The Montreal Canadiens have been in a bit of a slump as of late. Over the past five years, they’ve either missed the playoffs or were knocked out in the first round. This season, they were on pace to miss the playoffs for the third year in a row, so where’s the problem?
The team is in a bit of an awkward spot as they haven’t been bad enough to get good draft picks when they miss the playoffs. Let’s see where the forwards, defence, and goaltending can be improved by going through the Canadien’s prospects to see where they can fill the void from within.
Starting off we have the forwards. In the 2019-20 season, the Canadiens are sitting 19th in goals for. They have a negative goal differential and most of that falls on the lack of offensive production. Only two forwards have 20-plus goals on the year and this lack of scoring puts added pressure on the defence and goalies. In fact, Tomas Tatar is the only Canadien who has over 60 points. No other player even has 50.
Montreal needs to look at getting some depth scoring. Most of the forwards are sitting positive in plus/minus but only by a very narrow margin. Adding a second-line scoring forward could go a long way to turning a negative differential into a positive one, given the fact the negative goal differential is only minus-20.
Looking at players they could slot into a scoring role, there are a couple of options. First is Jake Evans who’s the current point leader for Montreal’s AHL affiliate team, the Laval Rocket. Evans put up 38 points in 51 games with the Rocket and has played 13 games with the Habs this season. The former seventh-round pick has proven to be a very versatile center. He could potentially be a solid two-way forward for the club next season.
Arguably the biggest player they need to step up is Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Chosen third overall in the 2018 Draft, the 20-year-old center has large expectations to fill. He’s been in and out of the Habs’ lineup and really needs to make a push for a permanent spot. He has a point per game with Laval this season, and with any luck, he can start to translate that play to the NHL.
One of the bright spots on the Montreal roster is the offensive production from the blue line. Half of the Canadiens’ defencemen have over 10 goals with a positive plus/minus. The problem largely lies in the lack of consistency in the bottom pair. The teams top four can all generate offense. This leaves the shutdown job to the fifth and sixth guys. Having offense from the blue line is great, but you need somebody to hold the fort if one of them decides to pinch in the offensive zone.
The Canadiens have rolled four different defencemen in the bottom pair role. This not only affects team chemistry but also gives the offensive ones less freedom to play their game. This problem could be fixed by simply finding a third shutdown defenceman so Montreal can roll three pairs that consist of a shutdown guy and a scoring threat. Currently, they’re a lot like the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, only the Habs don’t have the offensive firepower to make up for the goals scored against on mistakes.
There are a couple of potential candidates in the system that could help. With Jeff Petry’s contract expiring at the end of next season, this may be an opportunity to bring in youngster Alexander Romanov. The Russian defenceman was chosen in the second round of the 2018 Draft and has been playing this season with CSKA Moskva. In that time he’s only tallied seven assists in 43 games played, but is sitting on a plus-21. Montreal needs to keep the puck out of the net, and guys like Romanov don’t get scored on while they’re on the ice.
Another potential option is Swedish defenceman Gustav Olofsson. This is a guy who may not come with a ton of offense, but he keeps the opposing team off the board. This season with Laval he has one goal and 15 assists in 57 games played. He’s also sitting on a plus-7, which is amongst the highest on Laval.
Montreal’s goalie problem is one that a lot of teams have. They have a very solid number one in Carey Price, but when they have to rest him they struggle to win. Over the past five years, the Canadiens have had eight different backups! As such, they haven’t had a solid backup goaltender since Jaroslav Halak in 2010 during their Eastern Conference Final run.
Despite the Canadiens having a dead-even record in 2019-20, Price has actually had a good season, which is why the goalie problem lies in the backups. The two backups that have played this season have combined for four wins, whereas Price has the other 27. Cayden Primeau could be the solution in the future, but may still be a few years away, so do the Canadiens have another option?
It’s not uncommon for goalies to develop slower than skaters, plus most teams don’t draft a Carter Hart who can take the starting reins at age 20. Aside from Charlie Lindgren (the current backup) and Primeau, the Habs have only two other prospect goalies. First is Frederik Dichow who’s currently playing in Denmark. Dichow has been playing well this season but is still a ways off from being the guy. He’s only played a maximum of 24 games in a season, and his numbers aren’t NHL-ready.
That leaves Michael McNiven who’s spent three seasons with the Rocket. He’s still young at 22 and has been improving every season. However, Primeau has been developing more in a shorter amount of time with Laval. Given Lindgren’s overall losing record, it may be time to see what Primeau can do by learning from Price. Perhaps a little competition between the pipes may even spark a surge in Lindgren.
In conclusion, Montreal is on the verge of being a playoff team. With some subtle changes, they could make that jump to the promised land. What they need most to get there are a second line scoring forward, a third defensive defenceman, and a solid backup goaltender. They have the tools in the system, it’s just a matter of using them. There’s no shortage of talent in Montreal and there’s no reason they can’t make the playoffs in 2021.
What do you think? What changes would propel Montreal from on the verge, to playoff contender? Let us know in the comments section below.