NEWARK, NJ.— The Montreal Canadiens embarked on this season with a singular goal in mind: To make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After making three depth moves in the lead up to Monday’s trade deadline, they believe they have what it takes to achieve it, and so do we. Whatever happens after that is gravy.
These Canadiens weren’t expected to be nearly as competitive as they have been this season, but through 62 games they’ve earned 73 points in the standings on the strength of their speed, balanced attack and a defence that has held up far better than anyone assumed it would. Carey Price finding his best game on Dec. 1—and maintaining his level ever since—has only helped their cause.
They’ve been in a playoff position for all but a handful of days since the puck dropped in October, and barring a total collapse over their remaining 20 games, they appear poised to remain in one.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien is confident that will be the case.
“I like the fact that we’ve played well enough to be in a playoff spot, and I think we’re good enough to continue being in a playoff spot,” he said following his team’s practice at Prudential Center on Monday. “Right now all we’ve gotta do is show it, prove it, and continue to win hockey games.”
The acquisition of Jordan Weal on Monday, who came to the Canadiens via the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Michael Chaput, should help. He’s a right-handed centreman with 153 games of NHL experience. A player who’s won 55 per cent of his faceoffs and scored 11 points through 47 games split between the Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers this season.
With Weal in the mix, on top of Nate Thompson (acquired in the Feb. 11 trade with the Los Angeles Kings) and Dale Weise (acquired in the Feb. 9 trade with the Flyers), Julien feels he has a good enough mix of players to stimulate a healthy internal competition and generate a lineup that allows him to roll his lines more evenly on a nightly basis. That’s something he feels is fundamental to his team’s success.
“At the same time it’s also going to protect us from some injuries,” Julien said of the three acquisitions.
He’s not under any illusion about those players pushing the Canadiens over the top and enabling them to contend for a Cup this season. Neither is general manager Marc Bergevin, who helped ensure his team’s future as a contender by hanging on to all 10 picks they own in the upcoming draft and all his A-level prospects—most of whom are poised to graduate to the NHL in short order.
In his mind, the risk of giving up some of those pieces for what was available on the market just didn’t add up.
“You have to build by the draft,” Bergevin said. “I think last year we did a really good job, and the more picks you have the more kicks at the can you have, so right now we’re sitting in a good spot and hopefully we can get some good prospects the next draft.”
In years past, Bergevin’s tried to be a major player on the trade market and in free agency, but it just hasn’t gotten the Canadiens to where they wanted to go.
And this year? Well, it’s not like he didn’t explore the market for immediate help to upgrade his team’s centre line, its defence and its 31st-ranked power play. It’s just that when the names of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling and Alex Romanov—a star rookie and the team’s best prospects—were requested by other general managers, he refused to budge.
“If I would’ve done what I was asked for, you would probably have called me an idiot,” Bergevin said.
He was under little to no pressure to evoke such a reaction. He made his team in the summer months—subtracting Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and coaches Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Dan Lacroix while adding Joel Armia, Tomas Tatar, Max Domi and coaches Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson—and in doing so, he secured its chance to make the playoffs.
Towing the line between doing that and not mortgaging the future was a plan Bergevin stated outright in September and respected to the letter through February, and he has zero regrets about it. “I believe if you get in, you run a hot goaltender, you get the breaks, you get the matchups, anything’s possible,” he said. Whether or not it’s probable is of little consequence to him.
“We’re going in a different direction,” Bergevin said.
It’s the right one—allowing a young group to mature in a mostly-winning atmosphere while the real players capable of putting them over the top continue to ripen at lower levels.
Meanwhile, if Bergevin didn’t believe his team was fit to achieve its goal of making the playoffs, he might have sold off players on expiring contracts, i.e. Jordie Benn, who’s in the final year of his three-year, $3.3-million deal. Instead he kept Benn and others in the fold as a vote of confidence in his group.
“I’m confident that they have what it takes the way they’ve been playing the first 60 something games, that they have what it takes to make the playoffs,” said Bergevin.
“A lot of comments I’m getting around the league, even from other GMs is, ‘You guys play fast. You guys are a fast team, you’re a fun team to watch, it’s high pace.’ So I learned that when we play that way, we can compete with anybody in the league. That’s what I learned,” he added.
It’s an undeniable reality at this point of the season.