The Montreal Canadiens already have seen a big change to their lineup only three games into the season. Kirby Dach has suffered what the club is calling a ‘significant’ injury. Now it’s time to see how the rest of the club adapts.
Test one was the Minnesota Wild coming to the Bell Centre.
Montreal looked demoralized, falling 5-2 with the special teams, once again, atrocious.
It may be a little early to write this script, but it’s the only one available. General Manager Kent Hughes acquired Sean Monahan last season with the hope that he could turn him around at the trading deadline for a high draft pick. Monahan was co-operating beautifully for 20 games until he got injured.
Hughes went back to the well and kept Monahan on the payroll for another season to make another attempt at it. He also added another player who could fetch a high draft pick at the trading deadline, if he gets his health and keeps it: Tanner Pearson.
So far, Pearson has been outstanding in a Habs uniform. He has a wicked shot and plays a dedicated game. Early in the second period, it was Pearson blocking a shot that led to a 2-on-1. He snapped off a beauty that Marc-Andre Fleury waved at.
It was a shot much like his goal on Saturday night against Chicago. It’s difficult to know what level of pick Pearson can fetch, but a big body with a big shot and NHL experience is the type of player that is at a premium in the playoffs.
Hughes has shown a terrific ability so far to recognize talent at the NHL level. He’s made two stellar moves in acquiring Dach, as well as Mike Matheson. The Matheson move is impressive as Jeff Petry was a healthy scratch in Detroit in his last contest while Matheson is playing the best hockey of his career. Dach he recognized as having top-six potential, while also assessing Alexander Romanov as hitting his ceiling as a modest second pair defender.
He may have pulled it off a third time this off-season acquiring Alex Newhook who already has three goals this year. Hughes likes to find highly-touted players who haven’t matured yet, or haven’t been given a good chance yet. The former first-rounder, Newhook, fits into that category.
It’s early, but the early returns are promising.
It’s been years since the Canadiens were any good at special teams. They still haven’t replaced Andrei Markov. The arrival of Lane Hutson can’t come soon enough. He is a creative wizard, setting records in his second season at Boston University.
While Hutson has size issues that may impact his ability to be a force at 5-on-5 hockey, with the extra man, he should revive a moribund power play for the first time in almost a decade. Hutson has an ability to dance along the blue line, change angels, beat checkers, and find options. No one since Markov has done that in the red, white and blue.
The power play wasn’t just awful trying to score against Minnesota. It also lost the game for them in the span of 25 seconds in the first period. When Josh Anderson drew a penalty and the Canadiens headed out with the extra man, it looked good.
What happened instead was the Wild scored twice. The Bell Centre deflated. The bench deflated. The head coach hung his head. The ice tilted and it never went back to even again. The shots moved to 11-2 in favour of Minnesota.
It felt like the loss of Dach had destroyed morale. The team that competed so well against Toronto and Chicago had no jump after the Dach news.
The good news is the Canadiens are playing well when they have the same amount of players on the ice as the other team. It is eight goals to two favouring the Canadiens. However, when not 5-on-5, it’s two for an embarassing 10 against already. They have allowed five power play, two shorthanded, and three with the goalie pulled.
This is one of the oddest stats ever seen. It won’t continue. It can’t. It is unheard of to be dominant equal strength and a complete nightmare down a man, or even up a man.
It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of bad injuries. It was the age of even worse injuries.
It’s true. This feels Dickensian.
After suffering a record-breaking season of injuries in 2022-2023 with Cole Caufield, Mike Matheson, and Kaiden Guhle all gone for half of a year, it’s only game three in 2023-24 and already Scrooge has arrived well before Christmas.
Kirby Dach, apparently, has an MCL injury combined with an ACL injury (as reported by Sportsbet’s Eric Engels). Nothing is worse for an athlete. It’s the one that leaves you out for eight months and sometimes as long as 12 months. When you return, you hope that you have the same mobility, the same strength — that you’re the same man.
It isn’t just Dach that suffers, though. It’s everyone because of his ability to fill the roster out by making the club have two solid lines. He’s the best player on the Canadiens at winning ice. He can carry the puck out of the defensive zone and win the offensive zone without a dump in. He is simply the best at so much.
And now he is gone.
The journey for Juraj Slafkovsky just changed significantly in his second season as well. Dach and Slafkovsky were off to a strong start. The overall first pick looked comfortable. He was thrilled to play so often in the offensive zone where his game has a chance to take off.
Call of the Wilde!
Everyone looks for a silver lining at moments like this. For the Habs, it’s a simple one: The rest of the players continue unabated their development in the NHL. The blue line, with four sophomores, continues to get real experience. That doesn’t change because of a Dach injury.
The head coach continues to pass on his philosophies to have the club play a new way. The prospects continue to develop in Laval, Boston University, Boston College and beyond. Nothing on many fronts changes.
This was never going to be the breakout playoff year anyway. This was always going to be a building year. All that changes now is the building gets more challenging.
In the long run, the only true fear is that it stilts the growth of Dach as a player in such a key year for him. It shouldn’t. He won’t lose that comfort level. He won’t lose that idea of how to play hockey in the NHL. He will mentally still be the same player when he returns.
But only if his body is willing. Everyone needs to hope that the reconstruction of his knee goes well. The club needs his surgery to be successful, and for his rehab to restore his body to top form.
There will be more losses this season without Dach, but this wasn’t a playoff year. This was a high draft pick year, but no one wanted it to be this early that we focused on that for even a second.
Let’s see how they adapt. The four sophomore defencemen look outstanding. Alex Newhook looks great. Sean Monahan is healthy. Many positives can still happen.
No Dickensian world persists for too long. The worst of times never last. At the darkest, before the dawn, it just seems that way.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
Brian Wilde weighs in on upcoming Montreal Canadiens season