MONTREAL - There's plenty of reasons why the Montreal Canadiens will be in a position Tuesday night to wind up with the top pick in the NHL draft when the ping pong balls fall and the lottery winner is declared.
The slide started with the deterioration of the relationship between Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier and then-coach Jacques Martin, with both of them ultimately paying for the Habs' last place finish in the Eastern Conference with their jobs.
According to those close to the situation, Gauthier became increasingly involved with Martin's coaching decisions and was hyper-critical of players, resulting in several heated discussions that could be overheard by other members of the organization.
When that kind of discord is evident, it's never good for the rest of the group.
Gauthier pulled on Martin's leash, getting the backs of the coaching staff up, resulting in first the firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn in late October -- a shot across Martin's bow to toe the line -- and then the dismissal of Martin Dec. 17.
Getting rid of Martin turned out to be a rash move.
The promotion of assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth turned out to be a no-win situation. Promoting a unilingual Anglophone coach was a gross miscalculation by Gauthier and Canadiens president Geoff Molson -- the blowback from fans and media was just another calamity in a season filled with them.
Now Gauthier is gone, too, and the hunt is on for a new GM and a new vision.
The new guy will walk into a relatively good situation for a guy taking over a last-place team, which is where the Canadiens finished despite their 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night (the Habs had never finished last in a conference).
The Canadiens have a good young goaltender in Carey Price, a good young defenceman in P.K. Subban, perhaps finally a healthy No. 1 defenceman in Andrei Markov and a good first line with David Desharnais between Erik Cole (scored his 35th Saturday night) and Max Pacioretty (scored his 33rd). The fourth line definitely needs work and never recovered after Gauthier's decision not to bring back the likes of Jeff Halpern and Tom Pyatt.
Long-term injuries to Markov and captain Brian Gionta didn't help the cause.
"I think that we definitely have some good players here and some good pieces. It's a combination of different things that cost us games this year," said Cole, one of Gauthier's good moves and a bright spot this season. "Certainly the injuries played a bit of a role. I think health is the most important thing and you go from there. Sometimes you're not that far off because you're adding able bodies that were missing time because of injury.
"There was that stretch in November where we would get leads and couldn't seem to hang on to one. We'd play well, get leads, end up losing them and lose in shootouts, overtimes. There were one-goal games where we had opportunities to make them two-goal games and didn't. You have to step on teams when you have the opportunity."
The Canadiens lost four games in overtime and another 12 in the shootout this season.
"You look back at the year, 15 or 16 shootout losses, you win half of those and and we don't blow half of the third periods that we blew because of mental mistakes, little errors. We're in the hunt, if not in the playoffs," said defenceman Josh Gorges.
"We were close and when you're that close that often and you come up on the short end of the stick, that's been the frustrating part. At the same time we can look at that for the future, for next year. We need to tweak some things, we need to learn, we need to be better, but we're right there if we put it together, if we play the right way.
"The biggest thing for this team moving forward is having 20 guys in the lineup who are all playing the same way. If we have that, then I think this team has a great chance to be in the playoffs."
Despite what the standings say right now, Gorges is probably right.