The Montreal Canadiens are approaching the 2020-21 season with zero cap space and, objectively, a much deeper roster than they’ve iced in five years.
And Marc Bergevin didn’t spend Geoff Molson’s money just for the sake of spending it. The Canadiens’ general manager told his owner he had four boxes to fill with his off-season budget, and he delivered on filling them — trading for and signing backup goaltender Jake Allen, defenceman Joel Edmundson and power forward Josh Anderson, and landing free-agent forward Tyler Toffoli.
Now the expectations have risen. “We hope to make the playoffs” has become “We expect to make the playoffs.” And when you put it all down on paper, as we’re about to in this deep dive into the depth chart, that’s reasonable.
Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher
Jonathan Drouin-Nick Suzuki-Tyler Toffoli
Paul Byron-Jesperi Kotkaniemi-Josh Anderson
Artturi Lehkonen-Jake Evans-Joel Armia
In the mix: Ryan Poehling, Jordan Weal, Jesse Ylonen, Brandon Baddock, Alex Belzile, Lukas Vejdemo
That’s what we see when we look at this board, and we’re not alone. Canadiens coach Claude Julien sees it, too.
“It’s easy enough to look at the names of our forwards and see we have four lines that should be very competitive,” Julien said back on Oct. 22. “I’d say right away, with the number of players we have up front who can score and do good work, that we can easily eliminate the idea of a first line, a second line, a third line; I think it’ll be a question of the line playing best during a given game playing as the top line that night.
“We have a good depth and balance in our lines. I can make the lines right now, but they can change tomorrow. That’s the beauty of what we have right now—we can move players here and there and still have good lines…”
Bringing in a couple of 25-goal scorers on the right side helps.
Granted, Anderson will have to rebound from an injury-riddled and unproductive 2019-20 season, and Toffoli will have to continue on the same path he was on with the Vancouver Canucks. But both players should be able to take some pressure off top winger Brendan Gallagher.
They’re also going to force Joel Armia to bring his best on a more consistent basis and, as Armia’s shown over the last two seasons, his best is a massive upgrade on what the Canadiens were getting from the right wing of their fourth line last season.
Still, all of that is a wash if Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi fail to take the steps they’re expected to after impressive showings in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’re talking about two promising centremen Bergevin said the team can build around for the next 10-15 years, but they have less than 200 games of NHL experience between them.
It’s what made trading Max Domi away to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Anderson that much more of a risk. To start with, the Canadiens, who struggled to score consistently over the last two seasons, gave up a player who was among their three best in every relevant offensive category over the last two seasons. A player who played his best at centre.
But they’re banking on a big payoff. They’re banking on Anderson doing what Domi couldn’t do from the wing, and they’re banking on still having three playmaking centres that pushed Domi to the margins.
A fourth in Jake Evans, who is poised to emerge as a steady two-way option, also helps mitigate some of that risk.
Behind Evans, there’s a good blend of skill, scoring, size and physicality on the fringe of the forward group, which adds to the changing dynamic. There’s more NHL-capable players in that mix to turn to in case of injuries, and they’d be pushing players who are actually capable of filling bigger roles up the lineup.
Ben Chiarot-Shea Weber
Joel Edmundson-Jeff Petry
Alex Romanov-Brett Kulak
In the mix: Victor Mete, Cale Fleury, Noah Juulsen, Gustav Oloffson, Josh Brook, Otto Leskinen, Xavier Ouellet
Bergevin’s a big proponent of having as much depth on the blue line as possible, and this might be the deepest crop he’s had since he took over as GM in 2012. Heck, the fact that a 22-year-old with 171 games of NHL experience (Victor Mete) could start off on the outside looking in is testament to the fact.
And this isn’t just a deep group; it’s a mean one. The top-four guys are all over 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, and they all play like it. They’ll be about as fun to face as Khabib Nurmagomedov was for that poor bear.
Then there’s Alex Romanov, a 20-year-old who’s been virtually locked into a spot because of his in-your-face style. Couple him with Brett Kulak, who’s coming off playing the best hockey of his career, and you have the makings for a pair that can be relied on to help keep top-enders Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry from being overtaxed.
You could do worse than having Mete, Cale Fleury and Noah Juulsen as next men up if injuries hit. A lot worse.
The depth is there.
The versatility is, too. Size and physicality are the calling cards of this crew, but there’s enough offence, speed and puck-moving ability in this mix to turn what was a perceived weakness into a strength.
This defence should be markedly better than it was last season.
In the mix: Charlie Lindgren, Cayden Primeau, Michael McNiven, Vasili Demchenko
If this isn’t the best one-two punch in the NHL, on paper, it’s right up there.
And it had better play out that way on the ice, because the Canadiens are using nearly $15 million of their cap space on Carey Price and Jake Allen this season.
With a shortened and condensed schedule looming, it was vital to get Price a more dependable backup than what the Canadiens have had in recent years. That Allen is coming off the best season of his career — his first official one with the St. Louis Blues as Jordan Binnington’s backup — only inspires confidence he’s up for the challenge.
That Allen has a wealth of experience as a starter in the league also has its value. If Price gets hurt, the Canadiens won’t be scrambling to find someone.
Charlie Lindgren has played enough games to parachute in for a few if necessary. If not, he’ll continue to be a good mentor for 21-year-old Cayden Primeau in the AHL. And that’s if Lindgren is still in the organization by the time the season gets underway.
The crease is overcrowded with KHL import Vasili Demchenko signed to a one-year deal and with Michael McNiven also signed through the end of the 2021 season, so something could give at the position.