BROSSARD, Que. — This was the year hope was restored for the Montreal Canadiens. Pride, too.
That’s what we’ll remember about the 2018-19 edition of this team, which came into the season earmarked by most to be among the favourites to win Tuesday’s Draft Lottery and ended up finishing with the worst odds to do so of any of the 15 teams in the National Hockey League who missed the playoffs.
The Canadiens promised to play a quicker, more exciting brand of hockey than the one that landed them in 28th place in the 31-team league a year ago, and they delivered — knocking opponents on their heels with their speed and putting up the sixth-most goals at 5-on-5. They promised to be a hard-working team, and, with the exception of less than a handful of games, they were exactly that. In the process, they established a template to follow that should lead them to where they want to go.
Perhaps of even greater significance was the dramatic cultural shift within the walls of the fabled Canadiens locker room — a team ridding itself of the negativity a lifeless, listless 2017-18 season brought and adopting a positive approach to this season. They defiantly faced down meager expectations and fought to the bitter end, only to fall just short of a playoff berth with 96 points earned in the standings.
“We had a very good environment this year, and I think it’s something that’s extremely important,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin after holding exit meetings with his players on Tuesday. “I know what happens on the ice wins hockey games, but there’s a lot of preparation, a lot of focus, a lot of guys on the same page and not having their own agenda. It makes a world of difference.”
Especially for a team in transition, one that committed to a youth movement back in September. Being in such a positive atmosphere allowed youngsters like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Victor Mete and Ryan Poehling, players who are among those who hold the key to a brighter future for the Canadiens, to take considerable strides in their development.
“I think I couldn’t get a better group of guys [to learn from] in my first year,” said the 18-year-old Kotkaniemi, who scored 11 goals and notched 34 points in 79 games.
“This environment was huge for my growth,” said the 20-year-old Mete, who blossomed into a top-four defenceman.
That environment was created by a group of players who were embarrassed with last year’s outcome, and it was one shaped by a coaching staff — with new additions Luke Richardson and Dominique Ducharme — that stimulated a heated internal competition from puck-drop in October to skates hung in April. On the very first night of the season, 998-game veteran Tomas Plekanec was scratched from the lineup. Defenceman Karl Alzner, who was riding a 622-game ironman streak and was coming into his second season of a five-year, $23.1 million contract, was also parked.
Plekanec had his contract terminated after playing three games and Alzner was demoted to the American Hockey League for all but nine games.
In the same vein, Jonathan Drouin put up 17 goals and 50 points in his first 64 games but was relegated to a bottom-six role when his production hit a wall and his effort waned.
“If you weren’t doing your job, someone else was,” said Canadiens assistant captain Paul Byron, who played on every line this season but finished on the fourth. “This was all about winning, this was all about doing whatever we could as a team. Didn’t matter who you are or how many years you played, we’re going to ice the best lineup that gives us the best chance to win every night. That’s what it was, and that’s the reason why we gave ourselves a chance all the way to the second-to-last game there. Everyone was pulling, everyone was doing what they could, and it worked for us.”
Well, almost. The team had nine players hit career-highs in points and a couple more that tied personal bests, but it missed the playoffs and there wasn’t a member of it that didn’t express their disappointment with that outcome. The 33-year-old Canadiens Captain, Shea Weber, talked about the sting of the opportunity lost at this stage of his career, and 31-year-old goaltender Carey Price said he’d lobby unrestricted free agents by telling them how deep his desire is to win now, with his window to do so getting smaller by the year.
“I think that should be a pretty good indication of how badly we want to win here,” said Price.
Bergevin believes it should be evident in the team’s 25-point improvement and in Price’s rebound from a poor season to once again be considered the top goaltender in the world, and he feels the influx of young talent should prove attractive to potential free agents.
“I sincerely believe there will be players that will want to come to Montreal,” the GM said. “We’ll look at what we can do with the [salary] cap. What I can say is we’ll look to continue to improve the team at all positions.”
Bergevin has 17 players under contract and close to $23 million in cap space for next season. He was asked if he’d consider sending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent from another team if he can’t sign free agents to reasonable deals.
“It’s a tool that’s in the CBA that’s allowed, that we looked closely at in previous seasons and will continue to explore,” Bergevin said. “There’s a price to pay depending on the player. Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it a guarantee? No.”
He highlighted that there are no guarantees in this business, and that the team will have to start over at zero again next season, just like everyone else.
But Bergevin also said several times that the pride and character displayed on a nightly basis by the Canadiens have changed the outlook on his team. Hope now resides in what was established, and in the building blocks that have been put in place.
“I just really believe, with the meetings I had with our players and the message they gave me, that we’re really just getting started,” he added. “I’m confident in that”
Weber affirmed in his comments earlier in the day that he sees a team on the rise.
“I think everyone is going to learn from the experiences we had this year and grow from it,” he said, adding, “We should only get better.”
We’re of the same belief.