Imagine having the 14th-best record in the National Hockey League and not being among the 16 teams participating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Sucks, doesn’t it? The Montreal Canadiens will tell you it does.
They’ll also tell you it hasn’t been a fun five months thinking about all the reasons they fell two points shy of their 2018-19 goal.
But after processing it, the Canadiens are ready to turn the page and build on the foundation that allowed them to collect 96 points in the standings.
One thing they won’t have to worry about when they open training camp later this week is the health of their roster. That’s a considerable departure from where they were a year ago, when Paul Byron was pressing to be ready after off-season shoulder surgery put his participation in camp in jeopardy, when Andrew Shaw was just holding out hope he’d be able to start the year on time after knee surgery and lingering concussion symptoms, and when captain Shea Weber was still more than two months away from practising with the team and three months out from appearing in a game after off-season surgery to his left ankle and right knee.
The 34-year-old defenceman was as chipper as ever when he answered questions at Monday’s golf tournament.
“I feel great, I’m excited,” he said.
Weber’s teammates are elated.
“I got to spend a little time with (Weber) in the summer and you can see first hand that his athleticism and the strides he makes in the gym are always impressive but when he’s able to put in a whole summer of working at it I think we’re all excited,” said Canadiens associate captain Brendan Gallagher. “He’s excited for what he’s going to bring to our group, and we definitely did miss him at the start of last year, and to have him right from Game 1 is going to be big for our group.”
The off-season additions of backup goaltender Keith Kinkaid, left-handed defenceman Ben Chiarot and feisty forward Nick Cousins could pay dividends for the Canadiens, too.
Sprinkle in an emerging prospect or two (we’re looking at you Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki), juice up that 30th-ranked power play, and add a few more points in the standings and this should be attainable for this group.
Of course, it’ll take a little more than all of that for the Canadiens to be breathing comfortably come April 2020. So, with that in mind, here are three burning questions they need to be able to answer entering training camp.
Current cap space: $4,044,524
GM: Marc Bergevin
Head coach: Claude Julien
Assistants: Dominique Ducharme, Luke Richardson, Kirk Muller
Unsigned players: None
Can the players who had career years in 2018-19 repeat their success?
No fewer than 12 Canadiens players tied or set new career highs for goals, assists or points last season, and given that 10 of them are back with the team this year — Shaw was traded and defenceman Jordie Benn left as an unrestricted free agent — success will hinge on their ability to maintain or improve on their production.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin believes they can do it.
“I think last year in the NHL overall the scoring was up, so a lot of players around the league had career highs for that reason,” he said Monday. “I think we still have a pretty young team, so I think guys who had career years could keep the same pace or close to that.”
But if a couple of players in particular dip at all, it could have a devastating effect on Montreal’s playoff hopes.
Max Domi, who put up 28 goals and 72 points last season after topping out at 18 goals and 52 points in the best of his three seasons prior, immediately comes to mind. Is this who he is now?
Tomas Tatar was a revelation for the team after coming over last September in the trade that sent Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights. But is it reasonable to expect the 28-year-old will get close to 60 points again when he’s averaged 44 points over his other seven NHL seasons?
And what about Jeff Petry? Can he breach the 50-point plateau after notching 46 points last season and 42 points the season before?
The Canadiens better hope the answer is yes to all these questions.
Can Jesperi Kotkaniemi handle much more responsibility?
If he’s ready for a top-six role, the Canadiens will benefit tremendously.
We saw great things from the NHL’s youngest player last season and they weren’t just limited to goals (11) and assists (23). Kotkaniemi showed he can play in all three zones, he showed he can adapt faster than most do, and he showed how much of a competitor he is.
That said, it wasn’t all roses for the third overall pick of the 2018 draft.
“We all know that his second half was a little bit tougher, things caught up like it does for any player who comes from Europe for the first time,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “It’s a very different schedule and a much tougher schedule.”
If Kotkaniemi has learned how to handle it, and if he’s made significant gains in the gym over the off-season, there’s an opportunity for him to take on a much more important role this season.
Imagine the Finn in the middle of a line with Domi to his left and Jonathan Drouin to his right. Imagine him thriving on the first unit of the power play. Imagine what that could do for a Canadiens team that finished with the 14th-most goals in the league last season.
Gallagher can imagine it.
“He learned a lot about himself, about the league, about what he needs to be to be a player,” he said about Kotkaniemi. “We’re going to rely on him to play some big, heavy minutes for us. It’s something we believe he’s capable of doing, something we need from him. (We need him) to be a productive player for us. I know he’s really excited for the year, and we’re really excited to see what he’s capable of.”
Can Drouin take his game to the level expected of him when he was drafted third overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013?
He had better.
It’s a pivotal season for the 24-year-old Quebec native who’s twice breached 50 points but fallen short of lofty expectations in each of his first five NHL seasons. Now that he has over 300 games of NHL experience under his belt, he wants to prove he can consistently perform as a top-line player.
After spending some extended time in the video room with Ducharme over the summer, Drouin believes he’s primed to do that.
“There’s some stuff where I complicate things a little bit,” Drouin said at his annual charity golf tournament two weeks ago. “It’s been one of my problems when I played junior and in the NHL, when I started in this league. Sometimes it’s just (about) making that easy play where it doesn’t look that great or doesn’t look that good on TV but it’s effective. I think that’s what we looked at more than anything is to be more effective in what I do every game. Whether it’s with the puck or without it, it’s just being more … not conservative, but going after it the way I used to do it back when I played my best games in junior and in the NHL in that playoff (with the Lightning in 2016).”
Back in those junior days, he was putting up 100-point seasons and dominating the QMJHL as a member of the Halifax Mooseheads. He played like his hair was on fire in that playoff run with the Lightning, notching 14 points in 17 games and helping them get to within a game of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Canadiens will take that Jonathan Drouin. Heck, if they get a player that comes close to resembling him, their odds of making the playoffs improve dramatically.