The Montreal Canadiens made a big splash in the offseason as general manager Marc Bergevin did his best to fill all the Habs’ lineup holes by adding scoring, toughness and a quality backup goaltender. He’s hoping the young centres’ playoff performance was an indication that they are ready for the next step. For the first time in years, Bergevin spent to the cap and is confident he has a playoff-bound team.
Here is a look at the upcoming season and what we can expect from this new-look Canadiens’ team. Expectations are high, and the excitement is real.
The Young Guys, Suzuki & Kotkaniemi
This offseason probably wouldn’t have happened if Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi didn’t have a successful playoff last season. Suzuki tied Jonathan Drouin for the team lead in points with seven. He showed he could handle playing as the second-line centre and found chemistry with the much-maligned Drouin to form a decent offensive line for the Canadiens.
This playoff spot followed a strong rookie season where he scored 13 goals and 41 points, finishing ninth in the Calder Trophy votes for rookie of the year, and was selected to the all-rookie team.
Kotkaniemi’s season, however, was very different. After having a successful rookie season where he scored 11 goals and 34 points in 2018-19, he had an offseason knee injury, followed by a minor concussion near the start of last season. He struggled out of the gate in his sophomore year, scoring only eight points in 36 games.
With his confidence waning, Bergevin pulled the trigger and sent him to the Laval Rocket of the AHL to work with the Rockets’ head coach Joel Bouchard. The move worked, as Kotkaniemi regained his confidence, found chemistry with Charles Hudon, and scored 13 points in 13 games before having his season cut short with a spleen injury. He would quickly recover from his spleen injury and return to the Canadiens for the playoffs, where he excelled in his third-line role, scoring four goals in 10 games and leading the team in hits.
Suzuki and Kotkaniemi’s success in the playoffs was a huge reason why Bergevin made big moves this offseason and spent to the cap. I don’t want to use the term “all-in” because I don’t feel the team is all in; if they were, they would have traded more draft picks and prospects for proven NHL talent. Without the young guys’ success in the playoffs, I highly doubt Bergevin makes most of the offseason moves.
The New Additions
As I mentioned earlier, Bergevin went out and filled holes that the Canadiens needed filling. They added scoring and size up front with Josh Anderson, who they acquired in the Max Domi trade. Last season, Anderson suffered a shoulder injury in his first game of the year. He tried to play through it, but after 26 games and only scoring one goal and three points, he shut his own season down and had surgery on his shoulder.
The season before, however, Anderson scored 27 goals and had 47 points playing mainly on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ third line. The big power forward is hoping to return to his previous 27-goal form, and if he does, he will provide the Canadiens with a strong, fast scoring forward who isn’t afraid to get dirty.
Jake Allen is another significant addition to the Canadiens’ lineup. The Habs acquired him in a trade with the St. Louis Blues for third and seventh-round draft picks in the 2020 Draft (Leo Loof and Noah Beck). Allen will provide Carey Price with the first quality backup goalie since Price became the Habs’ full-time starter.
Last season, Allen had his best year statistically with a .925 save percentage and a 2.15 goals against average in 24 games played. He has proven to be a consistent performer in his career, no matter the role he is in. Over the last few years, Price has played a ton of games due to the lack of a quality backup. As he gets older, the brunt of these games will wear on him, so he needs to be well-rested to play at his top performance. Not only will Allen provide quality backup goaltending, but it will give the Canadiens a rested Price.
The other additions to the team were Tylor Toffoli, Michael Frolik and Corey Perry, who signed as free agents, and Joel Edmundson, whose rights the Canadiens traded for and then signed. Toffoli will provide the Habs with a consistent scorer to complement Kotkaneimi on the third line. Edmundson gives the Canadiens a big-bodied, stay-at-home defencemen who can fill in the top four until Alexander Romanov is ready to move up. Frolik and Perry are depth additions that can provide the Habs with the strong bottom-six play and fill in the top nine if need be.
Possible Line Combinations
Throughout the training camp, Canadiens head coach Claude Julien has been pretty consistent with his lines; with the short training camp, he’s trying to build up as much chemistry as possible with the lines before the season starts. The lines so far have looked pretty consistent during practice:
As you can see in the tweet above, the defence lines have been pretty consistent as well, and it’s not hard to figure out who the goalies will be. Toffoli and Armia have also switched sides a few times, both getting chances to play their opposite wings. Romanov is playing on his off-hand on the right-side defence for the third pairing. He’s played there before in the KHL and has been practicing hard since he arrived.
Who Will Be On the Taxi Squad
The Habs putting Frolik and Perry on waivers is a clear indication that they’re heading to the taxi squad. Eight of nine players put on waivers earlier in training camp are all being assigned to Laval. Defensemen Noah Juulsen was the ninth player on waivers, but the Florida Panthers claimed him. Goalies Cayden Primeau, Micheal McNiven, and Vasili Demchenko have all been assigned to Laval, leaving Charlie Lindgren as the taxi squad goalie.
The remaining players are Ryan Poehling, Victor Mete, and Cale Fleury. Mete will be the seventh defencemen, while Poehling and Fleury are waiver exempt and can move freely from the taxi squad and the Canadiens without having to go through waivers. For the Habs to be cap compliant, they will have to have a roster of 21 players; they will go with five players on the taxi squad: Perry, Frolik, Poehling, Fleury, and Lindgren.
What Can We Expect From the Canadiens This Season
For the first time in a decade, the Canadiens have put together a well-balanced team, with size and speed up front, solid defence, and great goaltending. With the additions of Anderson and Toffoli, the Habs will have three balanced lines that can score at any chance they get. The defence will be big and mean. Jeff Petry and Romanov will provide the puck-moving, while Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber and Edmundson will protect the front of the net and wreak havoc on the opposing teams’ forwards.
The Canadiens also have some of the best depth they have had in years; with Byron and Lehkonen on the fourth line, they have two solid two-way players who can play up and down the lineup and both sides of the ice. They will also have Perry and Frolik on the taxi squad, who can also fill in nicely anywhere in the lineup to help with injuries. Depth was a huge issue last season, with the Canadiens getting key injuries and not filling the spot with an adequate replacement.
With the North Division made up of all Canadian teams, the shortened schedule, and the Canadiens playing the Toronto Maple Leafs ten times, this season will be a fun one to watch. The Habs are well balanced enough that they should be able to finish in the top four and make the playoffs; they are built like a strong playoff team, so a playoff-style season should benefit them. There are a few “ifs” with Anderson, Romanov, and the young centres, but I think they are all already. We will have to watch and see.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.