Canadiens know Canucks are desperate to shift early-season narrative

NHL senior writer Dennis Bernstein joins Follow The Money to discuss his early takeaways from the NHL so far, like why he has the Hurricanes as his sleeper pick this season, and why the Montreal Canadiens will win the North Division.

It may be chilly in Vancouver right now, but the temperature around the Canucks is about as hot as it can get. Elias Pettersson isn’t scoring, neither is a power play that finished top-five a season ago, and all the questions you had about the (somewhat bizarre) changes to the roster following a bubble performance that had many suggesting the Canucks were Canada’s next contender are still hanging overhead like a storm cloud.

Can Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby replace Jacob Markstrom, who now belongs to the Calgary Flames? Can Nate Schmidt and Travis Hamonic quell the defensive concerns that arose when Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher left? Does Tyler Toffoli’s departure for Montreal put a considerable dent in the tiered offence that helped power the Canucks last year?

A great start to the season would’ve at least, temporarily, eased those concerns.

The Canadiens ventured into the season with several of their own — to whether or not all the new players they brought in could integrate quickly after a short training camp and no exhibition, to the power play finding some level of functionality let alone success, to the penalty kill’s ability to withstand the pressure of facing some of the top power plays in the league featured in this all-Canadian division, to Jake Allen being the antidote to poison of consistently below-average goaltending behind Carey Price.

Three or four games does not make a season, but to have all of those concerns already addressed — if not answered — is the peace of mind the Canadiens would’ve prayed for prior to building a 2-0-1 record.

Still, this shortened season magnifies both the peaks and valleys, and the Canucks and Canadiens coming into three games in four nights against each other could flip the narratives in both cities.

Canadiens maturity might help prevent that

After the Canadiens all but embarrassed the Edmonton Oilers in a 5-1 win on Saturday, I asked Nick Suzuki if the notion of keeping the work standard high and not getting too cocky even needed to be verbalized in their room ahead of Monday’s rematch.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have asked, because the Canadiens were one of the youngest teams in the league and the threat of them thinking they could ride their skill from one good performance to the next game was imminent. It was something that would have to be addressed by Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Carey Price, without question.

But now, this team — even with Corey Perry and Michael Frolik waiting on the taxi squad — has five Stanley Cup winners in its room, and this answer from Suzuki was a reflection of how much more mature it is.

"I think we know what kind of compete and work ethic that we brought to (two games against Toronto and Edmonton)," Suzuki said prior to Monday’s blue-collar, 3-1 win over the Oilers. "It's kind of ingrained in all of us right now. We know we have to compete against every team. It's going to be a battle all year, especially playing games against the same teams in consecutive days, so we know they're going to be better. They came off a back-to-back and then played us the other day, so it's going to be a more competitive game. They'll be more rested, and we've got to get a good jump off the start."

The Canadiens managed that wave from Edmonton and took control of every facet of the game thereafter because: a) they got some great saves from Allen, but b) because they took the right approach to the situation.

One would expect they’ll bring that same approach to this series against the Canucks, especially knowing how much pressure this Vancouver team is already facing to turn their season around immediately.

Penalty kill prowess

For all the attention the Canadiens’ woeful power play (deservedly) got last season, their penalty kill was an underrated part of their failings as a team.

And it was hard to figure out a how a team with Paul Byron, Phillip Danault, Joel Armia, Ben Chiarot, Weber and Price — who have always been considered strong defensive players — could be in the NHL’s bottom third in that department from wire to wire.

Now Jake Evans, Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli are regularly featured on the Canadiens’ penalty kill. Joel Edmundson and Alex Romanov are contributing, too. Josh Anderson might be a player who joins that mix, and coach Claude Julien feels the ability to rely on so many more players gives the Canadiens the ability to execute on the strategy that’s largely been in place since he took over from Michel Therrien in 2017.

