The Montreal Canadiens have been fairly consistent in their inconsistency of late. Over the past five seasons, their win total has ranged anywhere between 29 and 50, rocketing up and crashing back down from year to year.
As such, it’s hard to get a read on the club’s trajectory. It was especially difficult entering 2018-19 because Montreal’s roster had undergone a sea change up front. Habs captain Max Pacioretty was shipped to Vegas for nifty winger Tomas Tatar, top-tier prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick. Alex Galchenyuk was also dealt to Arizona for Max Domi in a “change of scenery” trade for both parties. Meanwhile, 2018 third overall selection Jesperi Kotkaniemi earned a full-time spot in the lineup centering the third unit alongside fellow newcomer Joel Armia.
This was an entirely different Canadiens forward corps and there was no telling how it would all shake out. Domi had struggled in his second and third pro seasons with the Coyotes. Tatar was such a complete flop as a rental for the Golden Knights that he was scratched for 12 of the team’s 20 playoff games. Kotkaniemi was 18 years old in the pressure-packed mecca of hockey.
In the end, last season was quite a pleasant surprise.
The difference in 2018-19 was that the Habs were no longer merely a collection of fast players. They embraced their speed and tailored their system to impose a pace many couldn’t keep up with. At 5-on-5, Montreal controlled 54.1% of the shot attempts (4th), 53.6% of the scoring chances (4th) and 53.5% of the high-danger bids (7th) for a 53.6% goal share (9th). Domi (72 points in 82 games) excelled in this uptempo setting because of his ability to swing back into his end and single-handedly slice through the opposition’s neutral zone coverage. That furious one-man breakout generated a ton of rush opportunities and chaos around the net. Jonathan Drouin (53 points in 81 games), who had been relieved of center duties, could now deploy his wheels and silky mitts on the wing.
On the second line, Tatar (58 points in 80 games) was meshing well with Phillip Danault (53 points in 81 games) and Brendan Gallagher (52 points in 82 games). Unlike Pacioretty, Tatar isn’t a pure trigger man. He likes to hold on to the puck, draw defenders toward him and react accordingly. He’s perfectly comfortable in close quarters and brings a nice level of creativity to an otherwise meat-and-potatoes unit. This freed up Gallagher to focus exclusively on putting the puck in the net — whether it was with his quick release or net-crashing prowess. Danault represented the defensive conscience: a quiet, steady center who could keep up with his partners but always stayed on the right side of the puck.
— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) January 19, 2019
Elsewhere, Andrew Shaw (47 points in 63 games) was thriving in a versatile, pot-stirring role and Kotkaniemi (34 points in 79 games) was displaying great promise in a sheltered capacity. Armia (23 points in 57 games) provided him with a dependable big-body presence and the easier minutes allowed the youngster to work on his game without feeling the need to fulfill lofty expectations in his rookie year. There was a real sense of balance up front.
Head coach Claude Julien had found a way to push the pace without compromising his defensive identity. In essence, he had achieved what he could not at the tail end of his tenure in Boston: He adapted to the modern game.
On Feb. 7, the Habs were 31-18-6 (7th) in the tightly contested Atlantic Division. Domi, Drouin, Tatar, Gallagher and Danault were delivering top-six production while Shaw, Kotkaniemi, Artturi Lehkonen (31 points in 82 games) and Paul Byron (31 points in 56 games) provided quality depth scoring. On the back end, veteran captain Shea Weber and Jeff Petry were leading a patchwork group of defenders that included Victor Mete, Mike Reilly, Jordie Benn and Brett Kulak. Facing the opposition’s best forwards on a nightly basis after recovering from knee surgery, Weber posted a 53.5 CF%, 54.4 SCF%, 55.4 HDCF% and 56.6 GF%. His knack for keeping the slot clean and preventing second-chance opportunities was pivotal for his team. Between the pipes, superstar Carey Price (2.49 GAA, 91.8 SV%) wasn’t unbeatable, but his team didn’t require that level of performance. Solid play would do the trick.
