103 points. That was good enough to propel the Montreal Canadiens to the seventh spot overall in the NHL last season. It was a promising season that ended far too quickly in the postseason. The primary culprit was the Habs offense that averaged less than two goals a game in the playoffs.
By now, fans have reflected on the highs and lows of last season, and most have moved on, looking ahead to the upcoming 2017-’18 season. Expectations are high (as they usually are) after locking up the Canadiens most valuable player long-term, trading for a budding, hometown superstar and signing one of the biggest unrestricted free agent defensemen. It is quite clear that Montreal is in ‘win now’ mode.
Prediction 1: Jonathan Drouin will shine
It’s easy to suggest that newly-acquired Jonathan Drouin will be quite the popular name in Montreal this season, and probably for years to come. The trade sending Mikhail Sergachev to the Lightning in exchange for Drouin surprised many in the hockey community. Drouin finished last season with 53 points (21 goals, 32 assists), averaging 17:42 playing time per game. Meanwhile Sergachev won the Memorial Cup with his junior team, the Windsor Spitfires.
In Montreal, I see Drouin logging top minutes and putting up his fair share of points. Drouin brings a huge offensive punch which should fill the void created by the departure of Alexander Radulov. Comparing the two, Drouin only finished one point behind Radulov in three fewer games last season.
Like Radulov, Drouin impacts game play and the players around him. Once training camp begins, we will see where Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin intend to place Jonathan in the lineup. Will he be deployed on the wing to be another star-winger or do they believe he is the answer at centre the Habs so desperately need?
Regardless of the position Drouin plays, he is capable of racking up points. If he plays close to a full season, I expect him to record 60 to 70 points. I don’t see the Habs making the playoffs if Drouin falls short of that total. Should he put up over 70 points in the regular season I predict that the Habs will go on a deep playoff run and Bergevin would receive my vote for ‘General Manager of the Year.’ The addition of Drouin to the Canadiens will have a major impact on the season. The following are three predictions for how he will impact the team:
Prediction 2: Canadiens will have one of the league’s top power-play units
Montreal finished 13th in the league on the power-play last season with a 19.7 per cent efficiency. With Kirk Muller in charge, it was a big improvement from 2015-’16, where the Canadiens iced one of the league’s worst power-plays, finishing 25th overall.
In my opinion, Montreal now has all the pieces for one of the best power-plays in the league. Shea Weber’s blast from the point alone is a big part of it. Weber led all NHL defensemen with 12 power-play goals last season.
Weber’s contribution should continue for 2017-’18. With the Canadiens officially announcing that Andrei Markov will not return, I see Drouin replacing him as the new quarterback of the power-play. When he isn’t setting up his teammates, Drouin has the skill and accuracy to finish the play.
I think that the Canadiens will ice four forwards with the man advantage. The power-play units could look something like this.
Pacioretty – Drouin – Gallagher
Galchenyuk – Weber
Lehkonen – Danault – Shaw
Jerabek/Streit – Petry
We have seen the Canadiens deploy four forwards on the power-play in the past but never with this much talent. By loading up the first unit, the second unit looks like it may lack some punch. However, each unit has net front presence with either Brendan Gallagher or Andrew Shaw (who would also be the only right shooting forward on each unit.)
With the revamped defense I see Jeff Petry getting more opportunities to unleash his shot from the point paired with newcomer Jakub Jeřábek or recycled Hab Mark Streit. Streit is capable of quarterbacking the second unit if he can stay in the lineup.
Prediction 3: Max Pacioretty will break the 40-goal mark
Scoring 30 or more goals each of the last four seasons, Max Pacioretty is the premier sniper for the Montreal Canadiens. The captain came close to scoring 40 in 2013-’14 when he put up 39 goals. Last season, Pacioretty played through a lower-body injury but still managed to tie his career-best year in points with 67.
I expect that the off-ice chemistry being built between Pacioretty and Drouin via summer workouts will definitely lead to on-ice production. It is strongly believed the two will be paired as wingers on the Habs top line. Speed has always been the Montreal’s game and this line will definitely use it to their advantage. 40 goals is within reach for Pacioretty with a top-3 finish in goals not out of the picture.
