This version of the Montreal Canadiens bears a striking resemblance to the team that finished two points out of a playoff spot in 2018-19. There were expectations that GM Marc Bergevin would make a big splash with the $13 million of cap space he had available, but it didn’t happen.
He made a bold – if predictably futile – attempt to bolster the firepower when he tendered an offer sheet to Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, but the Hurricanes not only matched the offer but they also mocked the Canadiens’ bid. The quest for an elite center continues.
Bergevin did pick up defenseman Ben Chiarot to replace Jordie Benn and added Keith Kinkaid to challenge Charlie Lindgren for the backup goaltending job. The Canadiens also traded feisty winger Andrew Shaw back to Chicago. They will miss his leadership, but they’re making room for high-end prospects Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki.
Max Domi, Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Drouin and defenseman Jeff Petry are all coming off career seasons, and Brendan Gallagher topped the 30-goal mark for the second consecutive year. Domi, Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi have eased the concern over the team’s weakness down the middle. Kotkaniemi ran out of gas late in the season, but a year of experience and an off-season strength program should take him to the next level.
Montreal is still missing a pure goal-scorer, but junior sensation Suzuki will get a chance to fill that role. The Canadiens remain on the small side and will rely on their speed, a mobile defense corps and aggressive forechecking to create opportunities.
A left-handed defenseman to play with Shea Weber was high on Montreal’s off-season wish list. They picked up Chiarot from Winnipeg, but he’s likely to battle Brett Kulak for a second-pairing spot opposite Petry. Chiarot adds size and a physical presence, but he’s not as mobile as Kulak, who stepped into a top-four role late last season.
Weber is 34 but showed he can still play monster minutes. He’ll be paired with Victor Mete, a smooth-skating, undersized puck-mover who has gained confidence over two seasons.
The Canadiens have had success defending top lines, and the underrated Danault deserves a lot of credit for his Selke Trophy-worthy performances.
Carey Price will be 32 when the season starts, and he has expressed concern his Stanley Cup window in Montreal is closing. Price is coming off a decent season that got better after Weber returned to the lineup. The key will be to keep Price well-rested, and the addition of Kinkaid will help.
The Habs had the second-worst power play and struggled to find a winning mix. Weber has a big shot, but getting the puck to him in an open space has been a problem as opposing defenses key on him. Kotkaniemi will get more time on the right wall, but point man Drouin has to make better decisions. The penalty kill ranks in the middle of the pack and is vulnerable because the Canadiens give up too many second chances. This is an area where the addition of Chiarot will be a plus.
Much has been made of the Canadiens’ lack of size, but undersized forwards Gallagher, Domi and Paul Byron have led by example with their work ethic. One of the challenges for the coaching staff will be to instill that same attitude in Drouin. Nobody questions his skill level, but in two seasons with Montreal, Drouin has had trouble developing chemistry with a variety of linemates.
Suzuki was a scoring machine in junior but will have to show he can handle the NHL’s physical play. Poehling had a hat trick in his big-league debut on the last night of the season, but fans are cautioned not to hold their breath waiting for a repeat performance. The 2017 first-rounder averaged a goal every four games in the NCAA and is a two-way, third-line center with a flair for making plays.
This team goes only as far as Price takes them. When he’s healthy, he’s a world-class goalie. But there is concern about his knees, and Montreal can’t rely on him to play more than 60 games.
Bergevin has done a good job of assembling young players suited to today’s NHL, but his conservative approach has prevented him from pulling the trigger on a deal that could put the team over the top, and he has been criticized for spending to the cap. Bench boss Claude Julien still carries a reputation as a defense-first coach, but his Canadiens play an upbeat, exciting style.
– Pat Hickey
Stanley Cup Odds: 45/1
Projection: 5th in Atlantic
For years, the Habs were a joke down the middle. Now things are starting to look dead serious at center thanks to Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The blueline prospects are decent, while Cayden Primeau is the goalie of the future. As for scoring, you can’t beat 2019 first-rounder Cole Caufield, an NTDP record-breaker bound for Wisconsin. The pint-sized right winger is incredibly dynamic, with a deadly one-timer. Getting him 15th overall was a gift for Montreal.
1. Nick Suzuki, C
Age 20 Team Guelph (OHL)
Piled up points in OHL with great offensive skills. At NHL level, may be better suited to the wing.
Acquired From Veg, Sept, 2018 NHL ’20-21
2. Ryan Poehling, C
Age 20 Team St. Cloud (NCHC)
Expectations are high after his dynamic NHL debut. He left the NCAA after his junior year.
Acquired 25th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
3. Cole Caufield, RW
Age 18 Team U.S. NTDP (USHL)
Record-breaking scorer has great skating ability. Elusive with puck. Committed to Wisconsin.
Acquired 15th overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
4. Alexander Romanov, D
Age 19 Team CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Fantastic skater with a great shot and good defensive instincts. One more year on his KHL deal.
Acquired 38th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
5. Cayden Primeau, G
Age 20 Team Northeastern (HE)
Son of Keith is athletic with good size. Has jaw-dropping stats. Left NCAA after second year.
Acquired 199th overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23
6. Noah Juulsen, D
Age 22 Team Laval (AHL)
He was competitive and strong during injury-plagued year. Ready for NHL job as injury call-up.
Acquired 26th overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
7. Josh Brook, D
Age 20 Team Moose Jaw (WHL)
Sublime skater who put up big numbers with his strong passing ability and creativity.
Acquired 56th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
8. Jesse Ylonen, RW
Age 19 Team Lahti (Fin.)
Smart player who also has tremendous drive. Won gold at WJC. Needs to add bulk to his frame.
Acquired 35th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
9. Cale Fleury, D
Age 20 Team Laval (AHL)
Good size and plays with poise. Did well in his rookie pro year, playing comfortably at both ends.
Acquired 87th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
10. Jayden Struble, D
Age 18 Team St. Sebastian’s (USHS)
Northeastern-bound defender is strong and physical. Skates well but intensity needs tempering.
Acquired 46th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24