Since the Montreal Canadiens admitted their defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers in the 2016-2017 playoffs, rumors had run rampant that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin had his hands full trying to patch together his team. Bergevin had clear holes in his lineup at center, right wing and left defense. Although he may have worked the phones leading up the expansion draft, no other GM wanted to aid his desperate colleague out in his quest to acquire the coveted top-line center the Habs have needed since the turn of the century. Many thought that young veteran Alex Galchenyuk was the team’s answer to that problem, but Bergevin and Canadiens head coach Claude Julien saw him as more of a complimentary winger by season’s end. Many fans were baffled by such talk, as the young former pivot had finished the last season with 30 goals and had a near point-per-game pace prior to his knee injury in the middle of the 16-17 season. Bergevin had a clear goal in mind, and, as he usually does during the summer, he went to the NHL thrift shop and decided to plug his holes with proverbial band-aids.
First and foremost, Bergevin’s biggest move was to trade away Mikhail Sergachev (the 2016, 9th overall pick) to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for left-wing Jonathan Drouin. Although Drouin did have a career year on a depleted Tampa Bay roster (53 points in 73 games), the Canadiens traded their most valuable trade chip, and surefire top-2 defenseman, for a left winger. The team already has a top-5 left winger in the game in captain Max Pacioretty, a young up-and-comer in Arturri Lekhonen and have recently converted Alex Galchenyuk to that position as well. Needless to say, the initial reaction to this trade was: why? Bergevin quickly pointed out that Drouin could play center, as that was his position in AAA hockey and his final junior year in the QMJHL for the Halifax Mooseheads. Many were cautiously optimistic of the addition, as Drouin is no offensive slouch, but the key word to take into account here is addition. It should also be noted that Drouin’s 108 point junior season at center for the Halifax Mooseheads was greatly aided by the production of rookie and draft-eligible Nikolaj Ehlers(9th overall in 2014), who put 104 in as many games as Drouin, The Canadiens may have added Drouin, but what came after made the trade feel like a lateral move at best.
The Canadiens proceeded to pass (thankfully) on a Marco Scandella trade with the Minnesota Wild in exchange for the 25th pick (which Montreal used to draft Ryan Poehling). They let both Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov walk for nothing, whilst acquiring Karl Alzner and Jakub Jerebak via free agency and David Schlemko via trade. In short, Montreal lost a top line winger, their 1st pairing left defenseman and their most promising prospect for a a top line winger/center, a 2nd pairing left defenseman ( at best) and a total unknown. Bergevin dug himself further into a hole by signing Carey price to an 8-year $10.5 million contract, which is well above fellow goalies like former Vezina winner Brayden Holtby ($6.1 million) and the current Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky ($7.4 million). In fact, he’s paid $2 million higher than Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million) who was, prior to the Price signing, the highest paid goalie in the NHL.
Montreal’s defense hasn’t looked this bad since the days of Patrick Traverse and Karl Dykhuis, as Shea Weber and Jeff Petry are virtually the only blue-liners with a smidge of offensive potential. Further adding insult to injury, due to the glaring hole on Montreal’s left defense, the only player who could have possibly replaced the hole Markov left was traded for Drouin. Their center depth is essentially Drouin, Danault Plekanec and their left defense will consist of Alzner, Schlemko, Mark Streit and Jerebak. Remember this depth chart and let us look at the rest of the Atlantic division.
A Look Around The League:
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who have jolted back up to become one of the most exciting teams in hockey, would have improved simply by standing pat and letting their players grow together. They instead signed veteran Ron Hainsey on defense and long-time San Jose Sharks captain Patrick Marleau (albeit a year too long at three years for $6.25 million) to add to their talented and young core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and more. The Leafs will certainly be the team to watch going into the 2017-2018 season in the Atlantic division.