"That’s why we’re fresh and more aggressive," Julien said after the Canadiens killed off all seven Oilers power plays Monday. "It makes a big difference."

Massive, in fact. So far, the Canadiens have killed 12 of 14 penalties — with one of the two goals allowed coming on a Toronto Maple Leafs 5-on-3 advantage — and they’ve also scored two shorthanded goals.

A season ago they scored six shorthanded goals over 71 games.

Like with everything else, all of this positive juju can change in an instant. But getting off to a good start in this facet of the game and building up the confidence is not to be undersold as an important development — even this early in the season.

Ditto for the PP

The results are great so far, with the Canadiens having scored power-play goals in each of their first three games, connecting on four of 10 opportunities.

But, of equal importance, is the momentum factor. The Canadiens are gaining it whether they score or not, and they’re not giving it to the opposition like they did last season with a setup and execution that was more dysfunctional than the family from HBO’s Succession.

Bienvenue, Trois-Rivières

When the news was announced Tuesday that the Canadiens had reached a three-year deal to have the new Trois-Rivières ECHL team as their affiliate, the first person I thought of was Trevor Timmins.

Montreal’s assistant general manager was absolutely flummoxed by questions post-2020 draft about the Canadiens passing on Quebec-born players, and he was visibly upset about the insinuation that he and his staff were doing it by design.

"Were there a few Quebec players on your list," Timmins was asked.

"What kind of a question’s that?" he retorted. "I don’t need to answer that. Of course there was."

Timmins has always been adamant about the Canadiens going with the next player on their list, no matter where they’re from. And it’s long been a source of frustration for him when they lose out on a player from these parts that they wanted (see Samuel Girard, 2016).

I don’t know that the pressure on Timmins to draft Quebecers will ever dissipate, but I bet he’ll be the happiest person in the organization about having a feeder system that begins in Trois-Rivières and runs through Laval to Montreal. This is a silo that permits the Canadiens to give undrafted players in their backyard — among other players — a chance to grow with the organization and under their close supervision.

As Canadiens vice-president of hockey operations and director of legal affairs John Sedgwick noted on a Zoom conference with reporters Tuesday, "After their university career, it gives local players a good option to continue in the professional ranks nearby. And I certainly believe their team (headed by former Canadien Marc-Andre Bergeron) will look to add more Quebecois players."

Sedgwick also put an emphasis on this ECHL club, much like the AHL affiliate in Laval, being another platform for Quebecois coaches, equipment managers, athletic therapists, etc., which is not a small thing.

And one of the other key considerations here, as Sedgwick noted, is having the prospects in the system developing together. Over the last few seasons they’ve been dispersed through a couple of other ECHL teams, but that is no more come 2021-22.

The Canadiens will thus have a better snapshot of who’s deserving of a bigger opportunity.

"Our message to (the players) would be: you’re an hour away from the Rocket," Sedgwick said. "We’re going to see you much more, be aware of you much more. It’s the best possible avenue to the Rocket and the NHL.

"Anything’s possible."

Managing the cap

Just a couple of notes on the daily transactions the Canadiens are making to accrue cap space — moving players on entry-level contracts to the taxi squad on off-days and recalling them on game days.

First, Sedgwick said the team will no longer be making announcements on this, but that Jake Evans, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov would be in a taxi-squad rotation the Canadiens intend to keep going for as long as they can.

He also said that conversations have been held with the players and their agents, so that no one is offended by what it means from a financial perspective (players on the taxi squad receive AHL pay), and that the players are largely understanding of the Canadiens being up against the cap and needing to operate this way.

I asked Sedgwick if the team intends to go from carrying 21 players to carrying 22 on the active roster once enough space has been accrued for them to do so, but he explained that he doesn’t really see a reason for them to do that for the time being.

The more space the Canadiens accrue, the more flexibility they have to make additions prior to the trade deadline. Even if GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t see trade being too likely this season, that flexibility is paramount.

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