Significant Storylines of Canadiens Opener

After a preseason of ups and down, the Habs are set to open their season on the road. On the eve of their season opener, the Canadiens made some minor trades trading forward Andreas Martinsen to the Chicago Blackhawks for Kyle Baun. This announcement came just hours after the Habs sent Zach Redmond to the Buffalo Sabres for LaSalle, Quebec native, Nicholas Deslauriers.

Neither Redmond nor Martinsen made much of an impact in Montreal and it is hard to know if Baun or Deslauriers can contribute. However, as THW’s Ryan Szporer wrote, the decision to demote and then trade Martinsen enables Victor Mete to stay in Montreal in the short term. Believe it or not, Mete is poised to start his NHL career on the first pairing beside Shea Weber. But more on him in a second. This weekend features several other fascinating storylines for Habs nation.

Is Jonathan Drouin the Center the Habs Need?

The questions surrounding center ice are as common in Montreal as roadwork. Under Julien, Jonathan Drouin is being given a chance at center and there are signs he will rise to the occasion. He was a revelation in the preseason and brought excitement and creativity to the power play.

Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin played center as a Halifax Moosehead – Photo Mike Dembeck

As I mentioned, nothing should excite the fan base more than having a French Canadian All-Star in the lineup. Last season, Drouin had 53 points in 73 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since being traded to the Habs this summer, Drouin has signed a six-year contract with the Habs. It is likely that he will thrive in Montreal and that increased minutes will mean more points.

Can Brendan Gallagher Return to Form?

While my money was on Lehkonen to start alongside Drouin and Pacioretty on the top line, it is Brendan Gallagher who will bring his pesky and persistent play to the starting lineup. Hopefully, he can stay healthy. Fans know, 2016 was Gallagher’s worst year since his rookie season, scoring a meager 29 points after three consecutive seasons of 40 or more. This is in large part due to the fact that he took 2 slap shots to his hands in just over a year.

Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher
Montreal Canadiens right winger Brendan Gallagher (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

It looks as if he has returned to form, agitating, energizing, and exciting the team, especially in the last 2 games of the preseason. Matched with Drouin the playmaker, and Pacioretty the sniper, Gallagher will be asked to dig out pucks, get in front of the net and generally annoy the other team as much as possible.

Please, Brendan, for the love of Youppi, keep your hands out of the way.

How Will the Habs Execute on Defense?

Perhaps the largest question early in the season is whether the Canadiens have had enough time to adapt to Claude Julien’s collapsing zone defence system where defensemen protect the front of the net and suppress shots from the crease while centers support the d-men down low and wingers collapse into the slot.

Shea Weber (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

The shift from man coverage to zone coverage is not an easy one. Adapting will take time as defensive partners become more comfortable with each other and can predict and cover for one another. Has the Habs’ defence had enough time to get to know what to expect from their partners? The first few weeks of the season should tell us how the transition is going.

On the Road to Start the Season

With games in Buffalo tonight, Washington on Saturday, and in New York on Sunday to visit the Rangers, what should Habs fans expect this weekend?

Season Opener Against the Sabers

For the second year in a row, the Habs start their season against the Buffalo Sabres.

Mete has been making headlines for his smooth-skating, defensive awareness, and general compatibility with Weber. Selected No. 100 in the 2016 NHL Entry, few predicted he would still be with the team in October. He is smart, quick, and manages to be effective despite his diminutive 5’10”, 180-pound frame. In Buffalo tonight, fans will be excited to see whether the hype on Mete is warranted.

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Victor Mete
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Victor Mete (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The other defenseman to watch is Nathan Beaulieu. Playing against his former team, Beaulieu is likely to start on the top pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen. Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic, suggests Beaulieu “…is clearly motivated to prove Montreal made a mistake, even if he doesn’t want to admit that in as many words.” (from ‘LeBrun: Beaulieu’s chance to prove Canadiens wrong has arrived,’ The AthleticNHL – 10/4/17)

While Beaulieu still has friends in the Habs’ dressing room, fans will be hoping Jordie Benn plays better than Beaulieu in the first game of the season. If not, some will say the Habs lost a top 4 D for nothing.

Saturday Night on the Potomac

On Saturday, the Habs travel to Washington D.C. to face off against the Capitals. This will be Karl Alzner’s first game against his former team. While Alzner spent all nine seasons of his NHL career with Washington before signing in Montreal this offseason, fans may vocalize their displeasure with Alzner’s comments about the Caps postseason failures.

The game will be the Capitals’ home opener and there is a lot of pressure on a team with so much talent up front. It will be interesting to see how the Habs nascent defensive system holds up against the offensive power trio of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Habs on Broadway

Less than 24 hours later, the Canadiens head up the I95 to face the New York Rangers. After failing to score key goals last year in the playoffs, the Habs lost in six games and didn’t look very good. The Rangers have emerged as an important rival after the infamous Chris Kreider skate-first-slide that ended Carey Price’s season in Game 1 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Henrik Lundqvist, NHL, New York Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist was stellar in the first round against Montreal after a subpar regular season. (Photo credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

THW’s own Matthew Golda observed the Rangers need to get off to a good start after their second-round defeat to the Ottawa Senators last May. It will be interesting to watch Drouin match up against Mika Zibanejad on Sunday and to see whether the Canadiens’ power play can take advantage of New York’s uneven penalty kill. Fans will be hoping the Habs can light the lamp against Henrik Lundqvist.

Mixed Feelings in Montreal

This week Habs fans have been told not to criticize the team and in general to keep their opinions to themselves. While trying to police the opinion of Habs fans is as pointless as it is idiotic, the attempt to do so may indicate a belated recognition that this is a team in search of an identity. While it may not be time to panic, questions will continue about this team, its composition, and direction. Starting tonight, the Habs can begin to answer these questions the best way they know how. On the ice.  Allons-y!