Unfortunately, a slip-up down the stretch generated a 13-12-2 record (19th) to close out the season. That afforded the Columbus Blue Jackets just enough room to snag the final wild-card spot, as John Tortorella’s men finished two points ahead of Montreal.
Though an offensive breakout had defined the Habs’ year to that point, a few slumps hurt them when it mattered most. Drouin mustered three points over his final 18 games. Kotkaniemi managed the same total over 15 games. While the 18-year-old understandably petered out in his first NHL campaign, Drouin had no excuse. His three-zone responsibilities had been passed on to Domi and he was depended upon purely to manufacture offense — and he failed miserably in that regard. Montreal’s 30th-ranked power play certainly didn’t help either. There was no flow or purpose to the man advantage. The puck was moved around haphazardly and the unit seldom recognized the right time to attack the middle of the ice.
If the team wasn’t rolling at even strength, it was likely in for a loss.
To perform so well at 5-on-5 only to watch special teams sink the team was surely discouraging. However, 2018-19 still represented a major bounce-back campaign. All told, Montreal ranked 14th offensively and 13th defensively. It finished 25 points higher than it did the previous year and based its approach on its prevailing strength: speed. The Canadiens moved fluidly and efficiently through the neutral zone, giving opponents fits as they tried to clamp down on Montreal’s gifted puck-carriers.
When the offseason began, general manager Marc Bergevin tried to land another young star in Sebastian Aho. Well, he…kind of tried. Sure, the five-year term takes the 22-year-old straight to unrestricted free agency, but an $8.45 million cap hit is well below market value for an 80-point player and the meager compensation in that bracket (1 first-rounder, 1 second-rounder, 1 third-rounder) didn’t make Carolina pause for a fraction of a second. Other than appeasing the fanbase, it’s not clear what Bergevin was thinking with this half-hearted offer sheet. His probability of success was zero from the outset.
Beyond that feeble attempt, the summer consisted of a few roster tweaks. Shaw was dealt back to Chicago and Benn left for Vancouver, whereas the team signed gritty forward Nick Cousins (27 points in 81 games), physical defenseman Ben Chiarot (20 points in 78 games) and backup goalie Keith Kinkaid (3.36 GAA, 89.1 SV%). Shaw’s energy and production will be missed, but all things considered, the offseason wasn’t too eventful.
If there are any significant upgrades on the horizon, they’ll come internally. Kotkaniemi has one year under his belt and a summer of strength and conditioning should allow him to stay in the groove over the long haul. He’s obviously more familiar with the speed and skill of the pro game as well. While 2017 25th overall pick Ryan Poehling debuted with a hat trick in the final game of the year, that performance came against an undermanned Toronto Maple Leafs squad that was already mediocre on the back end. At any rate, the 20-year-old projects as a quality two-way forward who should push for a spot in the bottom six. He’s smart, rangy and carries untapped offensive potential.
Suzuki, who was obtained via the Pacioretty swap, appears intent on making Vegas regret its decision. He delivered a solid year split between Owen Sound and Guelph in the OHL and then proceeded to post 42 points in 24 playoff games. The 20-year-old is creative, shifty and riding a wave of momentum headed into training camp. Good showings in preseason could certainly earn him a place in the opening night lineup and his arrival would neatly coincide with the team’s stylistic shift toward speed and skill.
Looking further down the line, 2019 15th overall pick Cole Caufield will eventually provide Montreal with a dose of lethal finishing ability. The undersized winger (5’7”, 162 lbs) is perhaps the most tantalizing forward in the Habs’ pipeline, as he’s torched goaltenders at every level thanks to his deceptive release and good instincts. He’s set to suit up for Wisconsin next season, but you get the sense he’ll be in the pros sooner rather than later. On the blue line, 2018 38th overall pick Alexander Romanov will look to refine his game with CSKA Moscow. The 19-year-old shows great poise with the puck, which would be a welcome sight on a defense that occasionally lacks conviction on the breakout.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) August 3, 2019
By playing to their strengths, the Canadiens just produced their highest goal total in a decade. Better yet, there’s even more firepower on the way. The main challenge now is building on that foundation in order to defy their recent gravity.