The Montreal Canadiens have started the season with a 1-1-2 record, after dropping a 4-2 decision in their own home opener to the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night. The good news: they grabbed four of a possible six points on their opening three-game road trip. The bad news: they have not won in regulation time yet, and now have only one win in their first four games of the regular season. Looking at the roster, the Canadiens are built around speed with solid depth at every position. However, this is the same formula that they employed last season when they fell short of the postseason. How can the they be better this season?
How Can Les Glorieux Improve?
Let’s start with the team’s strengths: depth and goaltending. The Canadiens have one of the top-three goalies in the NHL in Carey Price, and have added a goalie who led the New Jersey Devils to the playoffs as their starter less than 24 months ago in Keith Kinkaid. They also have promising youngsters developing in the American Hockey League with the Laval Rocket in Charlie Lindgren, Cayden Primeau (and Michael McNiven now in ECHL), so goaltending will again be the backbone of the team.
Depth is another strength. Head coach Claude Julien employs four lines all built on speed and quick transitions, and this depth allows the Canadiens to keep themselves in games and have fresh legs in the second half of games, which is why they are able to come back often and are a resilient team to play against. However, there is one major factor holding them back, especially when you consider the Atlantic Division: the lack of elite talent.
Aside from Price, the Canadiens don’t have a franchise player on the roster. Shea Weber was an elite defender in his prime, but his best years are just behind him, though he’s still an important part of the team. Max Domi put up 72 points last season in his first at center and Brendan Gallagher is coming off of two 30-goal campaigns. However, looking around the division, none of these players are an Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov, John Tavares, Aleksander Barkov or (as we saw last night) Jack Eichel.
Wednesday night the Canadiens dominated most of the game, but Eichel’s star power kept the Buffalo Sabres in the game, and he was the key reason why they came away with two points. The Canadiens just don’t have the kind of talent on their roster who can back players off, like we saw on Eichel’s end-to-end second-period goal.
Keys to Solving the Canadiens’ Problems
The Canadiens have struggled to attract NHL stars in their prime to sign as free agents, and that route has historically been less effective in building contending teams. What they do have in large supply is smart drafting, proper player development and cap space.
The Answer Is In-House
In addition to landing four of six points to start the season, one bright spot is Jesperi Koktaniemi. Some were worried about his play in the preseason due to his lack of production (0G) in contrast to other youngsters such as Nick Suzuki. However, those fears should be put away now. The question of whether he can score on the road has been answered. He’s found instant chemistry with Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia and they were the team’s best line against the Sabres. Kotkaniemi’s continued development and ongoing maturity will go a long way to answering Montreal’s need for elite level stars in their lineup.
Outside of Kotkaniemi, there are plenty of other reasons to be optimistic about Montreal developing some real star power in the near future. Look no further than last year’s regular-season finale and Ryan Poehling’s dynamic debut when he netted a hat trick and had the shootout winner. You can see why Poehling has the chance to become an elite talent in his own right in the NHL.
Furthermore, if you continue down the list of top prospects, you see Nick Suzuki as well, and while he has struggled to start the season, he also has a chance to be an elite talent, though more likely as a center than winger.
Cole Caufield, who set the United States National Team Development Program’s goal records last season, is another top prospect and the team hasn’t had such a natural and accomplished young goal-scorer in their prospect pool since they drafted players such as Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt or Mats Naslund.
Looking down the line, the team also has Alexander Romanov, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury, Cayden Primeau, Jesse Ylonen, and others. While there is no assurance they will all become stars, the fact is, the Canadiens are loaded with skilled prospects who will take the team from a resilient group to a resilient group with several game-breakers in the near future.
The key to improvement is for the Canadiens to develop these young players and follow the path they gave to Kotkaniemi last season. Play the kids, let them develop and learn from mistakes. Continue to build with the long road in mind. The Canadiens’ prospect pool is finally saturated with a quantity of young quality players and that’s where they will find their future game-breakers and their own star power for seasons to come.