The Montreal Canadiens inch closer to training camp with a stable of solid prospects, several picks, over $8.4 million in cap space, and several question marks still dotting their roster.
The team completed a highly successful regular season, something that has happened often under general manager, Marc Bergevin. However, success during the regular campaign has not carried on in the playoffs.
As they say, you are only as good as your last performance, and for the Canadiens, a glaring 11-goal effort is stuck in the collective memory of the fanbase. The six-game loss to the New York Rangers was a bitter pill to swallow for the team and its fans.
Despite the negativity by the mainstream media, Bergevin has done an admirable job of restocking the cupboards with quality prospects. That said, few, if any, can be seen as having elite potential beyond Alex Galchenyuk.
What has dogged Bergevin has been his five-year inability to find a top centre, with an organizational failure to groom Galchenyuk for the role. A number one centre and a top pairing defenceman are the last pieces needed to give the core the support needed to truly be in contention.
As we inch closer to training camp, there will likely be little movement until a rival GM begins to feel a cap crunch and a need to make a move. If that happens, Bergevin has several pieces to make a deal. However, he is unlikely to deviate from his methodical approach. Any deal he makes will be one that he feels is best-suited to address his need for a top center.
Let’s take a look at what is presently in the stable.
Goaltending is the least of the Canadiens’ concerns entering the 2017-18 season. Arguably the best goaltender in the world right now, Carey Price, will backstop the franchise. His new eight year, $84 million extension will likely keep Price with the Canadiens’ for the remainder of his NHL career.
Al Montoya will also have the inside track to returning to his role as Price’s backup. Montoya’s ability to play 20 to 30 games in a season is exactly what the coaching staff will look to him to do this season. Goaltending coach Stephane Waite told NHL.com
“I don’t believe your starter can play 65 to 70 games a year anymore. It’s too tough — physically and mentally — and that’ll catch up with you in the spring, for sure. That’s why a good backup can start 20, 22… even 24 games a year, and give your No. 1 goalie a break while still helping you make the playoffs.” — Stephane Waite
For this reason, the likelihood of Charlie Lindgren cracking the Canadiens’ lineup beyond an injury call-up is unlikely this season. Claude Julien and his staff will most likely want to rely on a proven commodity in net.
This season’s edition of the blueline will have a very different look and feel. For the first time since 2000, it will be without Andrei Markov. The veteran defenceman decided that he could not wait until October for an offer from Bergevin. Although other NHL teams were prepared to meet his contract demands, Markov said “I couldn’t see myself with another NHL team.” Instead, he decided to return home to play for Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL.
“I was ready to stay in Montreal. I was ready to sign one-year deal. But it didn’t work.” — Andrei Markov
As callous as it may sound, the GM had to consider the cap implications involved in signing a 39-year-old defenceman to a deal. When parity is taken into account, even something as seemingly insignificant as one or two million dollars misspent can mean the difference between contention and also-ran.
The Canadiens’ blueline seemingly lacks puck moving abilities, yet with the new additions and a new system under Claude Julien, moving the puck out of the defensive zone will likely not be as large of an Achilles’ heel as most believe.
Andrei Markov got a point on 80% of the PP goals scored when he was on the ice last season, highest percentage for a d-man in the NHL.
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) July 27, 2017
The top pairing will be anchored by perennial All-Star Shea Weber. His bomb on the right point will also play a key role in the Habs power-play. On his left, many pundits have already slotted in Karl Alzner. While the Canadiens’ newest addition via free agency is a high-end defender able to play heavy minutes, he likely will not start the season with Weber.
The more likely scenario for Julien will be to audition other new blueline additions. David Schlemko, a perennial fifth defenceman, could be a contender given his ability to play up the lineup. Schlemko’s mobility and puck-moving skills could mesh well with Weber’s skill set. If that experiment fails, Schlemko will be more than capable of 15 to 16 mins on the third-pairing playing a similar role vacated by Nathan Beaulieu.
The second-pairing will have Alzner providing a stabilizing, stay-at-home presence allowing Jeff Petry to focus more on his offensive game. Petry will still be defensively responsible, but with his new partner, he will be able to provide secondary offence while relying on his partner to cover the Canadiens zone.
The third-pairing is where things get interesting. Thanks to his excellent second half, Jordie Benn earned himself a spot on the Canadiens’ expansion draft protection list ahead of Beaulieu. Benn’s ability to play both the left and right side of the blueline makes him a valuable commodity for Julien, especially on the third-pairing where numerous players will be fighting for regular ice-time.
