If you told people at the start of the season that the Montreal Canadiens would be in a playoff spot come the All Star break, not many would believe you.
After finishing last season with a disappointing 29-40-7 record, Canadiens genereal manager Marc Bergevin knew that he had to make changes to club to try and turn things around. This turnaround began with Montreal falling to the third spot in the 2018 NHL draft lottery. Bergevin, although excited about being able to take a high caliber player, was also admittedly open to trading the pick to improve the immediate roster. Despite debate whether the Canadiens would select Filip Zadina with the 3rd overall pick, Montreal went “off the board” and chose Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Kotkaniemi, 18, played well enough to earn himself a spot on the Canadiens opening night roster. When he played in Montreal’s first game of the season Kotkaniemi became the first pro athlete born in the 21st century to play in any of the North American major pro leagues (NHL, NBA, NFL, MLB). Despite losing 3-2 in overtime, Kotkaniemi recorded his first NHL point with an assist and logged 15:05 minutes of ice time. Since then, Kotkaniemi hasn’t slowed down and is on pace to finish with an excellent rookie season. Kotkaniemi currently sits tied for 8th on the Canadiens in scoring netting 6 goals and 23 points in 51 games played. In terms of rookie scoring this has him sitting tied for 4th with Ottawa Senators’ rookie Brady Tkachuk. Although not the flashiest rookie this season, Kotkaniemi has proved himself as an excellent addition to Montreal and shows the potential to be a top line center for the team for many years to come.
Along with adding Kotkaniemi through the draft, Bergevin made two significant trades to alter Montreal’s roster during this past offseason. The first trade was prior to the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and saw Montreal send Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in return for Max Domi. Domi, 23, was in need of a new contract and signed a two year bridge deal with an annual average value of $3.15 million. Halfway through the first season of that new deal and it currently looks like a homerun for Montreal. Domi is currently leading the Canadiens in points scoring 16 goals and 44 points in 51 games. He’s just 2 goals off from his career high in goals (18) and 8 points from his career high in points (52) both set during his rookie campaign in the 2015-16 season. At his current pace Domi can easily attain somewhere around the 30 goal, 80 point mark and would likely cement himself as a vital point of Montreal’s roster moving forward.
The second significant trade Bergevin made during the offseason was trading captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, prospect Nick Suzuki and a second round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Tatar, 28, was traded from the Red Wings to the Golden Knights last season and although Vegas gave up multiple picks to get him, he didn’t see much playing time. Despite Vegas going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, Tatar only saw 8 playoff games of action tallying 1 goal and 2 points. Although his point totals were a career low in 2018, Tatar is having a rebound season with Montreal. Currently sitting second on the team in scoring with 16 goals and 38 points, Tatar has been one of Montreal’s most consistent point producers and along with Domi, will be relied on heavily if the Canadiens are going to continue to push for a playoff berth. Along with being a key piece of the Canadiens’ roster, his name alone has become almost meme like throughout Montreal and the hockey world due to a fan.
On the backend, Montreal is benefitting heavily from getting captain Shea Weber back from injury reserve. Acquired in a one-for-one trade with the Nashville Predators in the summer of 2016, Weber has been a sensational defenseman for the team since arriving although missing significant time last season and this season due to injury. Since coming back Weber has scored 7 goals and 16 points in 27 games. If the Canadiens look to continue their push for the playoffs, Weber will not only need to stay healthy, but continue to be the anchor on Montreal’s blueline.
The Canadiens, who have been on a decent hot streak since the start of December find themselves sitting third in the Atlantic Division with a 28-18-5 record, only one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs who sit in second. Despite playing two more games than both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Maple Leafs, Montreal still has a seven point cushion on the Buffalo Sabres who find themselves on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. Compared to last years 71 points at the end of the season, Montreal has taken a massive step forward this year and making the playoffs will only cement that idea. With a deep offense, solid defense and Carey Price playing like his usual self, the Canadiens have put themselves in a good place heading into the second half of the 2018-19 season.