The Buffalo Sabres will more than likely see a rise in performance due to change in management and coaching, while aslo counting on the (knock on wood) good health of franchise center Jack Eichel and explosive winger Kyle Okposo. With Evander Kane showing some of the best offensive production of his career late last season, he and Ryan O’Reilly will help propel the Sabres up the standings. As far as defense goes, Buffalo is sitting pretty compared to last year. The added year of experience for Rasmus Ristolainen will aid him greatly in taking the next step in his development as Buffalo’s eventual number 1 D. The recent acquisitions of Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu will help create internal competition for once, whilst the continued veteran presence of Zach Bogosian evens out a defense that looks like it’ll be able to finally help out poor Robin Lehner. Lehner posted a .920% save percentage last year, despite his team’s horrible record and putrid scoring woes. Keep your eye on Eichel who will be playing for a contract similar to that of Connor McDavid.
The Tampa Bay Lightning only missed the playoffs last year because of a ridiculous slew of injuries which resulted in 274 man games lost to injury, 65 of which from their best player sidelined for practically the whole season. When Brayden Point, albeit an exciting young player, is your first line center for 20+ games in a season, you know you’re in trouble. Thankfully Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov exploded last year with career years in offensive production and kept the Bolts in the playoff hunt, despite injuries to Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Jason Garrison and Cedric Paquette. That’s an entire offensive top-6 and a top-4 defenseman! Yet, they still came within two wins of an NHL playoff berth, which is absolutely incredible. If health permits, this team will surely shoot back to the top of the Atlantic division and challenge the Maple Leafs for top spot.
I don’t even know where to begin with the Florida Panthers. After having finally made their way back to the playoffs in 2015-2016, their management team saw it fitting to “promote” Dale Talon to team executive only to replace him with Tom Rowe. This change was puzzling at first, but it was quickly leaked that the team wanted to focus more on advanced statistics, such as corsi and possession stats, and felt Talon was out of touch with the new wave of what I like to call “overthinking hockey”. This change did not sit well with then head coach Gerard Gallant (who had finished the year prior as a Jack Adams candidate) and he was shortly pushed to the curb (literally) and replaced by Rowe himself behind the bench. Needless to say, injuries to Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad made the disaster in the front office just as ugly as the one on the ice. With Rowe removed, Talon back where he belongs as GM and Bob Boughner as new head coach, I feel like Florida will at the very least compete for a playoff spot this season.
The Detroit Red Wings will continue to basement-dwell for a few years. I’m so happy I get to say this after 26 years of watching them beat the odds and pull out superstars in the late rounds of the draft.
Lastly, the Ottawa Senators, led by Erik “Bobby Orr” Karlsson, will certainly be in the playoff mix, as they simply have too much offensive talent ( most of which will come from their back end with Karlsson, Cody Ceci and rookie Thomas Chabot) to not do some damage. Clutch performers like Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mike Hoffman and the enigmatic Bobby Ryan represent a core of offensive players that would make Canadiens fans drool. The only real question mark for the Senators is between the pipes, as current number 1 goalie Craig Anderson, who had an incredible and emotional season backed by his then cancer-stricken wife, turned 36 this year and at times showed signs of slowing down. He was by no means a perfect goalie, but he made the clutch saves when the Senators needed him. Can he perform at the same level for a full season, or will he lose a step? The Senators are still too good to not be in the playoff mix.
Where Does Montreal End Up?
How does Montreal’s lineup match up against these other teams? Short answer: it doesn’t. There is one answer that GM Marc Bergevin has to counter any analysis by professionals and amateur bloggers, and that answer is Carey Price. As we saw last year, Price can bring you to the playoffs, even play well enough to steal you a game against a superior Rangers team, but he cannot score the goals for Montreal. With Claude Julien at the helm, Montreal’s uber defensive hockey will persist and harden in ways that even Metapods have not attempted (Pokemon reference) . It may not be pretty. Will Montreal truly defy the odds this season? Or will they be calling Rasmus Dahlin’s name as the first overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft? I hope it’s the former, but I feel closer to the latter.