By JD Lagrange – As the puck drops on another season, the expectations around the Montreal Canadiens are as low as they can get. After a 0-6-2 record in pre-season games, some are already counting on Connor Bedard. But don’t tell the players that. Don’t tell the coaching staff that. None of them will buy it… and rightfully so!
In fact, they all sing the same song. They all say (and think) that they have a team that will surprise many. And I, for one, believe them. Why? Because last season was a fluke. When first hired by the Canadiens, VP of Hockey Operations Jeff Gorton recognized the situation in Montreal, calling it “the perfect storm”. After a COVID-filled schedule and making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, they suffered unimaginable collateral damage.
It seems like it cost Shea Weber and Carey Price, the Canadiens’ top-two players, their career. Paul Byron has never healed and is, once again, on LTIR. He too could be facing forced retirement. Joel Edmundson, one of the team’s Clydesdales in the playoffs, missed the first three quarters of the season last year and is still suffering from chronic back issues. And who knows who else is battling through permanent damage?
Plus, the team shattered a record of man-games lost last season due to injuries and COVID. And not just any players. For the most part, we’re talking about the best players on the team. So yes, the perfect storm.
The fact that the expectations are low is a good thing. In a market like Montreal, where every little detail is blown out of proportion, we can even say that it’s a great thing. But like most times, there is just no middle grounds, no grey area – or too little – with this fan base. Either they will contend for a Stanley Cup, or the sky is falling and they will pick first overall. At least, it’s the impression we get when reading social media.
Here’s why I believe the Canadiens will do better than anticipated:
1- Martin St-Louis: No, he’s not the Saviour. But many individuals on the team improved drastically last season when he took over. While the defensive aspect saw no changes, the offense woke up. Now, he had a chance of spending the entire training camp with the players. He’s not starting from scratch and he knows them. Further, he has the luxury of playing under low expectations, which will allow him to be patient with the young guys.
2- Special Teams: They were simply awful last season. The power play was 31st in the entire NHL. The penalty kill wasn’t much better, sitting at 27 in the league. The coaching staff had time to sort those aspects and they do have more weapons to insert on those units. In pre-season, the power play looked better, largely due to Cole Caufield’s four PP goals. The PK still needs work but it’s easier to teach defensive positioning than to teach goals’ scoring. It can’t be worse than last year… can it?
3- Center Depth: While there may be question marks about their performances coming back from injuries, the addition of Kirby Dach and Sean Monahan adds quality depth up the middle on the forwards like. There is no doubt that Nick Suzuki will be the team’s number one center but Monahan, Dach and Christian Dvorak could all center the second or third line. Then, you still have Jake Evans for your fourth line. In case of an injury, it provides some quality depth at a key position, something the Canadiens have been lacking since the departures of Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
4- Depth on Wings: In fact, at the time of writing this, there are too many wingers. And the Canadiens have sent a couple of young guys down who deserved to get their chance at the NHL level in Jesse Ylönen and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard. Young Juraj Slafkovsky adds some much needed weight and size on the wing, particularly while Joel Armia is healing from an injury. Lots of inter-changeable pieces on the wing and much better depth, should allow for a smoother transition in the event of injuries, or to create more competition, pushing players to perform.
5- Injuries: There is no way that the Canadiens will suffer as many injuries, or miss as many man-games (particularly to key players) like they did last season. It is statistically and logistically almost impossible. So right there, having a bit healthier team means having your best players in the line-up, which should result in a few more wins in itself.
6- Youth: With youth come mistakes, yes. But with youth comes enthusiasm, charisma, fun, desire to compete and win. Remember the effect Caufield had on the team according to the veterans of the team? Same was said about Alexander Romanov. The joie-de-vivre and fighting to stay in Montreal instead of being sent to Laval riding the bus will be a huge motivation factor, and the team will benefit from it. And if one is sent down to work on things, another young guy will be up bringing much of the same.
7- Bounce-Back: In addition to Sean Monahan, Jonathan Drouin and Evgenii Dadonov will be playing for a contract next season. Often times, it serves as a source of motivation for those players to put a bit extra to get a good season. Further, many Canadiens’ players will want to bounce back from a bad season last year. None wants that more than Brendan Gallagher, who finally benefited of a full off-season to heal and rebuild his body. But Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak and even Josh Anderson will want to improve over last season.
It won’t be easy
But there will be challenges along the way. No, I don’t believe that the Canadiens will make the playoffs. They’ll be out of contention by trade deadline, no worries. Suspicious goaltending and too many young guys on defense, learning their craft at the NHL level, will cost the team several games.
But for the list of reasons mentioned above, there will be many, many more wins than we saw from them last year. By all means, keep the expectations low. But if, for one second, you think that this team will be battling for a bottom-five spot in the NHL, don’t put a lot of money on it. You risk losing big. In fact, I believe that in points difference, they will be closer to the last playoffs’ spot than they will be to the Chicago Blackhawks, whom I predict to take over the Habs in the NHL’s basement.
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