RALEIGH, N.C. — First some perspective on where the Montreal Canadiens find themselves before they embark on their quest to avoid becoming the third edition of the 110-year-old team to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three consecutive seasons: They’re way ahead of where anyone thought they’d be when general manager Marc Bergevin hit the reset button following the 2017-18 season.
Are they good enough to make it in this year? We think so. More importantly, they think they are.
This Canadiens team, which missed the playoffs by a win after earning 96 points in the standings last season, is banking on veterans doubling down on career-high outputs, on exciting youngsters emerging, and on a familiarity/stability factor the players feel will give them an edge over many teams around them who opted for much more significant change in the off-season.
“We like our group,” said heart-and-soul forward Brendan Gallagher on Tuesday. “We’re not too concerned with what’s going on with other teams. Every single year there’s teams adding, subtracting. Everyone feels pretty confident this time of year. For us right now, it’s about what our group can do. We know what we’re capable of doing and it’s about starting hot right away. We learned the identity of our group, we learned what’s going to make us successful if we want to win, but we also learned there needs to be more. There’s some areas we need to be better at. So hopefully we can mature as a group, learn from our mistakes and find a way to get into the playoffs this year.”
It’s going to help having Shea Weber right off the hop. The 34-year-old captain of the Canadiens missed the first quarter of last season after knee and ankle surgery also severely hampered his off-season training regimen. That he’s had almost six full months to prepare this time around — and he said he’s feeling as good as he has at any other point in his 14-year NHL career — bodes well for Montreal’s chances this year.
Another key factor? The overall depth of this team has grown considerably.
It’s apparent on the back end, where the Canadiens are starting off with Weber next to a more seasoned Victor Mete, where big Ben Chiarot brings a physical complement to a pairing with puck-rusher Jeff Petry, and where Brett Kulak moves out of a top-four role he filled admirably a season ago to form a third-pair duo with impressive 20-year-old righty Cale Fleury.
Behind them, Mike Reilly and Christian Folin, who have a combined 388 games of NHL experience, have been bumped out of regular roles they filled last year.
Up front, as Canadiens coach Claude Julien noted in our one-on-one interview, two-time 20-goal scorer Paul Byron is sharing time on the fourth line with Jordan Weal, who was close to a point-per-game player with Montreal after coming over at last year’s trade deadline. That’s a luxury for a team that started off last season with a fourth line mix comprised mostly of players who are unlikely to see much—if any—action in the NHL this year.
If Byron and Weal slot in lower down than expected, and if 53-point producer from one year ago Jonathan Drouin is started on the third line, it’ll at least in part be because 20-year-old Nick Suzuki is emerging as a legitimate top-six threat. He, along with 21-year-old Mete, Fleury and 19-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, is expected to have as much of an impact on this team’s present as he will on its future.
And if injuries hit? Let’s just say this team is far more equipped to deal with them than they were a year ago.
If the Canadiens weren’t overflowing with forward depth, 23-year-old Jake Evans would have been rewarded with an NHL job after his stellar camp. And if 20-year-old Ryan Poehling hadn’t been limited to just two pre-season games due to a concussion, he’d be up in the big leagues, too. They are two players who appear prepared to not only play at this level, but to perhaps make an immediate impact.
Meanwhile, they’ll be developing on a Laval team that just had five players with a combined 1,488 games of NHL experience sent to it over the past weekend.
Getting back to the big club and how it can secure a playoff spot, Julien made an excellent point on Tuesday. He said it’s not just going to depend on taking the 30th-ranked power play from last season and improving its efficiency considerably, but that it will also require maintaining excellent play at 5-on-5 (Montreal had the fifth-most goals for in the league under those circumstances last year) and boosting a penalty kill that finished 13th. He noted all of that is going to depend on the team executing its speedy, in-your-face system.
Weber feels they’ve been building on the pace day-by-day over the past three weeks and change.
“I think we’ve gotten better and that’s a good sign,” Weber said. “I thought our last game (a 4-3 overtime win over the Ottawa Senators) was maybe a little slow to start in the first, but we started playing the way that we need to and almost how we did last year in the third period and we need to carry that over to the start in Carolina.”
They had better do that because the Hurricanes will be ready after a remarkable run to the Eastern Conference Final last spring.
It’s going to be tough for these Canadiens in that raucous Raleigh arena on Thursday. And it’s acknowledged there will be no easy nights for them anywhere in a league that features more parity than it ever has before—and particularly in an Atlantic Division that rivals the Central for toughest in the show.
Down the 401 highway, the Toronto Maple Leafs are talking about this being their time. In Boston, the Bruins are coming off a loss to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final. And further south, the Tampa Bay Lightning will try to rid themselves of the pain they suffered in an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets last spring to get back to the formula that won them 62(!) games last season, while the Florida Panthers will look to take a massive leap forward after adding a three-time Stanley Cup Champion as coach and a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate as a starting goaltender this summer.
The Canadiens will be in tough to keep up.
It’s a herculean task they’re fortunate to be facing with goaltender Carey Price at their disposal. He was all-world from December through April last year, collecting 28 wins and posting a .925 save percentage over that time. The Canadiens need him to be at that level from October to April (and hopefully beyond) this time around.
Perhaps no one expects more from this group than the 32-year-old Price.
“Every single season I want to win and I hope that everybody around me feels the same way no matter what stage of the team or our roster’s set in,” he said at the onset of camp. And after seeing things develop as they have over the past few weeks he said he feels good about the team’s preparedness to continue progressing towards its ultimate goal.
Can the Canadiens win the Cup this year? Odds-makers say it’s highly unlikely. But we think they can at least put themselves in position to compete for it and that’s a big step up from where we thought they’d be at this point after bottoming out in 2018 and forcing Bergevin to remake the roster.