After a dismal year that saw them finish with their worst record since the 2000-01 season, the Montreal Canadiens will spend the next few months looking for ways to revamp their lineup. Like the team that struggled two decades ago, a number of moves are expected that could be the ultimate test for general manager Marc Bergevin who has been a bit of a whipping boy for the fanbase.
In the six years since assuming his position, the Canadiens have been an erratic team, struggling to maintain a potent and consistent offense, largely due to their inability to find a consistent top centre. This season, both Alex Galechenyuk and Jonathan Drouin tried the position but are naturally suited to playing on the wing.
The season was also difficult as both Shea Weber and Carey Price were out of the lineup for long periods of time. In the case of Price, the team was able to secure the services of the biggest surprise of the year – Antii Niemi- who began the season as a hockey punchline, having been released by both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Florida Panthers. By the end of the year, the veteran Finn had re-established himself as a regular NHL goaltender and a solid option to back up Price.
The injury to Weber was more serious as it exposed a significant lack of depth on the Habs’ defense, especially on the penalty kill. By the end of the season, the team had used fourteen different defensemen but could not establish consistent pairings and were not able to compensate for the loss of veteran Andre Markov, who left for Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL.
Given these circumstances one could be very pessimistic about the coming year, but here are five reasons why I expect the team to return to the postseason in 2018-19:
1. The Habs Will Sign Filip Zadina
With the third pick in the June draft, I predict the Canadiens will do as expected and select Halifax Mooseheads star Filip Zadina to play for the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge.
A dominant forward, he should make the transition to the lineup immediately, giving the Habs a genuine offensive threat and a solid top-six winger. If this happens, look for him to either play on the right wing or to open the door for a potential trade involving Max Pacioretty. At the very least, the team will increase its dismal offensive output next season.
2. The Habs Will Sign Paul Stastny
There has been a lot of speculation about the fate of New York Islanders free agent centre John Taveres, much of it from fans excited about the idea of him playing for the Canadiens. Frankly, I don’t see it. A player like Taveras has toiled on a mediocre team for almost a decade and as he enters the point in his career where he can sign a lucrative, long-term contract, he’s likely to choose a team that will be a Stanley Cup contender either this coming season or in the near future.
Stastny would be a more likely candidate. His performance late in the season as a playoff push pickup by the Winnipeg Jets was a showcase for his skillset and at 32, I don’t see him re-signing with a team that faces a number of large contracts for young stars entering their prime.
A native Quebecer, Stastny would be a fan favourite and a solid second line centre who can push players like Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen to be better. The major issue would be the length of his contract but he still has some solid hockey left in him.
3. A Resurgent Max Pacioretty
After his worst NHL season, the Canadiens’ captain is in the final year of his contract and has recently pledged his unrelenting love for the City of Montreal. While some say love conquers all, in reality, the addition of players like Zadina and Stastny will bring more playmaking to the Habs offense with the potential of feeding Pacioretty with more passes and scoring opportunities.
Watching him over a full season, his confidence lagged at times, starving for the kind of winger he had in Alexander Radulov the previous season. Then there’s the issue of a new contract. Whether he stays in Montreal or not, his negotiating power will be helped by another consistent 30-40 goal season.
4. Shea Weber Will Be Back
Although he officially played 26 games, Weber was basically lost to the Canadiens for a year after injuring his foot in the first game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. After surgery in March, Weber’s lengthy recovery period coupled with his tremendous work ethic should allow him to return sometime during training camp.
There is no doubt his presence will make a difference in every part of the game, from the power play, where he has one of the hardest and most accurate shots in the league, to the penalty kill, where his leadership can shore up the problems faced by the team this year. Many regard him as an unofficial captain, and his quiet leadership is especially important to younger players.
5. Continued Maturity of Noah Juulsen & Victor Mete
Two of the brightest spots in an otherwise dismal season was the emergence of defensemen Noah Juulsen and Victor Mete, two sure bets to crack the lineup again next season. Mete’s early pairing with Weber was a catalyst for his development and with both healthy, their chemistry will no doubt be stronger.
Juulsen may prove to be one of Bergevin’s best draft picks. His confidence was apparent in his first NHL game and the only question now, with whom will he be paired? The Canadiens are at a stage where they can afford to give two rookies extra ice time to help them mature as even the most impatient fans are not expecting a Stanley Cup victory next season.
Related: Habs’ Juulsen Impresses in NHL Debut
Why They May Not Make the Playoffs
The 2018-19 season will come down to Price. Last season was scary and there were moments when concerns about his health and confidence reached a point where fans were debating the unthinkable – a trade for a franchise player three years after being acclaimed as the best in the league. With his huge contract about to kick in, there will is pressure for him to return to form. As always, we will have to wait and see which version of Price will show up next year. If he struggles, the Habs’ quest for the postseason will again be in jeopardy.