Three division titles in the last five seasons don’t just fade away, as far the Montreal Canadiens and their fans should be concerned. Entering 2017-18 as the reigning Atlantic Division champions, the Habs still have most of the same core intact from that team.
More than Just Carey Price
Granted, that team blew a tire against the New York Rangers in the first round this past spring, but it’s also a squad that has accrued three 100-point seasons over the last three seasons… four in the last five if you pro-rate the 63 points they earned in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.
Call goaltender Carey Price the great equalizer if you must, but the Habs are much more than just one masked man at this stage of the game. With a still-elite Shea Weber manning the back-end and the likes of Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk up front, the Canadiens have many weapons. The issue is whether the Habs as a whole are more than their competition.
The Habs are lucky to be in a weaker, albeit still-competitive division. On the other hand, of the three other Atlantic teams that made the playoffs, only the second-place Ottawa Senators are likely due to take a step back in the standings, in part thanks to regression, in part due to Erik Karlsson set to miss the start of the season.
Are they going to take enough of a nosedive in the standings to fall completely out of playoff contention though? Unlikely.
Six Teams for Four Spots?
The other two are the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, the latter of whom could be on the verge of breaking into the upper echelon of Stanley Cup contenders as we speak, boasting young talent like Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning are poised to rebound after a lackluster season that still saw them earn 94 points. The last-place Buffalo Sabres will likely (finally) take a leap forward as well. Only the Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings are projected to be also-rans.
So, that totals six teams vying for a max of five spots. Still, there aren’t any promises, when, again, the Atlantic is a weaker division, remember? To illustrate that fact, the Habs’ 103 points in 2016-17, which led the Atlantic, were just one more than the 102 the Rangers earned to earn the fourth seed in the Metropolitan. The Columbus Blue Jackets (108), Pittsburgh Penguins (111) and Washington Capitals (118) all had more. So, it’s more realistic that only four Atlantic teams make it.
It’s not at all out of the question that only three do. So, which teams will comprise the odd men out?
Canadiens vs. Leafs vs. Lightning.
It’s anyone’s guess, but, in addition to Price, the Habs do have a strong offense on paper, especially on the wing, to counteract their relatively weak defense.
Considering the Lightning, aside from Victor Hedman, have a largely no-name back-end themselves, it’s hard to imagine either one of the two squads as being especially dominant. Ironically, it may be ex-Habs-prospect Mikhail Sergachev that helps push the Lightning over the edge, should he make the cut. And if the Leafs suffer a collective sophomore slump, it truly could end up being anyone’s division.
Between those three, no one side has a clear advantage right now. So, it stands to reason that the Habs are far from out of it at this juncture, especially seeing as the season hasn’t yet started.
Yes, the Habs are far from a complete team with plenty of question marks. For the time being, those questions don’t outnumber the ones their closest competitors are facing. The big problem is that their closest competition is far from the cream of the crop.
Since Price’s $10.5 million per year extension will start sucking up cap space next season and Weber is only 32 right now, this has to be the season the Habs realistically go for it. Unfortunately, with their holes on defense and down the middle, it’s only realistic that they end up playing meaningful hockey for a fourth division title in six years.
That’s something at least. It has to be, with the torch at serious risk of burning out for a long while past that point.