The Montreal Canadiens were perhaps busier this off-season than any NHL team located outside the state of Nevada. All teams undergo annual roster turnover yet it felt like every move the Canadiens made this summer had crucial long-term implications.
It began in mid-June when the team sent its top prospect, defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, plus a conditional second-round pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Quebec native Jonathan Drouin. The Canadiens have sought a top-line centre for years and Drouin might just be the answer if he can develop into that role. It won’t be easy, though, since he has spent much of his pro career on the wing. This move somewhat makes up for the fact Alexander Radulov signed with the Dallas Stars.
On the back end, general manager Marc Bergevin continued his aggressive pursuit of improving his team by making a big splash in free agency. Karl Alzner was among the most coveted players on the open market and he inked a five-year deal with the Habs. If Alzner plays beside Shea Weber that’s a formidable top pairing. If he’s with Jeff Petry or another Montreal blueliner it gives the defence depth they did not have in 2016-17.
The team also brought back Mark Streit as a way to replace modern-day Habs great Andrei Markov. The team and Markov could not come to terms on a new deal and the 38-year-old decided to head back to Russia and join Ak-Bars Kazan in the KHL. Streit could potentially be used as a quarterback on the top power-play unit with Weber.
The team sent Nathan Beaulieu to the Buffalo Sabres and essentially replaced him with David Schlemko whom they acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights. Also, Peter Holland can add some depth to the bottom-six forwards and we’ll see if Ales Hemsky can get back up to the 15-goal mark, something he hasn’t done in nearly a decade. Signing Joe Morrow, a 2011 first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ who has yet to play up to his potential, to a one-year deal worth $575,000 is another low-risk, potentially high-upside move.
Bergevin’s most consequential undertaking, however, was extending Carey Price for eight years. When healthy, Price is as good as any netminder on the planet and without him it all falls apart — remember the 2015-16 season in which Price only played 12 games? It didn’t go so well for them.
Alex Galchenyuk’s name was brought up in trade rumours early in the summer, but those rumblings vanished when he re-signed for three years at a cost-effective $4.9 million per. With Drouin now in the fold there is less pressure to make Galchenyuk a full-time centre.
UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
Is this finally the year Charles Hudon makes an impact with the big club? The 23-year-old has toiled away in the American Hockey League the past three seasons, only suiting up for six NHL games.
As Eric Engels recently wrote, the fifth-round pick from 2012 has been “turning heads” during training camp and in the pre-season.
“He’s going to be a dynamic player, that’s for sure,” Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn said. “He can handle the puck and the kid can skate. Obviously he’s in great shape, he’s like a little pit bull out there. He’s just one of those players that in due time is going to be one of the big players in this league.”
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
Anything besides maintaining top spot in the Atlantic and going on a deep playoff run is likely to disappoint this rabid fan base. Montreal earned division titles in two of the past three years, yet didn’t make it out of the second round in either of those seasons.
They were one of four teams to allow fewer than 200 goals against last season. That’s not the problem. The problem is they were a middle-of-the-pack offensive team (15th in goals per game) and had average special teams (13th on the power play, 14th on the penalty kill). If this group is going to go on a deep run this season they’ll need to close in on the top 10 in those categories. When you have Price in your crease in the prime of his career there’s no excuse for you to be anything but a perennial Cup contender.
BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
Can the new faces make the impact they’re supposed to?
If Drouin can improve on the career year he had in Tampa, losing Radulov’s 18 goals and 54 points won’t hurt as much. If Alzner can continue to be the steady presence he was in Washington and Streit chips in on the power play, then the losses of Markov and Beaulieu won’t be felt as much.
On the flip side, if Drouin stagnates and fails to live up to the hype, if Alzner (or Weber for that matter) begins to decline, if Hemsky and Streit prove to be washed up, the Habs might have a problem on their hands.