If you’re the Montreal Canadiens, how do you top 110 points and owning the NHL’s second-best regular-season record?
Most would argue they won’t be able to.
But the Canadiens would settle for a few less points in the standings this season if they can improve on the elements that doomed them to a disappointing second round exit.
“I don’t think it’s just good enough to make the playoffs in here,” said P.K. Subban on the eve a new regular season. “I think within our dressing room we know where we’re at. We’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals—since I’ve been here—twice and we’ve gone on some pretty long playoff runs, but it’s about making the next step. Our core group is older now…It feels like just yesterday I came into the league, but the reality is this is my sixth year and I’m 27, Carey (Price) is going to be 28 and (Max Pacioretty) is 28, so we’ve got guys that are getting up there and getting anxious to take that next step.”
Actually P.K., you’re 26, Price turned 28 in August and Pacioretty turns 27 in November, but we understand what you mean. The Canadiens are now in a window where they have to win and they should get closer to their ultimate goal if they put certain things into practice this season.
Last season, Montreal’s power play was only ranked 23rd in the NHL, so improvement there would push them forward.
Their even-strength scoring was ranked 19th in the league a year ago, so a more potent offence at 5-on-5 would really help, too.
The Canadiens also need a more balanced attack. Last season, Pacioretty factored in to 31 per cent of the team’s goals, which doesn’t bode well against a deep scoring roster such as the Tampa Bay Lightning.
And there’s reason to believe the Canadiens can make strides in all three categories, while maintaining one of the league’s stingiest goals-against averages.
Assistant coach Jean-Jacques Daigneault, with the help of consultant Craig Ramsay, has taken over power play duties and the Canadiens appear to be incorporating much more player movement into the man-advantage; 25 per cent of Montreal’s pre-season goals came on the power play.
Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk will also take on more prominent roles there, enabling more successful zone entries while maintaining puck possession, an area the team struggled mightily in last season.
And newcomer Alex Semin (181 power play points over his career) fills a role on the half-boards, where the Canadiens have been missing a legitimate threat since Mike Cammalleri was traded away in 2012.
Galchenyuk will also centre Eller and Semin at even strength, slotting Dale Weise, David Desharnais and newcomer Tomas Fleischmann into third-line duties. All six players can do a lot to help balance Montreal’s offensive thrust behind Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher.
“Every year, we try as a coaching staff to bring new things to our players,” said head coach Michel Therrien. “I really like what I saw in training camp. We made certain adjustments in the way we play. We’d like to have more of a five-man unit. We want to have much more puck possession. The fact that we added some different players (Semin and Fleischmann) really helps that.”
As shocking as it is to hear Therrien talk about adjustments that would lead to more puck possession, don’t expect the Canadiens to abandon their defence-first mentality for free-wheeling, high-octane offence.
“But we gotta make sure we still play really well defensively, be really responsible when we go out on the ice,” he said. “You look at teams that got a lot of success in the NHL, the teams that end up winning Stanley Cups are the teams that – you look at Chicago – they play really well defensively.”
Speaking of defence, a full year of Jeff Petry stabilizes the unit. He and Nathan Beaulieu should both be able to offer a nice boost of secondary scoring from the back end behind Subban and Andrei Markov.
But the Canadiens’ real strength is in goal, where Carey Price is coming off an incredible MVP season.
Price had 44 wins, nine shutouts, a .933 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average. If he can maintain those totals or even be better, the Canadiens will once again be contenders for the Presidents’ Trophy. And is there any reason to believe Price won’t be as good this season?
He is barely two seasons into his prime and ever since capturing Olympic Gold with Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Games, he’s been looking down on his goaltending brethren from the stratosphere.
Even if Price’s numbers come down a little, it likely won’t affect Montreal’s playoff hopes. It could be the difference between having home-ice advantage and not, though.
The Canadiens will drop significantly in the standings if… assistant coach Dan Lacroix does to their penalty kill (eighth in 2014-15) what he did to their power play when he ran it last season.
Only four teams who made the playoffs in 2014-15 finished outside of the top-16 in shorthanded efficiency. Of those four, only Calgary made it out of the first round.
If Semin proves to be a dud and Galchenyuk fails in the middle, it would put Montreal closer to the bottom end of the playoff picture.
If any one of Price, Subban or Pacioretty suffers a long-term injury, it would push the team to the bubble, or worse—out of the playoffs.
What’s on the schedule:
The Canadiens start the season with four games on the road (in Toronto Wednesday, in Boston Saturday, in Ottawa Sunday and in Pittsburgh Tuesday, October 13) before opening the Bell Centre on October 15 to host the New York Rangers. It will be their second-longest road trip of the season (the longest will be an eight-gamer that starts December 19 and ends January 5).
Speaking of that insanely long road trip, the second-to-last game of it will feature the Canadiens and Bruins at Gillette Stadium on New Year’s Day in this year’s Winter Classic (catch the Road to the Winter Classic care of EPIX on Sportsnet).
Just prior to the long trip, the Canadiens will be at the Bell Centre for 15 of 21 games from November 1 through December 17.
The Canadiens will also play 16 sets of back-to-back games, three of them coming in March when the legs get heavier and the competition ramps up.
If there’s one game on the schedule you won’t want to miss, it’s Saturday, February 6, when Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers come to town for a 2:00pm matinee.
1. The Canadiens will finish second in the Atlantic Division (behind the Lightning) and 4th in the Eastern Conference (behind the Rangers and Capitals).
2. Galchenyuk will score more than 60 points.
3. Price will win the Vezina Trophy.
4. Subban will finish top-three in the Norris voting.
5. Semin will score between 18-21 goals.
Opening night lineup
Max Pacioretty-Tomas Plekanec-Brendan Gallagher
Lars Eller-Alex Galchenyuk-Alexander Semin
Tomas Fleischmann-David Desharnais-Dale Weise
Brian Flynn-Torrey Mitchell-Devante Smith-Pelly
(Paul Byron, scratch)
Andrei Markov-P.K. Subban
Alexei Emelin-Jeff Petry
Nathan Beaulieu-Tom Gilbert
(Jarred Tinordi-Greg Pateryn, scratches)
Carey Price (starter)
On print and digital newsstands now: iOS | Android | Windows