by Gregorio Lentini, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
The 2017-’18 season has finally ended. For Habs fans, the finale couldn’t come soon enough. To put it frankly, this year has been atrocious.
The Montreal Canadiens finished the season fourth last in the league with only 71 points. The Habs haven’t had a season this bad since 2000-’01, when they accrued only 70 points.
In a season where almost everything went wrong, it is easy to point out the negatives: goal-scorers like Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Drouin didn’t produce to their potential, the defence was disorganized and the penalty-kill was appalling (it was the second worst in the NHL).
On top of that, injuries plagued several members of the team. Philip Danault and Andrew Shaw were out for almost a quarter of the season, Carey Price was out for almost half the season, and Shea Weber was out for almost three quarters of it.
However, sometimes, the muddiest waters have gold in them. Even though this season was ugly to watch, there were a couple positives that I hope do not go unnoticed as fans reflect on the season.
While many were disappointing, one player was not engulfed by the treacherous season. That man was Brendan Gallagher.
When he was drafted in 2010, he wasn’t considered a goal-scorer. People knew that he had character and grit, but few presumed he would score twenty goals a season. In 2014-’15, he did just that. However, he then broke his hand late in 2015, and again in early 2017. He missed a total of forty-seven games between those two seasons. In 2016-’17, he only scored ten goals. Many presumed that his hand injuries would be enough to tarnish his goal-scoring abilities for the rest of his career.
But Brendan never let the uncertainty surrounding his hand nor the negativity surrounding the 2017-’18 season affect him.
This season, he played beyond everyone’s expectations and reached the thirty-goal plateau for the first time in his career. He became the second Canadien not named Max Pacioretty to reach that mark since the 2011 lockout.
Despite his small stature, Gallagher never shied away from the net battles. No matter the night, Gallagher lunged his way towards the net. Even on nights when the Canadiens were bound to lose, he still put in a full effort.
He was a true leader throughout this season, and he deserved those thirty-one goals. Others should learn to emulate his work ethic and energy level. If all goes well, Gallagher should be able to increase his goal totals for next season while helping others around him improve.
At first glance, the Canadiens’ power play appears mediocre. They finished the season twelfth in the league in power-play percentage with 21.2 per cent. Such a statistic, however, is quite deceiving. It fails to include just how much progress the Canadiens made throughout the season.
At the first quarter mark of the season, the Habs had the fifth worst power-play record in the NHL. After twenty one games, the Habs power-play had a 14.9 percent success rate. However, over the course of the remaining sixty-one games, the Habs improved their power-play to 24 per cent. Compared to other teams in the last three quarters of the season, the Habs actually had the fourth best power-play in the league behind Pittsburgh, Toronto and Boston.
What makes this even more remarkable is that the Habs were able to drastically improve their power-play without Shea Weber. In 2016-’17, the Habs often relied on Weber’s lethal one-timers to help score goals on the man-advantage. He scored twelve goals, which was roughly a quarter of all the Canadiens’ power-play goals that season. He also added thirteen assists that year. In the last three quarters of this season, because of his injured foot, Weber only played five games. This forced the Habs to change their strategy.
Instead of floundering, the Habs were able to create a dynamic power-play. Other players, namely Alex Galchenyuk, Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher, stepped up to replace Weber. As a whole, the Habs’ man-advantage became more mobile. Players were developing chemistry while learning how to properly set up in the offensive zone. If the Canadiens can carry this knowledge into the next season, it can go a long way in putting the Habs back on track. Putting Weber alongside Drouin, Gallagher and Galchenyuk might produce a very successful power-play.
This disastrous season may end up becoming beneficial to the Canadiens’ organization. It left the Habs a perfect situation to better themselves through the draft as well as free agency.
Their terrible finish gives the Canadiens a great chance to obtain a blue chip prospect. Rasmus Dahlin, Filip Zadina, Andrei Svechnikov and Brady Tkachuk are all projected to be phenomenal players. Each has the potential to make a huge impact as early as next season. Unless a team jumps over them in the lottery draft, the Habs will be able to obtain one of these players.
The Habs have a 9.5 per cent chance at winning the lottery and drafting Dahlin. He is projected to be a generational defenceman, and he has the potential to single-handedly alleviate many of the Habs’ defensive woes. The Habs also have nine picks in the first four rounds, which means that they have a great opportunity to replenish their prospect cupboard. Since they finished fourth-last in the league, each of the Habs’ own picks will be higher up in each round, allowing them to get shot at talented prospects before most other teams.
In addition to the draft, the Habs have the salary cap space to make a significant contribution to next season’s lineup. The fact that Bergevin didn’t spend the roughly seven million dollars they had last summer ultimately cost the Habs the season. However, they now have even more money to make a splash.
Without having to make a single trade, the Habs can sign an impact free agent like Paul Stastny (if he chooses to test the open market). The Habs also have the cap space to make a play for the elite John Tavares if, by extreme chance, he chooses to leave the New York Islanders.
Unlike the majority of NHL teams, the Habs would not have to overhaul their roster to squeeze Tavares under the cap ceiling. In fact, since the salary cap is projected to rise from 78 million to 80 million dollars next season, the Habs will have roughly fourteen million dollars in cap space going into free agency. This space alone should be enough to make a competitive offer for Tavares. If anything, they could always make a couple minor trades to increase their cap space.
All in all, this season was horrendous, but no matter how small, there are still glimmers of hope. The Canadiens have a chance to bounce back quicker than most expect, but they have to play their cards right. If lady luck is on their side, this negative season might end up being very positive in the long-run. We’ll just have to wait and see what transpires over the next three months.