LAVAL, Que. — No matter how you feel about the circumstances that sent Max Pacioretty away from the Montreal Canadiens, you have to acknowledge how crucial it was for the team to have this situation resolved before launching training camp later this week.
Now, the team can direct all its focus to the on-ice product.
“I think it’s a good thing for our team that we’re moving on,” said general manager Marc Bergevin from the Canadiens’ golf tournament on Monday. “Today we’re starting off with two new players arriving, we’re preparing for a good training camp and a good start to the season, and there won’t be any distractions to deal with.”
Had Pacioretty remained in place as captain of a team that clearly had no interest in retaining his services, it would have been a massive distraction. The negativity of the situation probably would have been enough to sink the Canadiens’ hopes for the season on its own. And it would have been one more enormous obstacle to overcome in the quest for redemption from a fourth-from-last place finish a season ago.
This team already has enough on its plate to worry about.
The Canadiens finished 29th in goals for and allowed the seventh-most goals in the league last season. Montreal also had the second-worst penalty kill and scored only 130 goals while allowing 158 at five-on-five. And even though there were several changes to the team in the months that followed, it would be impossible to argue that the franchise has done enough to resolve its issues.
Add in the facts that top defenceman Shea Weber will be sidelined until some point in December, that 20-goal scorer Paul Byron is looking at a late-October return after off-season shoulder surgery and that 10-goal scorer/energy forward Andrew Shaw likely won’t be ready to start the season, and it’s not hard to see why most prognosticators have the Canadiens pegged as a lottery team.
Goaltender Carey Price can make the difference on any given night, but even he can recognize the reality of the situation.
“I feel like a lot of people have written us off already, so there’s not a lot of pressure on our group,” Price said on Monday.
But Price, who’s coming off the worst season of his career and entering into the first of an eight-year, $84 million contract, also acknowledged that the opportunity for him and the Canadiens to surprise people this season is a ripe one.
His GM sees it the same way.
“We made changes, we brought in good new players and coaches,” said Bergevin. “The Atlantic Division is a difficult division. But it’s a difficult league, too; it’s not easy to play in any of the divisions.
“What I expect is that we have a team that’s reporting in good physical condition and with a lot to prove after a tough season, and it’s our goal to make the playoffs, and after that we’ll see. But I see progress for our team, and I’m convinced we’re going in the right direction.”
Up front, Alex Galchenyuk — who scored 30 goals two seasons ago — was traded for career 30-goal scorer Max Domi earlier this summer. Third-liner Joel Armia was brought in via trade with the Winnipeg Jets, long-time Canadien and depth centre Tomas Plekanec was brought back on a one-year deal after being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at last year’s deadline, centre Matthew Peca was signed away from the Tampa Bay Lightning, and winger Tomas Tatar and prospect Nick Suzuki came over in the Pacioretty trade.
On the back end, Xavier Ouellet was given a one-year, $700,000 contract and Simon Despres was offered a try out. Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson were added to replace Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Dan Lacroix on the coaching staff.
It’s a significant amount of turnover in every department, and it will require every ounce of energy all parties have to offer in order to keep things on the rails this season. That’s why the Canadiens were fortunate to get Pacioretty settled elsewhere before that process begins to take shape.
“It’s better for him and for us,” said Bergevin, who added he was very satisfied with the return in the deal.
“A point that was most important for us was going to get a young prospect, one we consider to be an A-level prospect,” he explained. “That’s what we were able to get in Suzuki [the 13th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft].”
As for the acquisition of Tatar, the 27-year-old who scored 20 goals for a fourth straight season last year, Bergevin explained that the objective was to get someone who can help replace the scoring lost by moving Pacioretty.
He knows that will require an adjustment on Tatar’s part.
“I’m not going to deny it, you guys; he didn’t perform up to par in Vegas,” said Bergevin.
Tatar scored just four goals and two assists in 20 regular season games with the Golden Knights. He was also a healthy scratch for all but eight games of Vegas’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Regardless, the task of replacing Pacioretty, who scored just 17 goals last season after leading the Canadiens in the category for five straight years, doesn’t fall squarely on Tatar’s shoulders.
Domi, who’s coming off a down year himself, is expected to take on some of the burden. As are 22-year-old wingers Artturi Lehkonen and Nikita Scherbak and 24-year-old winger Charles Hudon.
Suzuki could very well factor into the mix, too.
“He’s a player who can play all the forward positions,” said Bergevin of the 19-year-old who scored 42 goals and 100 points with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack last season. “We’re aware that last year he played a lot on the wing, but he played at centre too. I can’t say exactly where he’ll be on the day he ends up playing for the Montreal Canadiens, but I’m confident that he’s going to help us. We have some good centres coming through the system, and with the departure of Max there’s room on the wings too.”
There’s also a vacancy at captain, which Bergevin said will be dealt with in due time.
With good candidates like 30-goal scorer Brendan Gallagher and former Nashville Predators captain Weber at their disposal, it’s not a situation that will get in the way of the Canadiens putting their focus on where it needs to be right now.