The Montreal Canadiens have been steadily improving since making the playoffs in 2016-2017. That may be small comfort considering the fact that they haven’t made it in the last two seasons, but the Habs did finish last season with 96 points – a fair shade above the 71 points they achieved in a lacklustre 2017-2018.
Montreal is relatively confident in their squad, which is why the off-season hasn’t been peppered with rebuilding moves or heavy restructuring. General manager Marc Bergevin did “try” to land restricted free agent Sebastian Aho with an offer sheet that seemed less like an actual attempt and more like a move to rattle the cage.
Don’t get me wrong, the Habs would’ve liked Aho as a top line centre. As it is, that’s the part for Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The 19-year-old was a rookie last season and put together a 34-point campaign. Kotkaniemi isn’t the world’s most efficient shooter and he’s probably not going to lead the team in scoring just yet, but he’s part of a group of young pivots worth noticing in Montreal.
There are issues. The power play has to be near the top of the list, with the Canadiens finishing 30th overall – just a hair ahead of the Nashville Predators. Defencemen Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, both right-shot blueliners, produced eight of the club’s 31 power play goals last season. They’ll need more production from the rest of the group.
Montreal scored 249 goals in 2018-2019, sticking them basically in the middle of the pack of the Eastern Conference. They scored four more goals than the Carolina Hurricanes but nine fewer than the Columbus Blue Jackets, the club they were chasing for that last wild card spot. They had three players with over 25 goals, including Tomas Tatar, Max Domi and Brendan Gallagher.
Gallagher led the team with 33 goals. The right-winger had a career-high 302 shots on goal, sixth in the NHL last season, and he averaged one and a half hits per game. He didn’t produce much on the power play, but nobody really did. He had just seven power play points, 10 fewer than the previous season.
Domi popped up for a breakout season last year, scoring 28 goals and adding 44 assists. The 24-year-old seemed to enjoy his first season in Montreal and, after three seasons in Arizona, seems to be finding his groove. He was a plus-20 player with the Habs after three straight years of being a minus player, plus he broke the bank with 203 shots on goal.
It’s tempting to look at Tatar’s totals last season as an anomaly, but the 28-year-old’s been down this road before. After a second-rate turn with the Vegas Golden Knights, Montreal acquired Tatar as part of the Max Pacioretty deal and expected an afterthought. But Tatar finished with 25 goals, returning to the top form he displayed a few years back in Detroit.
Montreal was pretty tight last season, allowing just 236 goals against. They were the most defensively strong of all non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs allowed more goals.
Shea Weber missed 24 games last year, but he still produced 14 goals and averaged out 2.2 hits per game. His defensive presence makes him a menace to take on in either end and his veteran prowess is tough to beat. Weber looks to be paired with Victor Mete, a left-hand shot that should diversify the breakout for the Habs.
Petry, another right-hand shot, creates a lethal one-two punch for Montreal on the power play. It’s likely he’ll be paired with either newcomer Ben Chiarot or Brett Kulak. Chiarot arrives from the Winnipeg Jets, where he spent most of his time skating with Dustin Byfuglien. He had 20 points last season and is a big, physical player.
Any team that boasts Carey Price as their netminder is going to be formidable, of course. Price was again great last season. He finished tied for fifth in wins with 35. He was fourth in save percentage among goalies to play at least 50 games and he picked up four shutouts. He had a 2.49 goals against average and was backed up by Anttii Niemi, who’s set to play in Finland with Jokerit this season.
Price will be backed up by Keith Kinkaid. The Canadiens signed the 30-year-old to a one-year deal on July 1. Kinkaid played well enough with the New Jersey Devils last season and was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in February, where he didn’t play a single game.
The Canadiens have the pieces in place to be a young, surprising Eastern Conference team. Can they win it all? Probably not this year, but the prospect pool is strong and the Habs have veteran pieces in place. That means they can teach (and learn) some valuable lessons along the way, which should position Montreal for an extensive period of franchise prosperity.
Photo credit: NHL.com