The Montreal Canadiens Competitiveness is Emblematic of Today’s NHL

Jul 8, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CANADA; General view of the Montreal Canadiens. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 8, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CANADA; General view of the Montreal Canadiens. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports /

The Montreal Canadiens four wins in their first eight games this season came as a surprise to most, especially as the team was pegged by many as a prime candidate for last overall again, or at least really poor performance this year.

Yet, should it have been surprising?

Not to say “Of course the Habs were going to be good, couldn’t you see it?” but there should have been recognition of the NHL’s increasing competitiveness, and what traditionally is labelled a “bad team” doesn’t mean what it used to in generations past.

More and more teams pronounced as “weak” turn out not to be so, and three weeks into the 2022-23 season Montreal, Buffalo, Boston, New Jersey, Detroit, Buffalo, Ottawa, Chicago, Dallas, and Winnipeg are collectively sixteen games over .500, and none are below it.

In most pre-season rankings almost all of those clubs were slotted in the lower half of the table, only Boston sometimes placing a bit higher.

In the Atlantic division, at the time of this writing, exactly one point separates second from eighth place. This is unprecedented, and speaks to the brilliance of an NHL model prefaced on a bottom-up draft system and salary caps for individual teams.

The NHL’s true excellence, however, has really been achieved through its curation of the best hockey talent in existence. It is essentially a collection of global all-stars, and as such may be the most compelling league in the world.

That is a bold statement, for some of the “great leagues” that first come to mind when the topic arises are usually Formula One racing or Serie A soccer.

As for Formula One, let’s just say that between it and competitiveness lies a chasm and leave it at that.

Serie A is just one of many professional soccer leagues in Europe, and the world, and therein lies the key difference from the NHL. Elite soccer players are dispersed across many alliances and nations, whereas the NHL is clearly the preferred destination for hockey professionals.

The NHL, therefore, has become home to approximately the top seven hundred hockey players in the world, a concentration of talent unrivalled in professional sports.

Some would argue that the NFL, MLB, and NBA are similar to the NHL, all being destinations of choice for football, baseball and basketball players respectively. However, the vast majority of their athletes are American, whereas the NHL is much more diverse in terms of nationality and is very much an international league.

That the finest hockey players have all gathered in North America explains the fierce competitiveness of the NHL. In this group of seven hundred players, the skill difference between the top and lowest rated is not nearly as great as generally thought, they are all exceptionally talented.

Perhaps many of us recall a time when the NHL was about the haves and have-nots. In the 1970s only Montreal, Boston, and Philadelphia were in the headlines. Teams like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Kansas City etc. were extremely and sometimes laughingly weak. Eventually some upstarts like the Islanders came to the forefront, but the NHL remained relatively small (less than twenty teams for much of the 70s) and severely unbalanced.

The talent infusion of Eastern Bloc players in the late 1980s and early 1990s raised the quality of play considerably, but it wasn’t long before it became evident that the NHL was headed for a distribution of success determined mostly by team budgets. By the 2000s, many of the smaller market teams were in financial trouble and with no prospects for success.

Gary Bettman forced the issue with a lockout in 2004-05 and implemented a salary cap thereafter, and year by year since the league has grown financially and competitively more stable and equitable.

Unlike MLB’s coddling of the New York Yankees or F1’s carte blanche for Ferrari in times past, Bettman, a true visionary, has expanded the scope of success across the entire axis of his organization in lieu of catering to a small elite.

The NHL is not “watered down” by having thirty two teams – the talent pool is just too large and ever growing – or because of salary caps. Its clubs are not mediocre when considered in absolute terms as over the decades players have become taller, heavier, stronger, faster, smarter and more skilled.

Every NHL game is now played at lightning speed, crushing force, and with strategizing so clever that it probably is not a stretch to say that the Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s would not likely be able to hold a candle to most, if any, of today’s NHL teams.

So it should never shock when a team like Montreal beats Toronto, for example, and its not the end of the world for the Leafs, either, when that happens. It doesn’t mean the Leafs played terribly, just that Canadiens are a modern NHL team that functions at a much higher level than commonly prejudiced.

And similarly, none should be perplexed about this year’s standings so far.

Yet, there are some who still long for the wild-west days of clubs being able to buy as much talent as they can afford, and having the standings dominated by the same teams year after year after year. I find it curious and disheartening when major mainstream commentators misinterpret parity as a proliferation of mediocrity.

The NHL has impressively evolved and may be icing the best product in the sports market.  Yearning for bygone days of dynasties and super-teams is just a nostalgic reflex that things were better in the past, however there is little evidence to support that sentiment.

That does not mean that things are absolutely equal and there will no longer be dominant or dynasty teams, just that we need to redefine what a dynasty looks like in the modern era. Given how hyper-competitive the NHL is, it is reasonable to say that the Tampa Bay Lightning are indeed a dynasty. Their two Stanley Cup wins were bracketed by a record-setting regular season performance and a loss in the Finals – four excellent seasons in a row. This is certainly an achievement on par with any traditional dynastic organization.

Fortunately, hockey fans are now in the enviable position of not only being able to tune into any NHL game and witness excellent play, but also to immerse themselves in analyzing how teams are constructed, managed, and coached, because hockey brains, not money brawn, are now what make one club better than the next.

As for Montreal Canadiens fans, well, we should get comfortable with being underestimated by those who have yet to come to grasp with what the NHL is these days, and just enjoy the team dishing out “surprises” along the way. If all goes well, could there be a really big one in store by season’s end?..

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