Canada

Jack Todd: Canadiens' season is toast and all jobs are on the line

Days before Garrett Rank and Dean Morton turned in an officiating performance Saturday night so rancid the normally stoic Brendan Gallagher was moved to a fiery postgame outburst, the Canadiens quietly made their exit from this miserable season with a home loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

It wasn’t official. There’s still a chance, but there’s also a mathematical possibility you might hit the 6/49 jackpot. With the Habs on the outside looking in and facing a road trip to Boston and Pittsburgh, the Arizona game was one they had to put in the win column. The Dallas game was another.

Now I’m as mystified as anyone else as to how two referees with only six skaters to watch could fail to notice either Max Domi’s mouth being torn open by a high stick, or a flagrant centre-ice trip to haul down Joel Armia — but good teams don’t blow 3-0 leads at home no matter how bad the officiating.

In truth, any hope the Canadiens had of a miracle resurgence was gutted when captain Shea Weber went down. The team took the news like a Mike Tyson uppercut to the solar plexus. Faced with a crucial week, they lost all four games, their season effectively over by Valentine’s Day.

Canadiens goaltender Carey Price clears the puck against the Dallas Stars at Bell Centre on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, in Montreal. Jean-Yves Ahern / USA TODAY Sports

To the bitter end, this will go down as a team that was less than the sum of its parts, for reasons that remain less than clear. Fairly or unfairly, blame has already been apportioned to head coach Claude Julien and GM Marc Bergevin. The fans want blood on the carpet and they want it now, to the point where some want Bergevin fired immediately, with the trade deadline a week away.

The suggestion is ludicrous, but it leads to a strange truth underlying this lost season, which is the team seems to be worse despite a series of strong moves made by Bergevin over the past couple of years, deals that brought in Domi, Tomas Tatar, Armia and young Nick Suzuki, who has merely been the Canadiens best skater over the past month.

Bergevin simply doesn’t lose significant trades — yet his team is about to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season and fourth time in five years and that is, as his critics are quick to point out, unacceptable — especially in Montreal.

Excuses are out there, ranging from Carey Price’s November slump, to losing four key forwards at once, to the embarrassing work done by referees Rank and Morton on Saturday night — but every team has issues to overcome. The good ones do, teams like Boston, Pittsburgh and Tampa, all now steaming toward the playoffs as the Habs fade away.

This long disastrous stretch seems to have begun when Jonathan Drouin was injured, followed in quick succession by Paul Byron, Armia and Gallagher. When he finally returned to action, Drouin was back in the lineup for all of four games, played as though he was cradling a carton of eggs on the blade of his stick, then came down with a sprained ankle — calling his heart and desire into question all over again.

Meanwhile, Ilya Kovalchuk, who had provided such a tremendous boost for team and fans alike, has hit a wall and delivered only one goal and one assist in his last six games. That was to be expected for a player who has seen limited action over the past two seasons, but this is rather a long wall, complicating any possible contract and/or trade negotiations.

Now Weber is out, the season is toast and Geoff Molson will have some huge decisions to make come April and the golf course. For now, Bergevin goes into the trade deadline with only a couple of players who should be untouchable: Gallagher, because he’s the heart and soul, and Suzuki, because he’s the future. I would hang on to Tatar and Jeff Petry, but when your team plays as this one has, all jobs are on the line — including those of the kindly old coach and the GM himself.

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Baseball that matters in Montreal by June 2024? Impossible, you say?

Yet it seems now the return of the Expos (or more properly, the Ex-Rays) is now all but a certainty, at least on a shared basis with the city of Tampa. According to a report from my old friend Réjean Tremblay, the Stephen Bronfman group is now only a few months away from becoming minority partners with Tampa majority owner Stuart Sternberg in a split-city concept that already has the approval of Major League Baseball. The Bronfman group is going full speed ahead with its Peel Basin ballpark project with completion planned for three years after the first shovel goes in the ground.

It’s a lot to take in and it’s unclear how this can be done given the outright opposition of the city of St. Petersburg and that infamous unbreakable lease. In the long-term, meaning after 2028, I still believe this team is going to belong entirely to the city of Montreal. Meanwhile, I’m waiting to see how it all works, but it now seems clear:

It’s no longer “whether” the Expos return in some form. It’s when.

jacktodd46@yahoo.com

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