Canadiens’ Early Season Takeaways

The Montreal Canadiens have started the 2016-17 with an 8-0-1 record. They now sit in first place in the Eastern Conference and in the National Hockey League after one month of play. Now, before we go on, we have to keep in mind that last season’s edition of the Canadiens went 9-0-1 before ultimately missing the playoffs. However, I think we can all point out that last season was an anomaly given the fact that Carey Price was out for the majority of the season along with many other key players.

This year, however, so far so good. They have started as well as they could have hoped. They have gotten contributions from up and down the lineup and with the injection of new talent, it truly does feel like a different, revamped version of the Montreal Canadiens.

After a successful first month of the season, it now remains to be seen whether they can keep up the pace as the 2016-17 campaign goes on. If they can do that, the Habs look to be well on the way to a 100-point season competing for top spot in the Eastern Conference. I have five early season thoughts below.

The New Guys Fit Right In

After the massive 2016 offseason shake-up, the Canadiens had many new faces enter their lineup. To recap — they signed Alexander Radulov and Al Montoya while they traded for Andrew Shaw and Shea Weber.

It was hard for fans to wrap their heads around some of the moves that brought these players to Montreal. For example, trading P.K. Subban to Nashville then adding Radulov to the mix was hard to understand. However, a month into the season, we can see why they’ve made the changes they have.

To start, Al Montoya has been a fantastic addition. He has posted a 3-0-1 record in the three games he’s started and has given confidence to his teammates when he’s on the ice, which is the big difference from last season between him and former back-up Mike Condon.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Shaw adds another ‘Brendan Gallagher-like’ element to the team along with a scoring touch. In the month of October, he’s seemed to develop chemistry with centre David Desharnais and is earning more opportunities with Max Pacioretty as well.

Alexander Radulov has been a force. He’s the elite forward and depth scorer the Canadiens have been missing for some time. He comes to the rink every day to play and do whatever it takes for the team to win. From what I’ve seen so far, there have been zero signs of immaturity and a tremendous showing of heart and appreciation for playing in the NHL again.

The other impact addition to the team has been none other than Shea Weber. Many fans were upset and angry when the Subban-for-Weber deal was made but we can all see why that happened now. Weber simply fits the Canadiens better than Subban did. He’s got the most points in the month of October and has added a different element to the Habs defensively and on the power play.

Sergachev Looks Good but Needs More Time

During his time with the Canadiens, rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev looked as good as an 18-year-old kid could look playing in hockey-crazed Montreal. Through the growing pains and the flashes of potential, Sergachev took his time with the Habs as a much-needed learning experience.

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Management always knew Sergachev wouldn’t stay with the big club for the season, but they felt it was important for him to learn how to be a pro to help his development. He played and practiced with the team just like any NHLer, and got the full experience, so when he eventually comes up as early as next season he’s much more prepared.

Now, Sergachev gets to go back to Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League where he was defenseman of the year last season and compete for a Memorial Cup. It was the best option for the Canadiens to send him down and Sergachev understands that. He’ll have a chance to play big minutes and be the go-to guy on a team with an excellent chance at becoming the best team in junior hockey.

Al Montoya Is the Real Deal

When Al Montoya was signed in the offseason, the Canadiens were looking for a backup goaltender that could not only withstand the pressure of playing in Montreal but also give the team a sense of confidence when he took the net. Montoya has done that, and so much more, early this season.

Through four games played, Montoya has a record of 3-0-1 with a 1.47 GAA, .955 Sv% including a shutout. Those numbers are pretty remarkable considering the shutout win was against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

As I alluded to earlier, Montoya gives his teammates a sense of confidence. When Carey Price is in net, there’s a comfort level that the players have and it shows in the way they play. With Montoya, it seems they have that same feeling and it’s good news for fans. The Canadiens want to give Montoya 20-22 games this season and that number could increase if he continues to do as well as he has.

A healthy and fresh Carey Price is the most important thing if the Canadiens want to make a run in the playoffs and Al Montoya is showing that he can help make that happen this season.

Defense Is Better Than Expected

With the loss of P.K. Subban, many thought the defense would have a much different look and be less offensive. That couldn’t be more opposite than what has gone on so far. Shea Weber leads the NHL in points and has vastly improved the Canadiens power play.

Along with the outstanding play of Shea Weber, possibly the most pleasant surprise is the play of Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin. Jeff Petry’s injury last season greatly affected the play of the Canadiens’ defense. This year, fans are seeing the benefit of having Petry on the ice and he’s arguably been the best defenseman so far. Alexei Emelin has also surprised and seems to have raised his play from last season. He’s earned a spot beside Shea Weber on the top defense pairing and has contributed both on and off of the score sheet.

(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

There has also been growth in the play of Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn as the two young defensemen continue to grow together. The Habs have also focused on getting the load off of Andrei Markov’s plate and have done that by spreading the minutes around to other players. Overall, the Canadiens are a better defensive team while still having a large effect on the offensive side of the puck.

Number Two Center Wanted

As good as they have been offensively this season, they still need another offensive top six forward. Through the first month of the season, Tomas Plekanec has been a dud. Originally on a line with Radulov and rookie Artturi Lehkonen, Plekanec failed to produce and continued the trend throughout the rest of the month.

Tomas Plekanec (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Tomas Plekanec (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Realistically, Tomas Plekanec is best served as a third-line shutdown centre — in fact I think he’d excel in that role and truly prove his worth. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, that isn’t what they need. Plekanec carries a heavy cap hit and his lack of offense is hurting the team.

Players like Radulov, Pacioretty and Gallagher need a centerman that can attribute to the offensive side of the game. As the Canadiens approach the trade deadline ahead in the new year, I believe they’ll try to address the issue. For now, they’ll continue to juggle the lines in hopes of keeping the offence moving.

Overall, the Montreal Canadiens have had another excellent start to a season. The real challenge will now be keeping up the momentum throughout the rest of the 2016 calendar year. Barring any major injuries or other unforeseen issues, the 2016-17 Montreal Canadiens should be in a position to challenge for the Eastern Conference title and have a shot at the Stanley Cup.