NHL’s 30 in 30: Montreal Canadiens

For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.

Today’s team: The Montreal Canadiens. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.

NHL’s 30 in 30: Montreal Canadiens

Finishing 2nd overall, the Montreal Canadiens posted a record of 50-21-10 to end up with 110 points, placing them in first in the Atlanic division and just two points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their home record (26-9-6) accumulated for 58 points, making them one of only four teams to lose less than ten games at home, in regulation. Their away record (24-13-4) was slightly less successful, accumulating 52 points, but they were good enough all-around. The Canadiens, behind the leadership of Head Coach Michel Therrien and a certain miracle between the pipes, finished just three points shy of the NHL’s best, the New York Rangers. They would reach the second round of the playoffs but would run into a familiar opponent that got the better of them this time around.

The 2014-15 Regular Season

After a promising run that took them to the Eastern Conference final prior to this past season, fans of the Montreal Canadiens had reason to hope the future was bright. They were greeted with a 110-point season en route to a second place finish in the league, and a first-round meet-up with the Cinderalla team of the East, the Ottawa Senators. The Habs were able to hold off a Senators team that wouldn’t quit, sending them off after six games despite taking an early 3-0 series lead. They were then faced with taking on the team they swept last post-season, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ben Bishop was in goal this time around and fans finally understood the argument of Bishop’s injury hurting the Canadiens’ chances. The Lightning would defeat the Canadiens in six games and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

In the last four seasons, Max Pacioretty has put 124 goals on the board, placing him fourth in that regard, behind only Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry, Steven Stamkos and Joe Pavelski. As well-documented as his goal-scoring ability is, his two-way game has gone underrated for too long. Averaging a career-high 19:34 last season, Pacioretty is deployed in defensive-zone starts 51.4% of his starts, and has been averaging about 52.5% in the last three seasons. Commonly-found centering Pacioretty, David Desharnais put up a 48-point season in 82 games. A re-occurring theme for the undersized centre is that he doesn’t shoot often enough and given his shooting percentage of 15.6%, you have to think he should fire the puck more often. A pass-first player, his lowest-career shooting percentage is 14.5%, during his rookie campaign. In three seasons with the team, Brendan Gallagher has showcased a unique mix of goal-scoring ability, agitator traits and a nose for the net. With his ice-time up from the previous season, Gallagher’s defensive zone starts were at 51.5%, yet Gallagher managed a 54.0 Corsi%. And he’s doing it with a smile.

Tomas Plekanec averaged 19:09 ice-time last season, which was the lowest he’s seen in the last six seasons, yet the Czech-forward finished with 60 points for the first time since the 2009-10 season. He started 52.2% of his face-offs in the defensive zone, matching up against tough assignments and still improved on his Corsi% and Fenwick%. At 32, there seems to be no decline to his game at this point. Drafted 3rd overall in 2012 to be this team’s future number one center, Alex Galchenyuk continues to develop on the wing, and his future down the middle seems to be in question. He put up career-highs in goals and assists, while averaging 16:26, and he saw general improvement in possession stats. The main concern, at this stage in his development, is a general lack of consistency and lack of playing time at his natural center position. It was a career-year for grinder Dale Weise, who seems to pop into the team’s top-six unexpectedly and put up numbers. He finished with 10 goals and 29 points in about 12 minutes average ice-time but his possession stats aren’t suitable for a permanent top-line role.

A real dilemma on the team is the curious case of Lars Eller. Management hasn’t been able to figure out which Eller they’ll see, whether it’s the 30 points in the 48-game lock-out shortened season or the player that puts up a few points in three months. For his inconsistent productivity during the season, Eller has been good in a complimentary role and it’s a wonder if he’s being put into a position to succeed offensively, taking into account his 52.0% defensive-zone start and averaging under 16 minutes per game. Brandon Prust averaged just over 12 minutes, but his possession numbers were quite poor for a second consecutive season. He does start a good amount of starts in the defensive zone, which isn’t particularly a good idea for an enforcer. Prust has also managed to hit triple digits in penalty minutes for the last five seasons.

It was a career-year for P.K. Subban, who was a Norris finalist after a strong showing last year. His 60 (15 goals, 45 assists) tied him with Plekanec for second on the team in scoring. Of his 15 goals, 7 came on the man advantage and Subban also averaged a career-high 26:12 of ice-time. What’s even more remarkable is that he starts 52.3% defensive-zone face-offs and still manages to put up positive possession stats. The team is also statistically better when P.K. is on the ice. His 36-year-old pairing partner, Andrei Markov, hit 50 points for the first time since the 2008-09 season. He had a relatively good season in possession stats, given he starts 53.2% in the defensive zone, but his 24:55 average ice-time led to the veteran defenseman burning out by the time the playoffs started. He plays all situations but perhaps a role reduction and decreased ice-time will lead to a fresher Markov in the post-season.

