Much to the surprise of most everyone, the Montreal Canadiens notched 100 points last season and made it to the Eastern Conference Final. While they will be hard-pressed to make it back there and beyond, it’s far from impossible as they should be even better based on the following three reasons:
When the division-champion Boston Bruins have yet to sign a single unrestricted free agent (and still have to sign restricted free agents Reilly Smith and Torey Krug) due to salary cap issues, the door is clearly open for the Canadiens to make a move.
It should not be forgotten that the Habs actually won the Northeast Division just two seasons ago at the expense of the Bruins. These past playoffs they were also the last Atlantic Division team left standing, after defeating the Bruins in the second round and sweeping the Lightning, likely the Habs’ other main competition, in the first.
While the Lightning improved drastically over last season, Tampa arguably didn’t as much as Montreal, making the Habs division favorites this coming season.
Power Play Is Primed for Success
On the whole, Montreal’s power play wasn’t so bad last season, ending it at a 17.2 percent success rate (19th in the league). However, it was wildly inconsistent, at one point going six for 54 opportunities (11.1 percent) over a 17-game stretch that coincided with the Christmas break and ended well into the new year. No word yet on what they resolved to fix instead.
Essentially, Montreal’s power play started off on fire and crawled to the finish line after opponents realized the key to stopping it was to block out P.K. Subban. Beyond him and Andrei Markov, his first-unit defensive partner, the Habs just didn’t have any offensive threats on the blue line.
It got so bad that Francis Bouillon actually averaged the third-most time on the power play among defensemen under head coach Michel Therrien (1:15 per game). He notched a single assist with the man advantage as a result. It was his first power-play point in three seasons. Evidently, Therrien was right on the money with his hunch that Bouillon was due to break out.
This year, Therrien won’t have Bouillon to fall back on. The unrestricted free agent is no longer with the team and Therrien will likely be forced to give some time to 21-year-old Nathan Beaulieu, even if only on the second unit.
Add in the acquisition of Tom Gilbert, and the Habs now have four offensive defenseman. Most importantly, they have two right-handed shots to go with two-left-handed ones and form two units.
What might come as a shock is despite the loss of Josh Gorges, the Habs’ regular lineup actually got bigger over the offseason. What might come as a bigger shock is they arguably got faster too.
While Gorges is renowned for playing bigger than his 6’1”, 201-pound frame, the the 6’2”, 206-pound Gilbert was essentially signed to replace him on the blue line.
Admittedly, they play different games, but the returning Mike Weaver should in theory be able to make up for the loss of Gorges’ prowess in blocking shots, with the former having led the team with 50 during the playoffs.
What Gorges could never do is skate the puck up ice, while Gilbert is coming off a 28-point season with the Florida Panthers, which is all the more impressive when you consider they finished second-to-last in scoring last year.
Even in terms of depth, the Habs got bigger and faster, with the 6’3”, 245-pound Douglas Murray—a glorified wall in the defensive zone—seeing his role taken over by the younger and taller Jarred Tinordi (6’6”).
Up front, it’s more of the same with the 5’7”, 176-pound Brian Gionta replaced by the 6’0”, 193-pound P.A. Parenteau in the top six.
Trading away Daniel Briere (5’10”, 181 pounds) does hurt from a quickness standpoint, but when he had become the team’s fourth-line center by the end of last season, it shouldn’t be that big of a loss.
If the Habs end up replacing him in the lineup with Manny Malhotra (6’2”, 220 pounds), they gain size and an edge in the faceoff circle. If they replace him with Michael Bournival, they gain size (5’11”, 196 pounds) and arguably even more speed.