Canadiens Season Preview: Examining how club can make playoffs in 2022

Carey Price and forward depth have a chance to lead Habs back to postseason Kevin Michie chats with Julian McKenzie to preview the season.

MONTREAL — I’m predicting the Montreal Canadiens will make the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But, to be completely transparent, I’m not entirely sure how they’re going to do it.

It appears as though nearly every strength that propelled the Canadiens on their run to the 2021 Final has been rendered a weakness. They got through the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights relying on their depth at centre, on the nastiness of their defence, and on world-class goaltending, and their ability to tap into all of that this season has seemingly been hindered by everything that has happened since.

Still, I’m making a bold bet the Canadiens will make the playoffs.

Part of me is doing it because people are still tweeting at me for picking them to lose to Toronto in Round 1 of last year’s playoffs and it’s exhausting. Another part of me is doing it because there is a case to make for Montreal’s inclusion, which I’ll outline below.

But I’m mostly doing it because life is short and it’s more fun to be bold.

I’d be as boring as it gets placing the Canadiens exactly where they appear most likely to land on paper — on the bubble of the playoff picture, staring up at four teams in their division and four more in the Metropolitan.

With Phillip Danault departing for Los Angeles, Jesperi Kotkaniemi preparing to debut as a left-winger in Carolina, Corey Perry joining the Tampa Bay Lightning, Paul Byron too injured to play before late December, Mike Hoffman too injured to start the season on time, Joel Edmundson too injured to play for at least another couple of weeks, Shea Weber too injured to continue his playing career and Carey Price checked into the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program for at least 30 days, that might even be considered a generous projection.

But I believe the biggest thing that got the Canadiens to within three wins of the Cup last season can carry them through this one — they learned how to play together as a team and did it to near perfection for most of their run — and I think enough of the team’s core is still intact to lean on that foundation and build on it.

Did the Canadiens overachieve in the playoffs? Sure.

No one would’ve suggested they’d go as far after watching them in the regular season, and no one did.

But many of us (myself included) said all year long that the Canadiens were built for the playoffs, and they ended up proving us right.

Here’s something else: I believe the Canadiens underachieved last regular season and, based on predictions made last January, so do a lot of people.

The Canadiens squeaked into the playoffs despite an early-season coaching change and a COVID-induced week off that forced them to play their final 25 games over 44 days, and they managed to do it with almost every key player missing from their lineup and without the benefit of being able to hold more than a few practices down the stretch. Everything that could’ve gone against them did, and had just a couple of things not, they’d have not appeared to be as big of an underdog in the playoffs as the oddsmakers made them out to be.

A couple of more wins in three-on-three overtime and the shootout — they lost their first nine games that went beyond 60 minutes — might have had them viewed in a different light as well.

But even if the Canadiens show they can build on the progress that had them win three of their last five overtime/shootout games, they’re going to be in tough to do better in all departments this coming season — especially in what many would consider the most competitive division in the league.

They don’t appear to be under any illusions about how much of a challenge it’ll be.

“It’s going to be a battle every night,” responded Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme when I interviewed him just before training camp, before he found out Edmundson and Hoffman would miss the entire pre-season and Price would take an indefinite leave from the team.

And backup-turned-starting goaltender Jake Allen was talking last week about the Canadiens being hunted — not only by teams like the Maple Leafs, who will be out avenge that seven-game loss, but also by everyone who fell shorter in their quest to win the Cup.

But that should keep the Canadiens honest in the process. And their recent experience facing and overcoming adversity — and really long odds — can be leaned on, too.

I don’t see them being second-best in the league at controlling their share of shot attempts and scoring chances at five-on-five for a second consecutive season, but I still think they’re good enough to finish in the top-12 in each of those categories, and nine of the teams that did that last year made the playoffs.

And I think where the Canadiens can make their biggest strides is on special teams, and that can go a long way towards securing their spot.

With Hoffman returning soon, with Jonathan Drouin back from personal leave and feeling good and prepared to start the season, with Christian Dvorak and Chris Wideman coming in, with Nick Suzuki a year older and wiser and Cole Caufield entering his first full season after getting his feet wet in the league and gaining the kind of experience he could only have dreamed of, Montreal’s power play has potential to finish top-10 in the league, and nine of the top-10 power-play teams made the playoffs last season.

There’s versatility there, enough talent to spread evenly through two units and mix things up when necessary, and the right type of pieces are in place to make it all sing.

I’m making a bet the team’s penalty kill can also do better than 23rd-best in the league, where it finished last season. I’m not suggesting it’ll finish top-10, but top-16 is attainable — even without Weber and Danault, and without Price, Edmundson and Byron to start the season — and 10 of the top-16 penalty-killing teams made the playoffs last year.

The Canadiens allowed just five goals on 61 occasions shorthanded during playoffs, and it was because they worked exceptionally hard and cohesively to do it. They built a template they can adhere to moving forward, and if Allen steps up, David Savard steps in, Jake Evans helps replace what Danault took with him to the Kings and players like Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli do their part, the bridge between 78.5 per cent in last year’s regular season and 91.8 per cent in the playoffs can be built.

Allen is going to have to bridge the gap left by Price’s absence to start the season.

The depth on the wings — a true strength this team has over many others in the league — is going to have to secure what Ducharme believes he has up front (four balanced lines he’s comfortable deploying against any opposition). And the defence is going to have to hold up in a way most would suggest it can’t, and that’ll depend on Jeff Petry continuing on the same trajectory he’s been on for the last four seasons and Edmundson returning and Savard stepping up to restore the dynamic that made it hard to play against.

More than anything, success on the blue line will depend on health because the defence that was considered to be thin a year ago has gotten thinner since.

So has the centre position for the Canadiens. Dvorak will help, and Evans will have to take a considerable step in his development to fill in on the third line. Someone between Cedric Paquette, Mathieu Perreault and Ryan Poehling — or a combination of all three — will have to get the job done on the fourth. And then there’s Suzuki, whose health and ability to become more consistent as top centre will be a huge determinant in Montreal’s playoff bid.

There will be no bigger factor, though, than Price’s ability to return sooner rather than later, feeling mentally and physically fit and prepared to play at his optimal level.

I believe he can do it, and that the Canadiens will be good enough to shock the hockey world once more.

Even if that’s based more on a feeling than anything else, I’m sticking with it because it would be fun to tweet at everyone they were wrong if I end up being right.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.