What to expect in Montreal?
Last season, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong in Montreal. With Shea Weber on the shelf to start the season, can Carey Price regain his MVP caliber form and can the Canadiens find a way to produce more offense?
The good news for the Canadiens after a disastrous season, they weren’t quite as bad as their results indicated. Montreal was closer to the middle of the pack in expected goals for and against, however they lacked the offensive talent to score at a high rate. The goaltending was poor but with Carey Price healthy and a clean slate, Montreal should improve on its bottom-5 finish last season.
What went right:
Bright spots were hard to come by in Montreal. Brendan Gallagher posted a career-high in goals (31) and points (54), and the Canadiens also saw encouraging rookie performances from a number of youngsters. Victor Mete made the team out of camp and ended up leading in a number of per-20 metrics at even-strength among the team’s defensemen, including offensive zone possession time and pass attempts to the slot. Charles Hudon, Noah Juulsen and Nikita Scherbak also received significant playing time throughout the year, with each of them showing encouraging flashes.
What Went Wrong:
Where to begin. Gallagher’s career-high 54 points barely cracked the top-100 in the league and was the 2nd lowest total for a team leader in points. Shea Weber was limited to 26 games. Jonathan Drouin only scored 13 goals and 46 points while playing mostly center in Montreal, a position he hadn’t played since junior. Carey Price battled injuries and ultimately posted the worst numbers of his career with a .900 save percentage and a 3.11 goals-against average, numbers that would look terrible for a backup, let alone a starter who was the league MVP in 2014-15 and will begin an 8-year, $84m extension this season. Artturi Lehkonen finished with the 6th worst differential of goals vs expected goals in the league, showing either extremely bad luck or just a lack of finishing ability after a promising 18-goal rookie season.
Key Additions: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, Joel Armia, Tomas Plekanec, Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki
Key Departures: Alex Galchenyuk, Max Pacioretty
Other Key moves: Re-signed Phillip Danault and Jacob de la Rose, PTO for Simon Despres, Joel Ward
After striking out with big names in the free-agent pursuit, the Canadiens were forced into a rebuilding summer, which may actually be the best course of action. The Galchenyuk for Domi trade was another example of the team moving on from a talented player who management grew tired of. Galchenyuk seemed like a capable center, who has a 30-goal season to his name, even with Montreal insisting on playing him on the wing. Domi is a playmaker who hasn’t hit double digits goals in the last two seasons. Comparing their per-20 numbers at even-strength, Galchenyuk has the edge in scoring chances, controlled entries, and goals, while Domi leads in offensive zone possession time and passes to the slot, which is exactly what you would expect when comparing a sniper and a playmaker.
Overall, the Habs had a solid summer, despite not making any flashy moves. Drafting Jesperi Kotkaniemi 3rd overall addresses a need down the middle, though not immediately, as several scouts see an Anze Kopitar / Mikko Koivu type ceiling for the young Finn. He could crack the line-up this year, but it is more likely he plays at least one more season in Liiga or joins the Laval Rocket than making the big club in year one. Montreal also acquired Armia and picks from Winnipeg to essentially take on Steve Mason’s contract, brought back veteran Tomas Plekanec and re-signed Phillip Danault, who quietly led the team’s forwards in defensive plays per game. Armia is solid forechecker and plays well away from the puck; attributes that should serve him well with how Claude Julien wants his team to play.
Late in the offseason, Montreal finally struck a deal to send captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and a second round pick (via Columbus). Tatar underperformed after Vegas acquired him at the trade deadline and was a healthy scratch for most of its playoff run, but he still hit the 20-goal mark for the 4th straight year and will be looking to bounce back after his stint in Vegas. The true centerpiece of the deal, however, is Nick Suzuki. Suzuki was drafted 13th overall in 2017 and put up an impressive 100 points in 64 games in the OHL last season. He joins Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling in a center prospect pool that suddenly looks pretty deep for the Canadiens.
Next season preview
What could go right?
The Montreal Canadiens don’t go anywhere without a return to form for Carey Price. When he is hot, he can win games almost single-handedly. If Price’s heroics aren’t enough to compete this year, the Canadiens need to see growth from the team’s youngsters like Jonathan Drouin, Noah Juulsen, Victor Mete, and Nikita Scherbak. The Canadiens don’t have a great deal of high-end talent compared to other teams in their division, though they have better depth than they get credit for. If they stay healthy, get a bounce-back year from Price and can count on big minutes from Weber when he returns, the Canadiens could find themselves closer to a playoff spot than the basement of the league.
What could go wrong?
Shea Weber will miss a big chunk of the season as he rehabs from a knee operation. You know Montreal is a hockey-crazed city when as soon as the injury was announced, Jack Hughes was trending on Twitter in the Montreal area. Weber only played 26 games last season, at less than 100%, but was able to put up an impressive 16 points while consistently eating the toughest minutes of any defenceman.
Also, as mentioned above, if Price can’t stand on his head, it will be difficult for the offensively challenged Canadiens to win games. Their top three centers are Drouin, who is best suited on the wing, Phillip Danault, ideally a 3rd line center, and Tomas Plekanec, who is little more than a defensive specialist at this point in his career. The Canadiens will struggle to score, have too many square pegs in round holes and will likely be better served to finish with a lottery pick than just outside a playoff spot.