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Montreal at a crossroads as Canadiens drop out of playoff picture

When Toronto and Tampa Bay started off poorly, it represented a window of opportunity for the Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers.

For the most part, you can say the Panthers took advantage, as they now have a tenuous grasp on second in the Atlantic Division through 25 games. Montreal looked like they might do the same, at least for a while. As of Nov. 15, they’d just picked up their seventh win in nine games, and looked pretty good doing it.

That stretch included wins over Toronto, Arizona, Vegas, Boston, and Washington: five teams with a lot of talent and which, for the most part, were off to good starts. That all led up to a stretch in which Montreal, a team that barely missed the playoffs in a highly competitive division last year, would play numerous lowly teams over the remainder of the month: the Devils twice, Senators, Blue Jackets, Rangers, and unfortunately the Bruins. The only game away from Centre Bell would be in Columbus.

If they handled all those good teams, taking 15 of a possible 18 points, this next set of games shouldn’t be too tough to deal with.

But Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, who played pretty well in that nine-game stretch, got hurt and things (perhaps coincidentally) came apart: OT loss to the Devils, regulation loss to the Blue Jackets, OT loss to the Senators. Then the wheels came off — the Habs gave up six in a brutal meltdown against the Rangers, eight in a pummelling by Boston at home, and another six to the Devils.

Now they stand on Black Friday two points out of a divisional playoff spot with only one game in hand on white-hot Toronto, and four back of Carolina and Philadelphia with no games-played advantage. But to make matters worse, being ninth isn’t really Being Ninth when Tampa is a point back with three games in hand: they’ve won six of the last nine, and 11 of their next 15 contests are at home.

In all situations over the last six games, the Canadiens have been rather poor, as the record would suggest, getting less than 47 percent of the adjusted expected-goals percentage. And, again, that’s versus a slate of mostly beatable, low-quality opponents. That’s a sharp contrast from their first 19 games, in which they were 10th in that stat across the entire league. You don’t want to put too much weight into losing Drouin and Byron, who’s probably out through mid-January, but he is an important piece of that offense, which relies more on depth than star scoring talent to produce offense.

It might not surprise you to learn, however, that offense isn’t the problem. Or at least, it’s not the biggest problem when you give up 31 goals in six games. While the Habs actually have a top-12 expected-goals against per hour this season, things have really gone sideways in the forwards’ absence, dropping to 11th-bottom in the second half of November. With no one else of any consequence missing much time, and the blue line in particular staying healthy, that’s bad news.

Given the makeup of the roster — no real stars up front, an underperforming high-paid goalie on the wrong side of 30, and a top defenseman who at 34 probably doesn’t have much tread left on the tires — and the reality of the division, Marc Bergevin has a tough decision or three to make here.

At some point you have to be realistic about what the team can reasonably do. We can now assume that the top three in the division will once again be Boston, Toronto and Tampa, in some order.

You gave it your best shot, as did the Panthers, and it looks like it might not end up mattering that much. Are you, Montreal, as good as Florida? Probably not. They’re ahead of you despite worse goaltending than your already-bad goaltending. Are you as good as Carolina? Almost certainly not. Are you as good as Philadelphia? Maybe. But then you’re only competing for ninth anyway.

Your leading scorer is Tomas Tatar and he doesn’t even have a point a game in a season in which offense is once again on the rise. The D corps after Jeff Petry and excluding the two 21-year-olds on ELCs is a wasteland of “He’s still in the league?” guys. Don’t we know where all this gets you?

The team has a high-end farm system and that’s great. They don’t have a ton of money committed for this year and that’s also great. There are also a number of mid-20s forwards who are quite good, if not game-breaking talents, and that’s great. Now what if you could bolster that farm system without trading away a bunch of those mid-20s guys by using all that cap space as a weapon?

This is a team crying out for a rebuild-on-the-fly and you can really help both yourselves and someone else out by trading away some older, desirable talent: Brendan Gallagher, Petry, maybe even Shea Weber if you’re taking some bad money back and retaining salary, which you definitely can because you’re a mile below the cap.

Unless Carey Price magically turns back into Carey Price Prime at some point in the next little while, this season seems like another exercise in futility; it’s shaping up to be the Habs’ third straight playoff miss in the four years since Bergevin pulled the trigger on the Weber-for-Subban trade.

Aside from that, it really seems like Bergevin’s tried nothing to improve his team, and he’s all out of ideas.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica, unless noted.

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