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NHL

The Canadiens Aren’t Thinking About Next Year

Eric Staal celebrates his overtime goal
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty

In no NHL division are the playoff teams and the also-rans so clearly separated as they are up in Canada, where the Leafs, Jets, Oilers and Habs reign supreme over the flailing Flames and the overmatched Sens and the plague-stricken Canucks. So Montreal’s win-now acquisition of Eric Staal from Buffalo in exchange for a couple of draft picks was not in any way necessary to ensure that they’re among the top four. It was instead the sort of move a team makes when it’s hoping to go all the way. And why the heck not?

After completing his seven-day post-trade quarantine, the veteran forward debuted in Montreal on Monday and made an immediate impact in the most dramatic way that one can. After scoring a dreadful three goals in 32 games with the Sabres—easily the worst stretch of his long career—Staal suddenly found his shooting touch once again while playing crucial minutes for one good team against another. With Edmonton and Montreal knotted at two apiece in overtime and one minute remaining before a shootout, Staal cleanly took a pass from Tyler Toffoli as he glided into some space in the offensive zone. With the composure of a man who’d done this 439 times before in the NHL, Staal aimed and fired at the far side of the net, and Mike Smith couldn’t do a thing to stop it.

“This was a moment for sure that we’ll keep in the memory bank, but I’m hoping there’s even bigger and better ones here in the next while,” Staal said afterward.

Of course, counting on a 36-year-old to consistently net you dramatic game-winners isn’t a winning strategy—though it does come into play a bit more now that Brendan Gallagher is going to miss some time. But Staal’s instant impact is nevertheless a very real positive to add to a Canadiens team that is weird and complicated and yet still has the firepower to knock out the Leafs in their hypothetical first-round matchup.

In some ways, Montreal is a franchise looking far off into the future. They finished 12th in the East last year and didn’t make the playoffs in the two seasons before that, while early-20s forwards Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi have both at least flashed the potential to be long-term cornerstones, even if they doesn’t always show it in their on-ice results. But on the other hand, the Canadiens have benefited perhaps more than any other team from the structural shifts forced by COVID, and they also feature a lot of the characteristics of a team with its window closing. Last year’s top scorer Tomas Tatar is a UFA after this season. Staal only adds to the team’s cohort of experienced leaders that also includes Corey Perry and Shea Weber. And three of their five oldest guys—Weber, Carey Price, and Jeff Petry—are all signed to contracts with big cap hits through at least 2025, which drastically limits how big the Habs can dream and certainly pressures the franchise to make the most out of these expensive years.

So it’s a tricky balancing act for Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. Make too many moves like the Staal trade—where you’re giving up picks for two months of an aging 20-goal scorer—and you become the Ottawa Senators, who vastly overestimated their position after a lucky playoff run and paid a steep price. But standing pat and accepting a respectable but meaningless first-round exit, particularly after so much has fallen their way this year, is both the coward’s option and the kind of conservatism that should get you booted out of a winning-starved city like Montreal. The Canadiens really could win the Cup this year, because they’re definitely making the playoffs, and any team that makes the playoffs absolutely has a shot. You might as well double down on that instead of hedging your bets.