Stanley Cup odds: 75-1
Key Additions: Tomas Tatar, LW; Max Domi, C; Tomas Plekanec, C; Joel Armia, RW; Xavier Ouellet, D; Matthew Peca, RW; Hunter Shinkaruk, LW
Key Departures: Max Pacioretty, LW; Alex Galchenyuk, C; Ales Hemsky, RW; Daniel Carr, LW; Logan Shaw, RW; Adam Cracknell, RW
If everything goes right, the Canadiens might sneak into the post-season or at least play some meaningful games down the stretch. If Carey Price earns every nickel of the $15 million he will make in 2018-19 and wins the Vezina Trophy. If Max Domi and Tomas Tatar can replace the offense lost in trading Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty. If the blueline holds up. If, if, if...
The Canadiens did little to improve after a season in which they were the third-worst team in the East. In fact, with Shea Weber out until December and the trade of a 19-goal scorer (Galchenyuk) for a nine-goal man (Domi), you could argue the Canadiens got worse. But a lot of those warts can be covered up by everyone giving just a little more and Price returning to form. That will require him to not only rebound from the worst season of his career, but also be a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate. Tatar, who was used sparingly in the post-season by the Vegas Golden Knights and is looking to bounce back from his lowest goal total in four seasons, will have to score at least 25 and flirt with 30 if he’s going to come close to replacing Pacioretty.
With their best defenseman out half the season, the blueline will have to be by committee, and Montreal is going to have to find more goals from a lineup that is not offensively gifted as a group.
The Canadiens can’t afford another slow start in October, thereby setting the table for a season that spirals out of control en route to being one of the worst teams in the league.
But if you’re going to blow up, hey, at least Jack Hughes is projected to be the No. 1 draft pick in 2019. And it’s not a stretch to suggest the Canadiens could be in the running for him. They had the third-worst offense in the NHL last season, and three of the forwards they picked up – Domi, Joel Armia and a repatriated Tomas Plekanec – combined for 27 goals last year. And that’s precisely the number they lost with the departures of Galchenyuk, Daniel Carr and Logan Shaw. Brandon Gallagher scored a career-high 31 goals last year, but can he be counted upon to repeat that performance?
If Price’s miserable 2017-18 is not a blip on the radar but rather a portent of things to come, the Canadiens will have a very expensive and virtually unmovable contract on their hands. Habs GM Marc Bergevin would like to see a team-wide attitude adjustment, but the most sunny and optimistic outlook in hockey history will not help this group if it isn’t able to wildly overachieve.
Who will center the Canadiens’ first-line?
Last season, hopes were high that major off-season acquisition Jonathan Drouin could become a first-line pivot. This season, he’s primed to start on the wing with first-line center duty passed to this summer’s most notable trade acquisition, Domi. But the reality is that the Canadiens have been icing a donut first line for a few years now — substance on the outside but nothing in the middle. Even trading Pacioretty didn’t see the Canadiens land an NHL-ready pivot who can join the center-by-committee corps that Montreal has established.
So, who ends up shouldering most of the load as the top-line pivot? Domi doesn’t seem all that likely to last and the Drouin experiment clearly hasn’t had the intended results, so maybe the job has to fall to Phillip Danault. He did notch about half a point per game last season and average 16-plus minutes per night as the Canadiens’ most effective faceoff man. That might count for something. If all else fails, though, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi surprises by making the opening night roster, he could become this season’s Nico Hischier, which is to say a top draft choice who goes from projected middle-of-the-lineup center to one who skates top minutes by the time the campaign closes.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 6th in the Atlantic Division. The Weber injury takes a sizeable chunk out of the Canadiens’ blueline and the lack of a true top-six doesn’t bode well for an already ineffective attack. Price might be the only thing standing between Montreal and a last-place finish.
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