Nathan Beaulieu played in 64 games last season and averaged over 15 minutes per game. His possession numbers need to improve to be a more convincing top-four defenseman, but his deployment in defensive-zone face-offs should be lessened, as the offensively gifted blue-liner could be best utilized in the offensive zone, setting up his wingers. Alexei Emelin took a beating in possession stats despite averaging a career-high 19:49 ice-time. On a bottom-pairing, even then Emelin’s services aren’t a viable option for the Canadiens going forward, even if he provides a physical element that the Habs would otherwise be missing without him. However, the team would benefit from more agile, defensively-responsible defenseman in his spot.  His contract is a bit of a problem on the cap as well.

Speaking of career-years, the Hart, Vezina, Ted Lindsay and William M. Jennings winner Carey Price may have been the biggest reason why the Canadiens always have a fighting chance. Leading the league in wins, save percentage and goals against, Price’s ability comes at a price (excuse the pun). While having the best goaltender in the world may be fun to boast, he’s also covered for an average defense in front of him and a team that generally can’t score goals. His save percentage dropped in the post-season to a still-impressive .920% but the team still couldn’t score, making life hard for the team. Dustin Tokarski doesn’t start much but he’s cap-friendly and does the job when he’s called upon. Starting around 15-18 games and performing well enough to get his team the win means he is doing his job as a back-up.

Towards the trade deadline, General Manager Marc Bergevin was busy at work, making deals to improve his team’s depth at the forward position and some stability on the blue-line. The GM made moves early on in the season, like sending Peter Budaj and Patrick Holland to Winnipeg for Eric Tangradi, opening up the back-up spot permanently to Tokarski. Bergevin then made some cap-conscious decisions by dealing Travis Moen for Sergei Gonchar and swapping Rene Bourque for Bryan Allen. When Jiri Sekac wasn’t panning out the way he was expected to, he was dealt to Anaheim for forward Devante Smith-Pelly, a big boy that is a net presence and something the Habs have needed for a while. Both Brian Flynn and Torey Mitchell were acquired for very little and the biggest acquisition for the team was receiving Jeff Petry from Edmonton for a 2nd-round pick and a conditional 5th-round pick. Petry became well-adjusted into the Canadiens top-four and was extended for six years after a strong showing in the post-season.

The Off-Season and Free Agents

Heading into the off-season, the Canadiens have a total of five free agents to decide on. Of the five free agents, just two of them are restricted to the team; forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brian Flynn. Forward Manny Malhotra, and defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Mike Weaver are the upcoming unrestricted free agents. In terms of non-roster players, Murray will have to decide on seven restricted free agents and three unrestricted free agents.

With about $66 million committed to eleven forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders, there isn’t much room left on the cap to make any moves of significance beyond re-signing restricted free agent Alex Galchenyuk. The team has put P.A. Parenteau on waivers for the purpose of a buy-out, so that frees open another spot on the team and clears up some cap as well. With all three UFAs not returning to the team, the Canadiens have a few holes to fill at the forward position.

The hot debate for a few seasons has been the value of forward David Desharnais and defensemen Alexei Emelin. With a team so up against the cap, there needs to be some changes made to bring in more inexpensive contracts and these two players make a combine $7+ million on the cap and bring less than their worth. There also seems to be a logjam at the center position, and dealing a player like Desharnais would open up a spot for Galchenyuk to play at his natural position. There is also an option to plug some holes up front by giving a prospect some playing time. Players like Charles Hudon, Daniel Carr, Mike McCarron and Nikita Scherbak could all be challenging for one or two spots as soon as next season.

On defense, there may need to be a move regarding one of Emelin or Tom Gilbert. Currently, the team has seven defensemen under contract with the big club, but the time for Jarred Tinordi to make the team may be now. The team has some solid veteran experience on the back-end, with the likes of Markov and Petry, and a maturing Subban. Bringing in Tinordi to solidify the bottom-pairing and provide an upgrade on the type of player Emelin is would be helpful towards the cap.

The 2015 Draft

1st round, 26th overall – Noah Juulsen, D

3rd round, 87th overall – Lukas Vejdemo, C

5th round, 131st overall – Matthew Bradley, C

6th round, 177th overall – Simon Bourque, D

7th round, 207th overall – Jeremiah Addison, LW