If winning a championship is the hardest thing to do in professional sports, then defending that championship may be immeasurably difficult. Add in the challenges of losing your captain and best player and sprinkle in the randomness that comes with a winner-take-all championship, and the odds stretch into the realm of theoretical mathematics.
And yet that’s precisely the task that Les Canadiennes de Montreal find themselves facing as the 2017-18 CWHL season ramps up. In addition to Marie-Philip Poulin, arguably the greatest women’s hockey player in the world, starting goaltender Charline Labonte has also moved on. This places the franchise at a crossroads that few teams may be better equipped to handle.
Look Back At Last Season
Montreal’s attack was bolstered by three players who recorded more than a point per game last season. That high-flying offense allowed the Canadiennes to win 17 of their 24 games as they maintained a degree of dominance over the league. That dominance bled over into the Clarkson Cup final, and the championship returned to Montreal for the first time in five years.
As mentioned above, predicting a repeat championship may seem like folly, but it’s hard to deny the firepower that’s returning to Montreal. Centralization will affect all teams in the CWHL, and the proven track record of success for several returning players seems to give the Canadiennes the edge.
The expansion of the league to China will also pose challenges in terms of both travel and talent dilution. Though that growth is vital for the long term success of the league, it’s likely to come with some short term challenges. Experience, then, becomes even more important.
Still, winning back to back championships has only happened once in Clarkson Cup history, so file the official prediction as a loss in the Clarkson Cup championship game. Montreal remains the most formidable team in the league, but a roll of the randomness dice and the force of the rest of the league attempting to overtake them could make repeating a real challenge.
With Charline Labonte moving on, the net for the Canadiennes is ready for a change. Championship teams are built from the goal out, so the focus will be on Emerance Maschmeyer. Maschmeyer had a strong season for Calgary last year, but the opportunity to shine under the sport’s brightest lights in Montreal should allow her to truly seize the chance to make a name for herself.
Similarly, without Marie-Philip Poulin to rely on up front, young players will need to step up. Sarah Lefort recorded 15 points last season as a rookie, but that number will need to increase if the Canadiennes are going to come close to matching their scoring pace.
As with most teams in the CWHL, Montreal’s offseason was defined more by players lost than players gained. Poulin, defender Lauriane Rougeau, and first round draft pick Melodie Daoust are all currently playing for Team Canada, leaving their CWHL seasons in doubt. Maschmeyer is certainly the team’s most important addition, as replacing a living legend in Labonte will require a high level of play that the team certainly believes Maschmeyer is capable of achieving.
Three Must-Watch Games
November 11 vs. Kunlun – The Canadiennes’ first matchup against one of the CWHL’s Chinese franchises is being held at Montreal’s Bell Centre, home of the NHL’s Canadiens. The game will represent an opportunity to truly highlight the support for the CWHL that’s offered in one of hockey’s most important cities.
January 6 @ Calgary – Montreal heads to Calgary in the season’s first rematch of last year’s Clarkson Cup final, and in the first opportunity for Maschmeyer to extract a level of vengeance against her old team.
February 25 @ Vanke – The Canadiennes will be in Asia as the Winter Olympics conclude, making the potential of travel easy for some key team members. Will their best players return to the team right away, or will centralization take away core pieces for the duration of the CWHL season?
Montreal enters the 2017-18 season with a legacy of excellence at their back and a series of difficult challenges at their front. Whether they’ll be able to rise to those challenges will depend on strong goaltending and a return to the scoring balance that the Canadiennes have formerly featured, this time with different players in key roles.