Looking ahead to the coming Canadiens season, we have heard the complete spectrum of views. Has Marc Bergevin destroyed the Habs as some contend or are they vastly improved? In my opinion, the answer falls somewhere in between.
Injuries will be part of the discussion as the season begins with Shea Weber possibly out until December, while Andrew Shaw and Paul Byron aren’t scheduled to play until the end of October at the earliest.
Weber’s absence is a significant blow to a young and fragile defence who could have benefited from the stability he brings to the lineup. The good news is, that once Weber returns from knee surgery, his style of play should not be impacted. Weber’s strength, size and hockey IQ make him one of the most difficult defencemen to play against in the NHL. That being said, his mobility will be a question mark as he makes a return.
This season’s blue line is still not set in stone, however, it is clear that it will rely heavily on Jeff Petry, two sophomore defenders, and most of all on Carey Price.
A positive outcome for the team’s defense this season would simply be a statistical improvement over last season. While the bar isn’t set high on that expectation, it starts with the new defensive coach Luke Richardson. Essentially, Richardson is expected to vastly improve the NHL’s 30th ranked penalty-kill that finished with a 74.1 percent efficiency rating last season as well as to help the defense improve on the 258 goals allowed which was ranked 25th in the league.
Richardson has hinted at the style that he hopes to employ with the Canadiens defence. It will feature a mobile corps who can contribute to the offence without sacrificing defensive positioning. Even if this style, more consistent other NHL teams, is the one used, it will take time for the players to adjust. We may witness more youth and mobility this season, but that comes with its own challenges.
As hopeful as fans can be with the arrival of Richardson, my expectation is that the Canadiens defence will not be significantly improved over last season. I expect that shots allowed by Montreal will be on par with the 2017-18 number of 32.3 shots against per game. Therefore, goaltending will play a significant role if the Canadiens are to improve their defensive game this season.
Antti Niemi was a major surprise after his waiver acquisition last season. He finished the year with a .929 save percentage, allowing 63 goals with the Canadiens. Yet his season included time in Florida and Pittsburgh where he struggled taking his season average down to a .911 save percentage.
I expect Niemi to play as many as 25 games this season. It would unreasonable to expect him to repeat .929 performance in the Canadiens net. Assuming Niemi plays 24 games and regresses closer to a .905 save percentage, which is that of a respectable backup, his goals against would equal 67.
Last season was the worst statistical season in Price’s NHL career where he finished with a .900 save percentage in his 49 games played allowing 148 goals.
Price has now begun his contract extension, and could be motivated to prove himself worthy of that deal. Let’s assume that, after subtracting Niemi’s games, Price starts the remaining 58 games. Assuming Price can return to his career average of a .920 save percentage, he would allow 155 goals against for a 2.71 goals against average per game.
This would be an improvement on the 3.15 goals against average and 36 fewer goals from the 2017-18 campaign. That alone would have taken the Habs from 25th in the NHL in goal’s allowed to an eighth place ranking.
This significant difference demonstrates why Price is the cornerstone player for the Canadiens. His average level of play is enough to dramatically improve the Habs defense alone. If Richardson can install an improved system and Bergevin can provide him with improved talent to implement that system, it could only amplify Price’s effectiveness.
If this scenario comes true — that is, the defense jumps to a top 10 ranking thanks entirely to Price — the Canadiens will still have issues scoring goals. That could leave the Habs fighting for the second Wild Card playoff spot but not likely to earn the last playoff berth.
My sense is that we will see solid goaltending this season, with no real improvement on offence or defense. This will likely leave the Canadiens sitting outside the playoffs and likely just outside of the top 10 for 2019 draft selections.
That being said, there is an influx of young talent at nearly every position on its way. Add in a quality prospect or two from a deep 2019 NHL Entry draft and the future does look bright. Still, patience will be required to see the Canadiens return to relevance in the NHL.