BROSSARD, Que.— We’re a little more than 24 hours away from getting our first glimpse of whether or not the Montreal Canadiens can combine speed and toughness in a manner we haven’t seen from them since Marc Bergevin took over as general manager in 2012.
“We want to be harder to play against than we have been in the past,” said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher on Tuesday. “We’ve always been a team that skates well, we’ve always been a team that tries to rely on our speed and be tough to play against that way. But we want to be more competitive in certain areas of the ice. I think in the off-season we got some pieces that are going to help us do that.”
It was in the summer months that Bergevin made his boldest moves yet as GM.
He traded crafty but inconsistent centre Lars Eller to Washington; acquired Chicago’s speedy and gritty centre, Andrew Shaw; traded superstar defenceman P.K. Subban to Nashville in exchange for one of the league’s most feared players in Shea Weber; and he signed skilled, in-your-face forward Alexander Radulov as he makes his return from the KHL.
Bergevin capped his active summer with a pair of October moves that fit his revamped model, keeping 21-year-old forward Artturi Lehkonen with the Canadiens and giving 18-year-old defenceman Mikhail Sergachev a chance to start his season in the NHL.
Both players—the latter especially—are fast and tenacious.
On Tuesday, Bergevin said the Canadiens are finally starting to resemble the fast, tough team he envisioned building when he first signed on with Montreal.
“Today, speed is a very important thing,” Bergevin asserted.
For proof, just look at how the Pittsburgh Penguins performed en route to capturing the Stanley Cup last June.
The Canadiens may not be quite as fast as last year’s Penguins, but the team possesses speed in spades. It’s featured on each of the team’s four forward lines and on all three of its defence pairings, following the system coach Michel Therrien has designed.
Assistant coach Dan Lacroix said on Monday that Montreal’s primary focus is on moving the puck out of the defensive end and into the offensive zone as quickly as possible.
“Even if it means putting it off the glass or off the boards, we’re comfortable creating 50-50 battles for the puck with the speed we have,” said Lacroix. “We want to have the puck at all times, but we’re confident the speed we have enables us to get it back.”
The Canadiens also feel they now have the necessary grit to consistently win puck battles and maintain possession. The additions of Shaw and Weber are unquestionably going to help them in that department.
“Andrew Shaw is a player who moves, who plays fast, who pushes the pace,” said Bergevin. “Shea is the same thing. He makes quick decisions, moves the puck fast, he’s a physical player and he’s respected not only by his teammates but across the NHL. It changes the identity of the team considerably.”
Both Bergevin and Therrien have acknowledged that Radulov also has an edge to his game in addition to the skill, passion and energy he brings to the equation.
But the off-season additions to the Canadiens are nothing but window dressing compared to goaltender Carey Price, who Bergevin referred to as the foundation of their house.
Bergevin outlined what Price’s health means for his team’s chances of contending by saying, “[Price] makes us feel like, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be under control.’”
Last season, Montreal’s bid for a playoff berth—which was all but guaranteed with Price in nets—disintegrated in the goaltender’s 70-game absence.
“What we went through last year, we fell down face-first,” said Bergevin. “We have to get up. We weren’t able to get up last year, but I’m hoping, and I believe, this year we’re better suited [to deal with adversity] because of what we went through last year. Adding Shea, [Shaw], Carey Price healthy, and Max [Pacioretty] with more experience as far as being a captain…I think all of that will make a difference.”
The proof will have to follow.
It’s been 185 days since the Canadiens last played a meaningful hockey game. Their jam-packed off-season will finally come to a close when they take on the Buffalo Sabres at the KeyBank Center on Thursday.
The Canadiens will have to wait another day, however, to see Price in action. The netminder missed practice Monday and Tuesday with a cold, and won’t play in Thursday’s contest due to the flu. Backup Al Montoya will get the start between the pipes for the contest, with Weber, Shaw, Radulov, Lehkonen and Sergachev all confirmed to make their regular-season debuts.
These are the new-look Canadiens. It’s time to see what they’re made of.