I don't know the definitive answer to this question. But I do have a feeling it is a little more subtle than two too many games in September.
Did the Canadiens preseason hurt the team? It's conceivable. But one then thinks back two years earlier, when even more players had to be integrated and a new coach had to set up a new system and notices a team that battled, had two centres scoring and a defensive scheme that put their goalie in the elite of the stats class.
Generally, I think we as fans have to take a cold shower and admit some things about this group of players that the organization has assembled:
1) They are not good enough to play the systems they have been asked to play
When they are asked to play with more energy than the other team, their lack of physical fitness is visible. Line changes are slow as exhausted players walk to the bench. This fitness thing takes a long time to correct, but how long?
Also, let's admit that they can't make up for fitness gaps with skill. There are now players that try on some moves, but just as often as not the puck is lost in the process. And game in, game out, we see how the key to the slot scoring positions elude the forwards on the ice.
2) The systems are stock systems, not custom
It's easy to lay all the blame at the players' feet. But the fact of the matter is that a coach, with a shelf life of two to three seasons, has to face up to the reality that over a tenure, 70% of the players he inherits will make up his core.
We talk about the coach's system and how the coach is trying to impose the way he thinks on the team. But have we yet seen a coach figure out a smart way to use Kostitsyn's slow, big frame with heavy accurate shot? Have we seen in two years a coach who takes advantage of Gomez's zone gaining ability, or Subban's? No. Not fully.
Rather we see the coach restraining or reforming these pieces in order to fit a set mould.
It can work, but it's the more difficult way to do things, and it takes time, and it results in seasons like this one.
3) There's not a star in sight
With all due respect to Tomas Plekanec, Carey Price, PK Subban and Erik Cole, the Canadiens simply do not possess the star power that probably a fair 20 teams in the league do (16 make the playoffs...). There's no natural goalscorer, there's no clutch playmaker, there's no one who turns a game with any regularity, there's no showstopper.
It's worse when one looks through the list of futures. It's possible that Gallagher is a diamond in the rough, but beyond him, it seems like a long list of "more of the same".
What's there is a lot of competent players who are willing to work hard, but who are prone to losing if a bounce goes the wrong way.
4) There's a lot of dead weight
A team of hard working competent players can win many Cups in a row with the right coach. But something that will limit these efforts (and would even limit a Gretzky led team) is players who don't really contribute.
For me, there are too many players for whom you could say a good game is getting more attempts (on net or not) than their equivalents on the other team and just mitigate the damage. I don't need to name the players, we've all got a feeling for this.
Having too many players that are net equals at their best asks those with more skill and talent to outdo their counterparts (the skilled and talented of the other teams. And remembering that some other teams have legitimate superstars, over a season this becomes a very heavy burden for the players it's being asked of.
5) Not enough commitment to development
This is probably the most unforgivable aspect of their neuroses. It is free to develop players well, it costs nothing towards the cap.
The Canadiens, with their warped vision of how much they stand apart from the other 29 franchises in the league make things awfully complicated for themselves when they jettison players for reasons not related to hockey.
A commitment to development for me would mean investing in those players the organization has invested their scouting and picks on. Not only on-ice development, but also off-ice. And importantly, not to expect that minimal effort will achieve enormous changes. One need only think of Mike Ribeiro to understand my meaning. A clear talent who liked to party and was acting up. Too much trouble for the team he was shipped out. And while the addition by subtraction probably paid for short term gains, the loss in quality could be seen as soon as months later.
Through some miracle, the Canadiens have managed to pick a lot of the pieces they needed to compete over the years. But a fear of hard work, or whatever it is, on the part of the organizations overall development mechanism has stripped it of scorers, playmakers and gamesavers over the years.
6) The goal is set too low
Playoff participation? Then anything can happen?
The margin for error when the goal posted on the locker-room wall is playoff participation is harsh. If you come within two points of the 94 you aimed for, you can be on the outside looking in. Teams that aim to win 60 games can fail and still cruise through the last ten games as they ready for April.
For too long the Canadiens have been too satisfied by just making the playoffs. For a while this was reinforced behaviour, because the team did indeed beat unlikely paths to higher rounds. Over the long run, this strategy is bound to turn up a few losing seasons, though.
From the looks of this, it seems that I am being pretty negative. But I prefer to say realistic.
I guess the important distinction is that winning more the 40 games in a season does not necessarily make you a winner. The Montreal team that made the playoffs and were swept aside by Boston in four a few seasons back were certainly not treated as such.
The silver lining is that there are probably fewer than a handful of teams at the moment who don't need to admit to one or all of these flaws. In a league where a small relative gain means leapfrogging over 10 mediocre franchises, the ground to cover isn't immense, at least for playoff participation.
But, as you know we dream of the highest standards on this blog. We fantasize about a time when the Canadiens, inspired by their great past (managerially speaking) will outstrip their rivals in every allowable department not directly related to restricted spending limits. In the realm of the salary cap, I think this is how a dynasty would have to be built, to get out of the Oiler-Penguin cycle of lottery luck.
Sure, we can paper over the cracks and say there was some bad luck, a few injuries and a busy fall. It is factually accurate. But in your heart of hearts, wouldn't you admit that even a team that started 5-3 with Andrei Markov was never going to post a 120 point season?