Are we going to win? I’m not sure, but how you measure success in the situation we are right now is just keep building for what we want to look like.”
Even in Thursday’s 6-2 loss to Carolina and Saturday’s 5-1 loss to Toronto, the Canadiens did that.
They also increased their chances of tumbling further down the standings, which they’re likely to do at least a bit more before the season ends.