New head coach. New players. New year. The Montreal Canadiens are hoping for another deep playoff run.
The Montreal Canadiens have had an interesting last two years. In 2016, Carey Price went down with a serious injury missing most of the season and it showed in the team’s overall record. The Canadiens finished with a 38-38-3 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season. 2017 was a turn around year for Montreal with Price healthy and ready to go and massive changes to the team’s blueline. P.K Subban was traded for Shea Weber and KHLer Alex Radulov was brought in on a one year deal. The team had a promising season winning the Atlantic Division with a 47-26-7 record before ultimately being outsted by the New York Rangers in the first round.
However, despite the success the Canadiens experienced in 2017, changes were coming. As Montreal began to hit a skid towards the end of the season, longtime head coach Michel Terrien was fired and replaced with former Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien. As a coach who’s won the Stanley Cup in Boston, he’ll likely be able to get a lot out of his players and a fresh face is usually good for a struggling team. Overall I think the choice to fire Therrien and bring in Julien was a good one.
That wasn’t all of the changes that were made. Due to the team’s lack of scoring, in both the regular season and playoffs, Bergevin decided to make another monster trade and sent prospect Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning in return for Jonathan Drouin. Swiftly after completing the trade Drouin was signed to a six year, $33 million contract. Drouin, 22, experienced some tension with General Manager Steve Yzerman regarding icetime in 2016, but proved to be one of the Lightning’s best forwards in 2017. In 73 games played, Drouin finished third on the Lightning in scoring totaling 21 goals and 53 points. His play on the ice was electrifying and should pay dividends for Montreal in the upcoming season. On top of that, he brings versatility to the Canadiens. He has publicly stated that he can play both center and wing giving Montreal a lot of options regarding placing him in the lineup. A Quebec native, I believe Drouin has the potential to crack 30 goals and 60 points this season.
Although the Canadiens will take a big hit on offense from losing Radulov, I think there is still a lot of pieces for Montreal to work with. For starters, the team’s captain, Max Pacioretty is quite the scoring threat. Pacioretty, 28, has been with the Canadiens since the 2008-09 season and has quietly turned into one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the game. Despite getting off to a slow start, the Connecticut native scored 30 goals for the first time in the 2011-12 season. In every season since then, excluding the lockout shortened season, Pacioretty has scored at least 30 goals and 60 points, often leading the team in scoring. Last year Pacioretty led the Canadiens in scoring tallying 35 goals and 67 points in 81 games. There might be criticisms for his lack of scoring in the 2017 NHL playoffs, but he is still the best forward Montreal has and could very well break 40 next year.
Another player I’m looking forward to seeing in 2018 is Artturi Lehkonen. Lehkonen, 22, made the jump to the NHL last season after spending three seasons overseas and had an excellent rookie season. In 73 games played, Lehkonen scored 18 goals and 28 points finishing ninth in goals scored for rookies throughout the league. With another year under his belt, the sky is the limit for Lehkonen. Along with this, the loss of Radulov gives players such as Charles Hudon and Nikita Scherbek a chance to make a mark on the team potentially making the opening night roster.
The Montreal Canadiens had one of the best defenses in the NHL last season, yet they were also one of the teams to experience the most changes on their blueline. For starters Montreal lost longtime defenseman Andrei Markov. Markov had spent over a decade with the team, but could not come to a contract agreement with Bergevin and ultimately signed with Kazan Ak-Bars in the KHL. In a way to replace Markov and shore up the team’s blueline, Bergevin signed free agent Karl Alzner to a five year, $32.5 million contract. Alzner, 28, had previously spent his entire career with the Washington Capitals and although he didn’t produce a whole lot of offense he was a steady and reliable defenseman. Alzner is just entering his prime and should be a solid fit in the Canadiens system. Along with this Bergevin signed David Schlemko and Mark Streit to low risk, high reward contracts. These guys may be getting up there in age, but they are reliable defenseman who can fill their roles perfectly.
Regardless of the new additions, one cannot talk about the Canadiens defense and not bring up Shea Weber. Weber was acquired in the summer of 2016 from the Nashville Predators for P.K Subban. Although being older than Subban, Weber has been a stud for Montreal thus far. Weber led all Montreal defensemen in scoring last season gathering 17 goals and 42 points in 78 games played. He has been a powerplay specialist for the Canadiens and will be the quarterback of the team’s defense for years to come. He also has one of the hardest slapshots in the league.
Lastly, Montreal has and will continue to have one of the best netminders in the world. About to enter his final year of his current contract, Bergevin knew he had to lock up Carey Price for as long as possible. This resulted in Price signing an eight year, $84 million contract. He’s the best in the world for a reason. A World Cup of Hockey gold medal, two Olympic gold medals and numerous awards. All that’s left for Price is to win the Stanley Cup and he hopes to do that in Montreal. If 2016 was any indication, Price is crucial to the team’s overall success so it’s no surprise Bergevin gave him what he did. At age 30 he’s in the prime of his career and gives the Canadiens an opportunity each and every night to win their games. Last season Price finished as one of the top goaltenders composing a 37-20-5 record with a 2.23 GAA and .923% save percentage. He’ll likely be able to have another incredible season in 2018 and with a formidable backup in Al Montoya, goaltending should be the least of Montreal’s worries.
PREDICTION: In an overall weak Atlantic Division, I think the Canadiens have what it takes to make the playoffs again. If everything clicks with the new players and Price continues to play up to his standard, there’s no reason this team can’t go on a deep Stanley Cup run either.