Prediction 4: Price will be Price
Lets not forget who is clearly the Habs best player. Last season, Carey Price was again nominated for the Vezina Trophy. After coming back from an injury-plagued season in 2015-’16, Price was outstanding, giving the Habs a chance to win every game. With a little help, we may have seen numbers like the 2014-15 season.
Prediction 5: Tomas Plekanec is recognized for his defensive contribution
Every season is filled with highs and lows. Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen both produced above expectations having impressive seasons. This year it will be an opportunity for them to prove that their success wasn’t just a one time thing. On the other hand, Tomas Plekanec, Andrew Shaw, Mike McCarron and Brendan Gallagher did not meet my expectations.
At times, Plekanec seemed to be fighting the puck, having one of the most disappointing seasons offensively with 10 goals, 18 assists for 28 points. Plekanec remains one the best shutdown centres in the league and will likely be tasked with strictly defensive roles. Even if his offensive numbers remain similar to last season, I will be very satisfied if Plekanec excels in his defensive role.
Prediction 6: Andrew Shaw will rebound
Andrew Shaw was a key piece acquired for a significant price by Marc Bergevin at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Playing with emotion is what Shaw does but last season it appeared that he lost steam as the season went on. Coach Claude Julien seemed to have a positive effect on Shaw once he arrived back behind the Montreal bench.
With the guidance of Julien, I expect to see a tame and more effective Shaw this season fitting the mold of the player Bergevin expected. That said, Shaw will likely still lead the team in penalty minutes again.
Prediction 7: Brendan Gallagher will rebound too
After back to back seasons with injuries to the same hand, Brendan Gallagher has struggled to return to form. Now healthy, expect Gallagher to be back to his old ways, aggravating his opponents every shift.
Prediction 8: Mike McCarron will have a breakout season
I expect a breakout season for Michael McCarron as he becomes a regular physical presence in the lineup and contributes 20 to 30 points. This off-season, McCarron made Montreal his home and has been working out with Torrey Mitchell. The veteran Canadiens centre has been known as one of the most fit players on the team in the past three seasons.
Improved hockey knowledge and fitness level for McCarron under Mitchell’s mentorship should lead to a breakout season. I believe that Julien will give McCarron every opportunity to shine.
Prediction 9: Phillip Danault will start the season as the No. 1 centre
The biggest mystery going into the season is who will be Montreal’s No. 1 centre. Galchenyuk, Drouin, and Danault will be battling it out in training camp.
In my opinion, Phillip Danault, who had a pretty good season last year, will start the season as the No. 1 centre with Pacioretty and Drouin on the wings of the first line. Danault will need to do more than just repeat his 40-point performance from last season. If he achieves 50 points, Habs management should consider this a win despite being below-par for a first line centre.
Galchenyuk will likely get a shot at being a centre again, even if management and coaching staff have their doubts. Galchenyuk was producing at a point a game before his injury last season, another explosive start to the season and he could reach 70 points this season. A second line of Lehkonen-Hudon-Galchenyuk could cause trouble for opponents but must be defensively responsible. Lehkonen is the only player who can be called reliable in his own end at this point.
Plekanec should be the No. 3 centre, playing with fellow countryman Ales Hemsky and gritty forward Andrew Shaw. Mitchell will likely fill out the fourth line at centre, and play with speedy, versatile forward Paul Byron, as well as McCarron.
Expect Jonathan Drouin, Charles Hudon, Mike McCarron, Andrew Shaw, Peter Holland and Jacob De La Rose to get their opportunity at centre as well.
Prediction 10: Canadiens will be playing hockey in May 2018
The Habs are in for a tough season with huge expectations, an early playoff exit will have fans calling for Bergevin’s job. They are going to live on the success of Drouin and their division will be much harder than last season. It took 95 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern conference last season, every team in the Atlantic division except the Detroit Red-Wings should win at least 40 games.
The Habs will finish the regular season with about 105 points, two points better than season, but they will not win the Atlantic division. Expect that honour to go to the Tampa Bay Lightning who will rebound from last season.
Drouin will lead the team in points and Price will win over 40 games for the second time in his career. The Habs will be in a good position come the trade deadline and will be buyers, notably acquiring a No. 1 centre. In playoffs anything can happen, but expect the Habs to be playing well into May.
October 4th is less than 70 days away, and for Habs fans, it can’t come soon enough.