Historians and more than a few sports psychologists will spend years trying to explain what happened to the 2015-2016 Canadiens, a team that is on track to finish as many as 35 fewer points then the 110 they posted last season.
What has happened to the Canadiens this year is unprecedented in NHL history and ranks with one of worst in-season collapses in the history of North American professional team sports. They have gone from a 9-0-0 season start and a league leading 17-4-2 record in early December to a league worst 8-22-1 over the last 31 games. No team in NHL history has folded quite as spectacularly.
Only three teams come remotely close. The 2007 Ottawa Senators, the infamous 1939-40 Canadiens and the 2014 Toronto Maple Leafs.
In Ottawa in 2007, the Senators, led by the line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza got off to a 15-2-0 start and by Christmas were 25-9-4. In January and February the Senators won only 7 of 21 games and head coach John Paddock was fired. The difference between that version of the Senators and the current Canadiens is, Ottawa squeezed into the playoffs on the final game of the season only to be swept in four straight by Pittsburgh. The Canadiens, after their loss at Denver Wednesday night, are now listed at a 5.2% chance of making the post season. In other words – no chance at all.
The former Canadiens benchmark was the 1939-40 team, inarguably the worst team in their 98 year history. Hall-of Famer Babe Siebert was supposed to coach that team but died in a summertime drowning accident and Pit Lepine was named coach. Led by Toe Blake, the Canadiens were 4-0-2 to start the season and 6-2-2 after ten games. They played a 48 game schedule in those days. In the final 38 games the Canadiens were 4-31-3. The difference between the Canadiens then and now, expectations about the ’39-’40 team were low after finishing in sixth place in an seven team league the year before..
The 2014 Toronto Maple Leafs crash classifies as a late season breakdown. In mid-March, with 14 games remaining Toronto had the the third best record in the Eastern Conference. They were nine points ahead of the first non-playoff team. They lost 12 of those final 14 games including an eight game losing streak. Among observers, the shocking thing was not the Leafs collapse but, considering the talent on the team, the fact that they actually in playoff contention that late in the season. .
The Canadiens aren’t the only Montreal team to break the hearts of their fans.
- The Expos did their share. In mid September of the 1973 season they edged the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of a Jarry Park doubleheader and moved into first place in the National League East. They then lost the next six straight and eight of nine to fall out of the race again. .
- On August 2nd 1989, the Expos had the best record in the National League at 63-44. In May they had traded rookie Randy Johnson to Seattle for lefthander Mark Langston. It looked like the trade would pay off but pitching wasn’t the issue. From August 3rd to the end of the season Expos hitters averaged a league worst 3.23 runs per game and the Expos lost 37 of the final 55 games to finish the season at 81-81. The following spring team owner Charles Bronfman announced he was selling the team.
- The 2001 Alouettes were led by quarterback Anthony Calvillo and running back Mike Pringle. They started that season at 9-2 and then proceeded to drop the next eight straight including a playoff game against the Hamilton TigerCats. General manager Jim Popp took over from head coach Rod Rust after the sixth straight defeat. The next year the Alouettes under coach Don Matthews won the Grey Cup.
Sports is the number one entertainment medium in the world mainly because you can’t script this stuff.
- The 1951 Dodgers led the National league by 13 ½ games in mid August and watched it slip away to the New York Giants who put together a 37-7 stretch run to defeat the Dodgers in the playoff on the Bobby Thompson home run.
- On September 21st 1964, Gene Mauch’s Philadelphia Phillies had a 6 ½ game National League lead with 12 games to play. They lost their next ten games and settled for a second place tie behind the St. Louis Cardinals who went on to win the World Series.
- In the first year of the Expos, the 1969 Chicago Cubs led the New York Mets by 9 ½ games in mid August. By the time the season ended they were eight games back and the Miracle Mets went on to win their first World Series.
- The 1978 Boston Red Sox had a 12 games lead over the Yankes in July and wound up losing a one game tie breaker to end the season.
- In the NFL Miami Dolphins fans will never forget 1973 when their team was three games up on a playoff berth with five games left and lost all five games to finish out of the playoffs again.
- Even worse, the 1987 San Diego Chargers with Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow opened the season 8-1 and then lost their last six games to miss the playoffs.
- Like the NHL, the NBA is a different kettle of fish than Major League Baseball or the NFL in that more than 50 % of the teams make the playoffs. You might look at the 2004-05 LA Lakers for a late season plunge in the standings. At the 2005 All-Star break they were comfortably in the playoffs at 26-24. They won only 8 of their final 32 games to finish 11th in the West and out of the post season.