Other Canadiens Season Preview Articles:
- Must-Watch Players at Training Camp
- Defense Pair Predictions
- Forward Line Predictions
- 2021-22 Top Storylines
- Top Prospects to Watch at Rookie Camp
Entering last season, the Montreal Canadiens were coming off of a surprise appearance in the playoffs after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in series. General manager Marc Bergevin quickly went to work that offseason, adding depth in goal, on defence and added scoring. These moves all paid off as the Habs made the playoffs in the Scotiabank North Division, then rode that depth to a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
This offseason has been quieter than the usual Bergevin summer. He has not made any blockbuster trades, however, he did make some signings in the hopes of somehow replacing the power play production and defensive play lost as team captain Shea Weber is out with long term, possibly even career-ending injuries
To get into the hockey season spirit, here are some predictions that could be possible for the 2021-22 edition of the Canadiens.
Prediction #1: Caufield Scores 25
After a long and personally successful playoff run, it is hard to think that Cole Caufield is still considered a rookie. Last season, he joined the Canadiens for the last 10 regular-season games. In that time, he played in a third-line role averaging 13:58 per game. He scored four goals, two being overtime winners, which would put him on pace for 33 goals over an 82 game season. In that small sample size, he was sheltered as much as possible, with head coach Dominique Ducharme giving him offensive zone starts 60.9% of the time.
In the playoffs, when competition becomes much tighter, Caufield stepped his game up as well. While his goals per game average dropped to a 17-goal pace over 82 games, his points per game (PPG) pace rose from 0.5 to 0.6 PPG. He also earned larger and larger roles as the playoffs wore on, ending up in a top-line role with Nick Suzuki.
This season, it won’t be out of the question to see that pairing on a top-line continue. Add to that significant power play (PP) time thanks to Caufield’s elite shot, as it isn’t out of the question to see him reach the 25-goal plateau this coming season.
Prediction #2: Habs Power Play Ends Season in Top 10
Last season, the Canadiens PP was a liability for long stretches finishing the year as the 17th ranked PP at 19.2%. Under former associate coach Kirk Muller, the Habs PP was ranked 20th at 18.2%. The full 1% improvement over the season did help, but not much. This season, the PP will be essential in a playoff bid for the Habs.
Part of the issue with the PP was the approach. For long stretches, it was highly predictable as the game plan was to set up Weber with a one timer from the point. Opposition defences keyed in on that, becoming highly aggressive in coverage cutting off that weapon. There was also difficulty in entering the zone under control. The return of the top three forwards in that regard help, as does the addition of Mike Hoffman.
With Alex Burrows returning to coach the PP, the use of the 1-3-1 (one player behind the goal line or at the crease, three players at the midpoint of the zone, one being in the slot and one player at the blue line) will return. By keeping three shooting options in tight, the Habs’ PP becomes less predictable, especially with shooters like Hoffman, Caufield, Tyler Toffoli and Suzuki. It isn’t impossible to see a 3% increase in the PP (three goals for 100 power-play opportunities). If the Canadiens can add those three goals per 100, the PP would increase to 22.2% which would make them equal to last season’s ninth-best PP unit, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Prediction #3: Poehling Becomes an NHL Regular Before End of Season
Ryan Poehling set himself up for scrutiny when he scored a hat trick in his first-ever professional game, against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs no less. The problem being, it set too high a bar among the fan base, who, after seeing that expected him to step into the NHL immediately as a top-six center. This was never going to happen for the 2018 World Junior Championship MVP as he had just left the NCAA and had not had time to grow into his role in the professional game.
His second season was a difficult one, being recalled on multiple occasions, sitting in the press box, being shifted to the wing and used sparingly in a fourth-line role. Poehling’s time in the American Hockey League was broken by the recalls, and he was never able to settle into a set role. All too much for a young rookie professional. Last season, he was left in the AHL and given a top-six role, used in defensive matchups, something that he is best suited for at the NHL level as he projects as more of a third-line center. He was able to build on his speed, strength and awareness, leading the team to the North Division title with 25 points in 28 games.
This season, thanks to his steady progression and no additional top nine centers arriving in Montreal, Poehling will compete for an NHL job. He is still waiver eligible, so the expectation out of camp is that he returns to the Laval Rocket to start the season. That being said, his continued strong play will make him a top candidate for a call-up, and by season’s end, fans will see him as a steady defensive center that will be trusted by Ducharme, much like Evans was last season.
Prediction #4: Kotkaniemi Becomes Top Six Center
This one seems a little simplistic, however, without Bergevin making a big signing or trade of a more experienced center to help insulate the current crop, it is highly likely that Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be given every opportunity to play as a top-six center this coming season.
There will be some asking why Bergevin didn’t just come out in his post-free agency press conference and say that, well, there are two reasons. First, he isn’t known for providing details of any plan he formulates. Secondly, he is still in negotiations with the former 2018 third overall pick, as mentioned by Grant McCagg.
It’s a plausible theory. Why give his agent more to work with and raise the value on the next contract. It’s likely to be a bridge deal – a short one to two years, low cap hit contract – that will benefit the player as Kotkaniemi tries to raise his value by producing to his potential as well as the club as they minimize cap hit now but gamble on the value of a long term deal that would buy all of the prime years of the young center.
If Kotkaniemi is given the role, along with power-play time, it isn’t impossible to see him reach the 45 point plateau this season. Especially if given a steady pairing with one of the many scoring wingers on the roster. As a bonus prediction, a likely candidate to be his “wingman” is Brendan Gallagher, as he exemplifies the consistent effort they want from Kotkaniemi as well as he provides some offence but is also defensively responsible.
Prediction #5: Bergevin Makes a Significant Trade
There is a lot of speculation about Bergevin’s future with the Canadiens as he is in the final season of his contract as GM, and there has been no word on an extension. His motivation to remain or not aside, as it is clear he will see the success of his retool plan as his legacy for the Canadiens. While a surprise run to the Final provides hope for the future, it shouldn’t change the plan as the team enters the fourth season of the retool plan. It is at this stage that the team should be a true playoff contender.
As the NHL returns to its previous divisional alignments prior to the pandemic shortened 2021 season, with the Habs in a very competitive Atlantic Division surrounded by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins. All teams that will be fighting for the three divisional playoff positions and the two Eastern Conference Wild Card spots, making things very difficult for the Canadiens.
To that end, it is highly possible that Bergevin makes a significant trade to address a specific concern. Despite the depth of skill at center, there is a lack of experience in that position, so it is plausible that he trades for a center.
Another possibility is he modernizes the blue line with another puck-moving defenceman. If Alexander Romanov isn’t able to progress to the levels they desire this season, or if the power play isn’t improved, it is possible that Bergevin looks to add an offensive defenceman capable of helping to get the Habs into the playoffs.
As the season wears on, some predictions may come true, as some may be completely off base. One thing is for certain, that is the fun of sports, the unpredictability. There is no better reality show in the world than the drama that unfolds every night on a sheet of ice.
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Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 29 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist with the goal to be a trusted source of information and entertainment.