In an alternate universe, Auston Matthews could have been wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge.
My goodness, how much different might we be looking at this version of the Montreal Canadiens if it included a 19-year-old franchise centre?
When the lottery balls were drawn by commissioner Gary Bettman in a sealed-off room outside of Sportsnet’s downtown Toronto studio last spring, first came No. 6. Then No. 8. Then No. 5.
With one ball to go, the Canadiens had the same odds as the Toronto Maple Leafs of winning the right to draft Matthews – holding one of 11 potential remaining combinations. Buffalo, Colorado and Arizona were in the same boat, while Columbus, Winnipeg and Edmonton each owned two.
It is perhaps an unproductive exercise to ruminate on what happened next – the Leafs themselves narrowly missed out on Connor McDavid a year earlier – but Montreal needed No. 7 to pop out of the machine while Toronto was looking for No. 13.
Lucky No. 13, it was.
During this particular NHL season, we are getting a daily exercise in thin margins. The league’s puzzling playoff format currently has the difference between sitting first in the Atlantic Division and being out of the dance entirely at just four points.
The stakes are basically as large as possible at this stage of the season with Montreal set to visit Toronto on Saturday night, just as they will be for any future Habs-Sens or Leafs-Panthers or Bruins-Lightning game to come.
Montreal is less than two weeks removed from replacing coach Michel Therrien with Claude Julien and trying to stop its freefall. The Canadiens feature a core group getting on in years – Carey Price is 29, Max Pacioretty is 28, Shea Weber is 31 – and could use another high-end centre to go with Alex Galchenyuk, who has yet to firmly grab hold of the No. 1 C job.
However, the cost of adding such a player before Wednesday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline is prohibitively high, especially since it would likely mean parting with prized prospect Mikhail Sergachev.
He was the player Montreal picked No. 9 in last year’s draft after coming up unlucky in the Matthews sweepstakes, and management rightly believes the Russian defenceman has a bright future. It’s also a cost-controlled future because of the entry-level system, which is an integral part of the discussion when evaluating any potential deal to, say, pry Matt Duchene out of Colorado.
All of which brings us back to Matthews, and good fortune, and how you build a championship contender in today’s NHL: You don’t find players of his ilk in free agency or via trades. You simply need the balls to bounce your way.
Therrien served as coach of the Atlantic Division during last month’s all-star game in Los Angeles and was overflowing with praise for the Leafs rookie.
“He’s a gifted player, he’s a special player,” Therrien said then. “He’s the future of the NHL. The NHL – we need players like him. He impressed me a lot with his skill and his hockey sense. He’s a hell of a player.”
Once upon a time, he was hired to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins midway through the 2005-06 season – just after Sidney Crosby arrived on the scene. There are some parallels.
“You know what, I coached Sidney Crosby at 18 years old,” said Therrien. “I think they’re a little bit different players, but the similarity I think is they’re superstars. I don’t know (Matthews) that much. I see a kid that is really calm.
“This is one thing that I knew about Sid at 18 years old – off the ice, he’s a calm kid. Was relaxing, was focusing. But on the ice he’s gifted. He’s really, really gifted.”
That demeanour makes Matthews an ideal fit for the chaos that tends to surround teams like the Habs and Leafs. He would have been a great addition for any organization. On the ice, he’s already tilting the play considerably in unsheltered minutes and is among the league leaders with 28 goals.
Matthews is also surrounded by a cadre of impressive young players, which have the Leafs on the ascent and trying to disrupt the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. It may even result in them facing Montreal in a playoff series for the first time since 1979 as soon as this spring.
“It would be really good, to be quite honest,” Therrien said a couple weeks before being fired. “This is two great markets. We’re both teams involved in a playoff spot, we’re fighting, and they’ve got some great young kids up there (in Toronto). I believe this is the team of the future.
“I believe with all of those young kids that they have – they play really well, they play with confidence. … It’s going to be a hell of a race to the end.”
Truth be told, it’s only really a race because the identically-weighted lottery balls made it so.