You can picture it already, can’t you? Alexis Lafreniere, outfitted head-to-toe in bleu, blanc et rouge, bursting onto Bell Centre ice as public address announcer Michel Lacroix belts out, “Mesdames et Monsieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen, Accueillons nos Canadiens!”
Because that whole scenario became tangible on Friday when, during Phase 1 of the NHL’s Draft Lottery, it was determined that one of the eight losers of the play-in round will land the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.
And yeah, the Montreal Canadiens may only be looking at a 12.5 per-cent chance of snagging this franchise-altering player in Phase 2 of the lottery, but them winning out in that situation seems more conceivable than a team that won just 31 of its 71 games this season beating a Pittsburgh Penguins team that put up the NHL’s seventh-best record from October through March and proved to be vastly superior in nearly every relevant category. Even if the odds don’t support that notion.
Did you buy your Canadiens Lafreniere jersey yet?
In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s drama, I thought long and hard about what this all meant for the Canadiens and I struggled to find the downside. A team full of players with limited-to-no playoff experience at all has a chance to play meaningful games this summer, a chance that was gifted to them by the NHL’s return-to-play committee. And that same team still has an opportunity to draft a Quebec-born superstar first overall in a dream scenario, even if it’s most likely to pick ninth when all is said and done.
And if the Canadiens should do something that seems a lot more inconceivable now than it did three days ago — if they should beat the Penguins to advance to the 16-team Stanley Cup tournament and go on a little run from there — that would unquestionably be the worst-case scenario.
But it wouldn’t be a bad one.
We’re talking about the long-term future of the Canadiens, which would obviously be best served by the lottery balls falling in such a way that you’d think it was serendipity. But an unexpected run, for a team that has more than a dozen players aged 25 or younger on its expanded roster, can’t be considered detrimental to that future.
You have to think Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and his minions are hoping for the best of both worlds, for their team to give the mighty Penguins the scare of a lifetime — taking them to triple overtime of Game 5 of the play-in round before gracefully bowing out on a fluke goal that bounced off three bodies to beat a helpless Carey Price. A little precious experience gained, lottery odds intact and a top-10 pick preserved.
A few Molsons down the hatch and say your prayers…
But you have to wonder how the players feel.
The general sense, going back to April, was that not too many members of the Canadiens were keen on returning to play this summer. And given the multitude of reasons for that, it’s hard to imagine that’s changed much — even if many, like Price just last week, have said they’d prefer to have a chance to play for this year’s Stanley Cup.
Sure, they’re pro athletes and therefore conditioned to believe in the unbelievable.
But these Canadiens aren’t delusional.
They might believe they can do some damage, that they’re an underrated team capable of upsetting the apple cart. And, in speaking with many of them over the last few months, it’s abundantly clear they don’t feel this year’s standings accurately reflect where they actually are in their reset.
But even if they believe they’re ahead of where most think they are, it’s almost unfathomable this group of Canadiens players believes it can win the Stanley Cup after the season it had — and with a depleted roster post-trade deadline. And if that possibility is so minute that it borders on insignificant — and it is — how can they possibly think the sacrifices of returning to play are worth it?
What true incentive exists for the Canadiens to leave the comfort and safety of their homes for a three-week training camp in Montreal followed by what could be weeks away from their families in a hub city? Do they really want to assume the risks of catching coronavirus or getting injured prior to jamming in an 82-game season and playoffs between January and July of 2021 — in a year where they are actually expected to take a step forward? And do they want to do it for fans that would rather see them lose than win?
Because those fans are dreaming of one thing and one thing only right now: that 18-year-old kid from Saint-Eustache, Que., who scored 114 goals and 297 points in 173 CHL games wearing that big CH on his chest and stepping onto that Bell Centre ice to the sound of Michel Lacroix’s booming voice.