The first such defender is newly re-christened Canadien, Marc Streit. The 39-year-old defender was a member of the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, although he only saw action in three of 25 post-season contests. His puck-moving skills and vision could be an asset to the Habs third pair and to the second wave of the Montreal power-play.
Another defender who will be given an opportunity to prove himself as a 5-6 defenseman will be the newly-acquired Jakub Jerabek. The 26-year-old, left-handed defender is, like Streit, somewhat undersized, but he is a smooth-skating puck-mover who can thrive on the third pair and second-wave of the power-play. Jerabek may be a victim of the numbers game with his waiver-exempt status making it easy for the Canadiens to send him to Laval.
This leaves left-handers Joe Morrow and Brendan Davidson. Morrow, a Penguins 2011 first-round selection, had a taste of NHL play while under Julien’s tutelage in Boston. Davidson, in his last year of his deal, is looking to rekindle the promise of top-four ability he flashed when he was with Edmonton. Their contributions are a large ‘X-factor’ that can positively impact the Canadiens’ depth chart this season.
Any fans or media expecting “the blender” being retired now that Julien has replaced Michel Therrien will be sorely mistaken. Julien will have to make changes to his lines based, not only on performance, but also due to injuries and matchups.
The top line, as always, starts with Canadiens’ captain and perennial 30-goal scorer, Max Pacioretty. His underrated 200-foot game makes him a coach’s favorite in all situations.
For now, Phillip Danault is the likeliest center for this line based on his 40-point breakout season. While his production is not commensurate with a top line center, Danault will retain his role due to lack of options and his defensive abilities.
The addition of Jonathan Drouin will be felt most by his off-season training partner, Pacioretty. Drouin’s ability to play right-wing will be a major addition to the Canadiens. His sublime playmaking skills will allow him to feed one of the league’s best shooters, as well as assume the role of power-play quarterback. Playing his off-wing will also allow Drouin to feature his underrated shot which should result in a slight improvement to last season’s 21-goal output.
The second line will have a different look than last season. Artturi Lehkonen completed an excellent rookie campaign proving himself to be an offensive threat as well as being defensively responsible. Lehkonen will get an opportunity to play alongside Alex Galchenyuk at centre who will be eased into the role he was drafted to fill. By playing a second line role, Galchenyuk’s offensive skills will be showcased. His defensive issues should be less noticeable, especially with two solid 200-foot wingers.
On the right wing, Brendan Gallagher will fill the role of net-front pest and offensive threat. Gallagher had difficulties scoring last season due to his hand injuries, yet he didn’t change his approach to the game. With an off-season to heal and train, Gallagher will be expected to improve on his 10-goal performance last season.
The third line is where the tougher decisions for Julien will begin. Tomas Plekanec is entering the last year of his deal paying his $6 million. While Plekanec’s hockey skills are on the decline, his ability to fill a shut-down role are without question.
On the wings, the easy choice is to place a healthy Andrew Shaw on the right side. Under Julien, Shaw rediscovered his gritty but disciplined game. Shaw can contribute a style sorely lacking in the Habs lineup and should receive the nod over newly-acquired Ales Hemsky.
On the left side, Paul Byron can provide speed and scoring punch. It is unlikely that Byron can replicate his 22-goal output, but it isn’t unreasonable to expect 15 to 18 goals. This line’s ability to play in any situation will prove to be a wonderful weapon for the coaching staff.
An option for the third line could be Charles Hudon. In my opinion, Hudon has nothing left to prove at the AHL level. While his defensive lapses have caused his coaches fits, his offensive ability is a highly sought-after commodity. Coach Julien has said that Hudon will be given “every chance in the world” to make the roster.
Another wild card on the third line will be Hemsky. He is capable of impressing the coaching staff enough out of camp to unseat Shaw.
The fourth line will feature the fiercest internal competition for a roster spot. Torrey Mitchell finds himself in the last year of his deal. The Greenfield Park native will be relied upon for his speed, veteran leadership, defensive acumen and faceoff prowess.
Jacob De La Rose, Michael McCarron, Andreas Martinsen and Peter Holland will be looking to earn a place on the fourth line. Of the four players, McCarron is the only one who is waiver-protected. His status could factor into any decision.
August is the month most GMs take vacation, so it is likely this roster will remain unchanged by the start of training camp. Yet, with the amount of cap space, supporting depth and futures at his disposal, it would be unwise to believe Bergevin is done building this team towards his ultimate lineup. ‘Expect the unexpected’ has been the motto of the Canadiens general manager.
There is still time for the Bergevin to add the pieces necessary for the Habs to qualify as a true Cup contender. If he is unable to do so, expect fans to lose patience with this edition of team management.