While we wait to learn the fate of the 2019-20 season after the NHL paused play last Thursday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s hand out some awards to highlight the best of an otherwise disappointing season for the Montreal Canadiens.
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One year removed from putting together a 96-point season that was two points shy of a playoff spot, the Habs iced essentially the same roster on opening day of this season. The hope was that the team could improve and take the next step together into the playoffs. Instead, injuries, inconsistency, and ultimately a lack of talent prevented that from happening which means they will part of the Draft Lottery for the third straight year and the fourth time in the last five. However, despite the team’s standing, several players enjoyed standout seasons.
Most Valuable Player: Tomas Tatar
Tomas Tatar was having a career-best season with a team-high 22 goals and 61 points in 68 games. Last season, he scored 25 goals and 58 points in 80 games.
For the second straight year, he was a vital part of the Canadiens’ top line and one of the league’s best trios alongside Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. After struggling with the Vegas Golden Knights following a mid-season trade from the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar has flourished as a member of the Canadiens, enjoying the two most productive seasons of his career. The injuries suffered by Paul Byron, Jonathan Drouin, and Gallagher made Tatar’s contributions this season even more valuable.
Tatar left a big hole in the lineup when he was injured in early March, a further indication of why general manager Marc Bergevin chose to hang on to the Slovak winger at the trade deadline and why he might offer him a contract extension over the next few months.
Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy: Jeff Petry
Voted on by members of the media assigned to the Canadiens, the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy is awarded annually to the player who played a dominant role during the regular season, without earning any particular honor.
Jeff Petry should be this year’s recipient after finishing third in voting last season. The 32-year-old has become a pillar of the Canadiens defense over the past six seasons since he arrived from the Edmonton Oilers. He was well on his way to posting career-best numbers again this season with 11 goals and 40 points in 71 contests while averaging 23:39 of ice time per game.
Petry is also one of only four Habs to appear in all the team’s games and he hasn’t missed a game in three seasons. Even though captain Shea Weber was mostly healthy this season and was named to the All-Star Game, Petry’s consistent ability to be an effective puck-moving defenseman playing a top-four role is vital to the team’s present and future success.
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“From the day I got here, it’s been a special place for me here,” Petry said ahead of this year’s trade deadline. “Getting to play in the playoffs for the first time here was incredible and I honestly believe I don’t think there’s a better place to win than it would be here.”
Biggest Surprise: Nick Suzuki
Nick Suzuki overcame a slow start in training camp to crack the Canadiens lineup and made his NHL debut on opening night. Since then, the native of London, Ontario has rarely missed a step and shown significant improvement in every facet of his game. His 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games put him sixth in the NHL’s rookie scoring race.
Beyond the points, Suzuki has earned a spot in the Habs’ top six, averaging 15:59 of ice time with his solid 200-foot game.
Most Underrated Contribution: Ben Chiarot
It was a quiet free agent frenzy for Bergevin last summer. The one splash he made was to sign Ben Chiarot, who spent five seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, to a three-year, $10.5 million contract to replace the departed Jordie Benn.
The move has proved fruitful for both Chiarot and the Canadiens. Many doubted whether he could play in the top four especially after a slow start adjusting to his new team. But, the 28-year-old was a reliable partner for Weber throughout the season on the top pairing. In 69 games, he’s posted career-highs in goals (9) and points (21) while averaging 23:08 in ice time and being a much-needed physical presence on the back end. By comparison, Benn has just one goal and seven points, and he’s been a healthy scratch on multiple occasions by the Vancouver Canucks.
Despite many free agents’ reluctance to sign with the Habs, Chiarot was eager to come to Montreal:
Playing in the Bell Centre and wearing the Habs sweater it’s a special, special feeling. It’s something that was a motivating factor in me coming to Montreal were those two things and they’ve been all I thought they would be and more. It’s a great place to be a hockey player and I’m fortunate to be here.from ‘Stu Cowan: Ben Chiarot has no regrets about signing with Canadiens,’ Montreal Gazette, 03/10/2020)
It Was Fun While it Lasted: Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk’s tenure with the Canadiens was brief, 22 games to be exact, but it won’t soon be forgotten by those who embraced the 36-year-old Russian star from the moment he stepped foot in the city, and he didn’t disappoint them. He revived his career with 13 points in 22 games after being out bought out by the Los Angeles Kings and earned himself a shot at the Stanley Cup after being traded to the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline. However, he did leave the door open for a possible return to Montreal this summer:
“When I’ll be a free agent, it’s one of the destinations that will be on my mind, because the fans here, the players, the younger players, the direction this team is going, I really like that a lot,” Kovalchuk stated. “It’s like a family here. All the people care. The staff, the coaching staff, they’re all close, along with the management. Geoff [Molson] is with the team all the time. It says a lot.”
Regardless of these bright spots, Bergevin can’t remain status quo next season. The roster’s weaknesses were exposed this season and they need to be addressed by the GM in the coming months. He needs to make some bold, aggressive moves to make sure that his team is back to playing meaningful games next spring.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media & Marketing Manager as well as co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly show produced by THW. In 2006, she spearheaded the social media initiatives for Tennis Canada and Rogers Cup and was the primary person responsible for their upkeep for over 10 years. She has written articles for multiple tennis websites and interviewed the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. While her career in sports started in tennis, her first love has always been hockey. She has a journalism degree from Concordia University.