At the end of last season, clouds of doom and gloom hovered over Montreal. There were no simple answers as to how the fortunes of the team could be turned around before this year. When Marc Bergevin and Geoff Molson held an end-of-year press conference, they gave the impression that attitude was a major contributing factor in how the team performed last year.
What was Bergevin’s plan to address attitude without simply blowing up the team and going into a fire sale rebuild? He fired several coaches bringing in new faces and different ideas. In my estimation, this move could have the largest impact on the team over the next few years. The new staff may have modified Claude Julien’s style of play to prioritize speed.
Bergevin then went about reshaping the dressing room. Moving Alex Galchenyuk was not a popular decision, however, Max Domi seems to have been winning over fans with his fiery brand of hockey. He then traded 30-goal scorer and team captain Max Pacioretty for Tomas Tatar, a cap dump player who didn’t fit in with Vegas, Nick Suzuki, and a 2019 second round pick.
Suzuki is tearing up the OHL as captain of Owen Sound. Tatar is on the Habs top line and, with the exception of his performance against the Senators, is having an strong start to the season, with eight points in his first seven games. Tatar has displayed hustle and an ability to make quick plays in tight places.
Last season I suppose that the team’s identity was to play stifling defence, get some timely scoring and ride Carey Price as far as they could. That style of play had a modicum of success over the last six years, but Price was the key to that identity. His play dictated how well the Habs played.
This season, the Canadiens were supposed to be a plucky team embracing youth and rebuilding on the fly. After seven games and a full training camp, it seems they are more than just that – they are entertaining too.
This roster is one of the youngest in the NHL. It is also very fast, both measured by skating and execution. They strive to complete passes, shots, zone entries and exits at speed.
Players are saying all the right things about placing the team first such as Karl Alzner who sat for five games. Alzner said, “…once you get over yourself, you just start enjoying being around the rink and adding whatever you can.”
The team is also very competitive. They stand up for their teammates and win more than their share of puck battles. We see them pushing the pace of the play. We see a team that can mount comebacks and show resilience.
Last season, anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I saw an overall sense of complacency infecting every level of the organization from management to players. The shock of such a disastrous season may have woken up management to put the pieces in place to play the new style of hockey in the NHL.
The team’s identity seems to be rooted in the players who form the leadership core of the Canadiens: Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Carey Price. The team has emulated their styles of play and their desire to win.
In losses, the Canadiens may be outmatched, but I doubt that effort will be an issue. This season, teams will have to earn a win against the Habs.
In my opinion, the transition game has been a key to success. Mike Reilly, Jeff Petry, Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen have excelled at moving the puck up the ice quickly to take advantage of the team’s speed.
After seven games, I am predicting that the remainder of the season will be filled with exciting hockey. It should be a season where fans can enjoy watching a Canadiens game with a legitimate chance to see a win. Pacioretty’s offence can’t be replaced by one player, but I would be happy to see three or four 20-goal scorers this season.
All of this new hope is wonderful. Fans are having fun and the team is playing exciting hockey. The success has come with the team’s top defenceman and captain out until Christmas. Roster decisions will be coming and will leave management in a predicament.
If Canadiens management can add additional size and skill to their team with the new identity, fans can look forward to more than just entertainment over the next few years. At that point, fans could look forward to watching playoff games and maybe even see their team as Cup contenders as well.
Edited by Cate Racher, All Habs Hockey Magazine