There was a lot of uncertainty around last year’s Montreal Canadiens and the direction they were heading as a team.
The 2018 off-season was a busy one for GM Marc Bergevin, who was acting after his team missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Alex Galchenyuk was traded to Arizona for Max Domi, who was the lesser of the two scorers at the time. A few days later, Bergevin chose late-riser Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third pick in the draft and many fans saw it as a reach. Then, just before the start of the season, Bergevin traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas for Nick Suzuki, Tomas Tatar and a draft pick.
While all that could have sent this team off the rails, everything clicked nicely. Tatar and Domi both had career seasons and outscored the players they were traded for. Kotkaniemi had a subtle, but strong first season on the third line and could carve out more of a role in 2019-20. Montreal stayed in the playoff hunt until the very end, barely falling short of the cut-off line.
So now there’s clear, understandable optimism around the team heading into 2019-20 — and given the prospects still making their way through the pipeline, owner Geoff Molson is excited about the window opening in Montreal.
“I’m really excited about the next I’ll say three-to-eight years,” Molson told NHL.com’s Dave Stubbs. “Because of the core group we have, the newcomers and the really newcomers, I think we’re going to have a good team. Anything can happen. Injuries can happen, but if all things are equal, we’re going to have a good team on the ice.”
Any hopes of a championship in the near future hinge on the health and productivity of Shea Weber on defence and Carey Price in goal. And of course, the Habs need continued development from Kotkaniemi and for Domi to be able to consistently put up high point totals.
But on top of that, there are a few exciting prospects on the way. Ryan Poehling had the best NHL debut of them all, scoring a hat trick — and the shootout winner — in the final game of the season. He’ll be fighting for a roster spot in training camp next month, as will Suzuki. This past summer Bergevin drafted Cole Caufield 15th overall after he set a new goal scoring record for the US National Team Development program.
So while the Canadiens have legitimate hopes of reaching the playoffs in 2020, the team probably won’t be hitting its high point this season. A lot has changed for the better around the Habs over the past two seasons, including going from a cloudy outlook to a rosy one.
“I’m really excited about not only the core players who have been with us for a long time — our group of ‘captains’: Price, Weber, Paul Byron, Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry — but also the newer players — Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Philip Danault. And the ones under them, the new ones, starting with [Kotkaniemi]. Since we had that bad season, the future is so much brighter and it’s happened so quickly.”