Canadiens season preview: Can forward depth make up for lack of star power?

Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber discusses why he thinks the Habs are ready to take the next step, and win this season.

BROSSARD, Que. — Montreal Canadiens media availability buzz words: excited, confident, fast, big, experienced, skilled, eager, ready.

With a couple dozen Zoom conferences in the books, it’s starting to sound like a broken record around here.

Get this season started already!

As chronicled when training camp broke, a Canadiens team that finished 24th in the 2019-20 NHL standings — one that had about as much business participating in the bubble playoffs as I would in a breakdancing competition — isn’t shying away from lofty expectations in 2021. General manager Marc Bergevin recently said his group “means business,” that they’re “here to win” and that they can play “any way you want,” and that was before coach Claude Julien said, “I see no reason we can’t make it right to the end.”

Every player we’ve spoken to since has echoed those sentiments, vaunting a lineup that boasts seven new players, depth at all positions, a balance of youth and experience and what they feel is an unrivalled goaltending tandem.

Health will be the ultimate determinant in Montreal’s success, with injuries always a risk and with the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak lingering over everything like smog on a sunny day.

A smooth transition from camp to regular-season play is also a key factor for a team integrating so many new players — especially with so little time to prepare. You can stumble out of the gate, but you can’t fall flat and take your time getting back up in a 56-game season.

But these Canadiens aren’t concerned about that. They believe they’re coming together and that they’re prepared to do some serious damage in an all-Canadian division they expect will be as competitive — if not more competitive — as any of the other three in the league.

2019-20 regular season record: 31-31-9

2019-20 finish: A 4-2 series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 of the playoffs.

Top 2020 draft pick: Kaiden Guhle

Additions: Jake Allen (G), Joel Edmundson (D), Alexander Romanov (D), Josh Anderson (RW), Tyler Toffoli (RW/LW), Michael Frolik (LW/RW), Corey Perry (RW).

Subtractions: Max Domi (to the Columbus Blue Jackets), Dale Weise (unsigned)

Outlook

It’s a massive transition from playoff hopeful to Stanley Cup contender, and we’re going to wait to see what develops before labelling the Canadiens a Stanley Cup contender.

Still, as noted, they believe they can hoist their 25th Cup in July, if they stay relatively healthy.

We need to see them prove they’re worthy, but we think they’re a versatile team; a fast and skilled team; a balanced and deep team; a beefy, in-your-face team that won’t be pushed around; a team that will likely excel in playoff-type games the 2021 season will feature.

But we also see a team missing the type of top-end talent up front that most of its competition possesses. The Canadiens may have three balanced lines of offence and a fourth that’s better than most teams’ third, but we don’t see a proven superstar on any of them — and that could prove troublesome against teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks, who have some of the NHL’s biggest game-breakers.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Carey Price and Shea Weber are future Hall of Famers on the back end of their respective careers, but they’re still top-end players who anchor a much-improved — and intimidating — line of defence.

Could that, coupled with the balance and depth of the forward group, mitigate not having the Marners, Matthewses, McDavids, Draisaitls, Scheifeles, Laines and Pettersons of the world? The Canadiens are banking on it.

A good start to the season will help reinforce the groundswell of positivity emanating from the front office. A bad one will raise all kinds of questions — and ratchet the pressure up several notches.

Still, Canadiens fans should feel really good about this team’s chances. The prospect of winning hasn’t been this palpable since Bergevin took over in 2012.

X-Factor: Nick Suzuki

He may not be a superstar just yet, but Suzuki could very well go from really good player to star player this season — even if it’s only his second in the NHL.

We’re talking about a brilliant and offensively gifted player who idolizes Patrice Bergeron and plays very much in his image. A very important player.

Suzuki’s starting on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Anderson — a versatile line with serious offensive potential — and he’s running the top unit of a revamped Canadiens power play and also likely to be a member of the penalty kill. As a player who will be relied on in every situation, and one expected to produce consistently, much of what the Canadiens have planned for this season rides on Suzuki’s success.

What we’ve learned about Suzuki is that, for as humble and shy as he appears in his interactions with the media, he won’t cower to that pressure. The London, Ont., native is extremely competitive and he’s very confident and aware of how good he is and how good he can be.

It’s a big part of the reason we don’t believe Suzuki will be bitten by the much-dreaded sophomore jinx.

Julien believes Suzuki’s maturity will help him avoid it, as well.

“You look at Nick Suzuki and you look at his whole — not his career in the NHL but his whole upbringing in junior hockey and everything else from Team Canada to his own team in his last year — and what he did and what he was able to bring; he’s a pretty intelligent individual,” said Julien earlier this week. “And we talked about him being a cerebral player as well — I think you see that in how he reacts in his demeanour. He’s a humble individual and knows what’s ahead of him in order to succeed. So he’s a pretty mature individual for his age.”

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Suzuki will have to be wise beyond his years. No one goes through 56 games unblemished, and it’ll be paramount he maintains his composure when adversity hits.

Provided Suzuki can do that, he’ll be fine — and so will the Canadiens.

Player who could surprise: Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Not that expectations aren’t already high for the 20-year-old who was drafted third overall by the Canadiens in 2018, it’s just that most people are expecting Kotkaniemi to only take a step or two rather than a massive leap forward.

After all, the young Finn’s sophomore season was a considerable step backward only salvaged by an impressive nine-and-a-half games in the Toronto bubble (he was ejected from one for this hit on Philadelphia’s Travis Sanheim). So, thinking he’s suddenly going to be a point-per-game producer seems far-fetched.

But what if Kotkaniemi comes close to being one? What if he emerges as Montreal’s best centre? What if he, Tyler Toffoli and Joel Armia find the chemistry that permits them to become a dominant line?

None of that is out of the question.

And if it all came to fruition, it would ease much of the pressure on Suzuki and give the Canadiens a look up the middle — with Phillip Danault still taking on the heavy assignments when Julien has the matchup advantage home ice affords — they haven’t had in decades.

The promise at centre is already way higher than it has been in 25 years, but it can be fulfilled quicker than anticipated if Kotkaniemi vaults his way up the depth chart.

We’re not putting it past him.

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