Are the Canadiens a Playoff Team?

As the calendar inches closer to July 1, we will soon learn if any free agents Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has been trying to woo to Quebec will become a reality. As mentioned in an earlier post, this is the time of year where Bergevin is likely to be weary of spending too much on the open market.

But given the fact that most big-name free agents are reportedly spoken for, and the shape of this young club presently, the question on all fans’ minds these days is this: are the Canadiens, in their current state, a playoff team in 2020? Will adding a premiere scorer, and/or a top-pairing defenseman, be enough to get them back into the post-season and avoid missing for a third consecutive year? And if not, what would this mean for Bergevin’s tenure with the club?

The Canadiens’ Current Roster

As it stands, the Canadiens will enter the 2019-20 season with much of the same roster as the one that barely missed the playoffs this past season.

Joel Armia, Shea Weber, Tomas Tatar
Montreal Canadiens right wing Joel Armia celebrates with teammates Shea Weber and Tomas Tatar (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

They boast a plethora of depth forwards, with a solid core of young centers, something that was the club’s Achilles heel of years past. Having names like Max Domi, Ryan Poehling, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault down the middle, along with wingers Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Artturi Lekhonen and Jonathan Drouin (among others) provides the Canadiens with optimism that goal scoring won’t be an issue.

As for their defense, led by captain Shea Weber, an improvement needs to be made. Bergevin’s top priority this off-season remains finding a left-handed partner for Weber, and relying on young Victor Mete to be the answer simply won’t do.

While it’s obvious that the Habs will be counting on their youth up front, an experienced blueliner to help anchor the back end with Weber is desperately needed. Without that player, the Canadiens will see their defense exposed, and thus potentially lose important match-ups because of it.

The Canadiens allowed 236 goals against last year, and while an experienced backup netminder not named Anti Niemi would help Carey Price between the pipes, a defenseman capable of helping to defend the crease and eat big minutes would be a godsend. Bergevin must find this player over the summer, even if it’s his only off-season move.

A Closer Look at the Atlantic Division

You can almost pencil in the usual suspects as locks to make the playoffs next season: Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning. All three of these teams reside in the Atlantic Division, so the Canadiens face an uphill battle if they want to avoid another wild card battle.

Some teams in the Atlantic Division that seem poised for a significant improvement over their 2018-19 season include the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres. The Panthers, who are in the running,if not at the forefront of signing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, have three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville as head coach. The Sabres, meanwhile, managed to retain the services of Jeff Skinner and are one of few clubs primed to at least consider submitting an offer sheet to one of many tempting restricted free agents. You can expect these clubs to improve next season and challenge the Bruins, Leafs and Lightning for the Atlantic Division crown.

Joel Quenneville, Dale Tallon
Florida Panthers NHL general manager Dale Tallon and head coach Joel Quenneville (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Lynne Sladky)

Unless the Canadiens can claim a top-three spot in the Atlantic Division, they will face stiffer competition for a wild card spot than they did in 2019.

Which Teams Stand in the Canadiens’ Way?

Were the Carolina Hurricanes a Cinderella-story this past season, or are they legit Stanley Cup contenders? Will the Columbus Blue Jackets return to the playoffs, even without their high-profile pending free agents? Remember, these were the two clubs who barely edged the Canadiens for wild card spots at the end of the regular season.

Looking ahead to next season, however, there will surely be more teams in the hunt when the 2019-20 season comes to a close. Three teams in the Metropolitan Division who did not make the post-season in 2018-19 (Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers) have already improved their chances based on moves made at, or leading up to, the NHL Draft.

Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers) Jack Hughes (New Jersey Devils) Kirby Dach (Chicago Blackhawks)
Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), Jack Hughes (New Jersey Devils) and Kirby Dach (Chicago Blackhawks). (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Are the Canadiens equipped with enough talent and depth to fend off these clubs from claiming a wild card spot? If not, Bergevin will be under great pressure from the die-hard Canadiens fans to ensure that this roster is capable of making the playoffs, because this past season’s dramatic improvement only raised expectations for this team and its general manager.

Bergevin’s Future in Doubt?

How do Canadiens fans perceive their GM? Well, it’s certainly mixed feelings. For one, he has yet to make a massive trade a la Matt Duchene. Instead he’s been patiently building a fountain of youth that only got better with this past draft. But fans in Montreal want not only the playoffs, but a 25th Stanley Cup. Their patience with this GM is dwindling.

This summer will be a defining moment for Bergevin. If the team misses the playoffs yet again, fans will be calling for him to be fired. If the Canadiens make the playoffs, fans will be expecting him to load up for a deep playoff run. Bergevin can no longer afford bargains; it’s time for him to reel in some big fish—and fast.

So, as we await to see what’s in store for the Bergevin and the Canadiens on July 1,  fans can only hope for a chance to see this club compete for the Stanley Cup next spring. It’s time for Bergevin to silence his critics once and for all, otherwise it could be his last year at the helm of this proud, and Cup craving, franchise.