Since the beginning of July, when the unrestricted free agency opened, many fans and pundits have been weighing in on the changes to the Canadiens roster. Marc Bergevin has already participated in a very busy off-season thus far featuring an Expansion Draft, a NHL Entry Draft, and the seemingly yearly blockbuster trade.
Despite the activity so far this summer, Bergevin’s work is far from complete. The biggest issue facing the Canadiens after the bitter, early exit against the New York Rangers is a lack of offence. This summer’s main focus was to add scoring without damaging the team’s defence, ranked fourth overall in the league last season.
Bergevin began by adding 22-year-old Jonathan Drouin to the top six. It can be argued that Drouin has not yet reached his potential, which should allow him to become a high-end offensive threat for the Canadiens for many years to come.
Sadly, for most Habs fans, Alex Radulov is off to Dallas. This may prove to be fortuitous, as the 31-year-old signed a five-year contract at $6.25 million per season, which is $750,000 more per season than Drouin’s deal. While having both would have been much better, but I believe that Drouin will be a better player long-term for la Sainte Flanelle.
With quite a bit of talk on social media of other teams and their young core players, a quick look at Montreal’s top-six capable players should ease the minds of some. Drouin (22), Phillip Danault (24), Alex Galchenyuk (23), Brendan Gallagher (25), and Artturi Lehkonen (21) are all 25-years-old and under.
The grizzled, veteran grey beard of the top six is the perennial, 30-plus goal scorer, Max Pacioretty at 28. Even though there is a top-six center missing from that group, it is still a very promising one.
However, age doesn’t score. Players do. I have used last season’s goals per 60 (G/60), and assigned time on ice to each player to project the output of Montreal’s current forward group.
The first line had 19 minutes of average time on ice (ATOI). The second line with 16 to 18 mins ATOI. It should be noted this is the level both Danault and Galchenyuk fall into for the sake of this experiment. The third line with 13-15 mins ATOI, and finally fourth line with 12 and under mins ATOI.
These results leave a few players, such as Andreas Martinsen, Michael McCarron and Charles Hudon, off the list, as they are still fighting for a roster position. The lineup would look similar to this:
Pacioretty – Danault/Galchenyuk – Drouin
Lehkonen – Danault/Galchenyuk – Gallagher
Byron – Plekanec – Shaw
Hudon/Martinsen – Mitchell/McCarron – Hemsky
Last season, the forwards provided 172 goals in all situations. With the above lineup using the G/60 and assigned ATOI, the Canadiens forward group would provide 211 goals in all situations during the 2017-2018 season. Hypothetically, this would provide Claude Julien a 39 goal improvement over last season.
However, as of writing, Andrei Markov has not re-signed with the Canadiens. This would mean a significant loss of a power-play quarterback. While Drouin could potentially replace Markov functionally, having Markov would help solidify the top-four defensive group’s ability to provide controlled defensive zone exits.
Julien’s system relies on his defense to box out the slot, gain possession, and make a quick pass to a forward in motion above the faceoff circles. For this reason, defenceman such as Shea Weber, Karl Alzner, Jeff Petry and David Schlemko, are all quite capable.
The key to this system is the reliance on centers who can play well defensively to assist the defenceman gain possession, and to launch the transition game. One player who may help improve the blueline could be Jakub Jerabek. However he, and Joe Morrow will not factor into this experiment.
Using the same G/60 system for the top six defense, we can plausibly see 25 minutes for first pairing, 20 minutes for second pairing, and 15 minutes for third pairing.
Alzner – Weber
Benn – Petry
Schlemko – Davidson
Last season, the defensive group provided 41 goals in all situations. With the above lineup using the G/60 and assigned ATOI, the Canadiens defensive group would add 41 goals through lateral output. However, when adding both groups together, the total goals to be expected would be 252.
That goal total would place Montreal firmly into the top six in the NHL for offensive output. It would be a major leap forward that would bode well for the standings in the regular season. Yet, the question is, would it translate to offensive success in the playoffs?
With a new coach and system to excite and motivate the players, a large improvement in offensive output is not out of the question. This exercise doesn’t take into account any injuries, slumps in play, or career seasons. It is entirely possible any or all of those scenarios plays out. It is not unreasonable to expect some players production to dip, while others will increase.
The uncertainty is what makes it necessary to play the game. That said, the Canadiens are at worst as good as last season, which would place them firmly into the playoffs. At best, the Habs could have a slightly improved offence, on paper that is.
Nevertheless, as of now, the Canadiens do not have a complete roster and it is unreasonable to assess the roster as if it were complete until the season begins, as there are 22 of 23 roster positions filled.
Bergevin has about $9 million in cap space at his disposal, and still has an obvious need for a top six centerman. He plays the long game, and may begin the season without that key piece. Yet, he has the opportunity to use that cap space as an asset to prey on his peers that are dealing with cap issues and swing for the fences.
All that said, when swinging for power, it is still a possibility to strike out. Bergevin is no longer in the honeymoon stage with many fans and media, and has little to no room remaining for a miss.