Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Montreal Canadiens.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens
One season removed from losing out in the Eastern Conference finals and saying goodbye to captain Brian Gionta and veteran Josh Gorges, the Montreal Canadiens put themselves in a spot to prove to the hockey world that they weren’t just some flash-in-the-pan team. They answered the bell, finishing atop the Atlantic division and just three points behind the New York Rangers for the Conference title.
Head Coach Michel Therrien took to his usual spot behind the bench and faced the same criticisms as the previous season. Despite finishing with 110 points and breaking up the duo of leading scorer Max Pacioretty and linemate David Desharnais, his tactics of keeping games tight, playing dump-and-chase hockey instead of utilizing his offensive choices and leaning on goaltender Carey Price were met with negativity. Still, the team managed to score timely goals despite failing to show up for first periods and the team got brilliant performances from their best players. The team said also said their goodbyes to recently-signed Jiri Sekac and veteran energy player Travis Moen.
The Canadiens first-round match-up was against the surprising Ottawa Senators, who had inched their way into the playoffs thanks to a youth movement and a wonderful story in Andrew Hammond. The Habs exposed his lack of experience however, and the Canadiens held off the Senators in six games. They then were faced with a team they had swept a year earlier in the Tampa Bay Lightning. This time around, the Canadiens were up against goaltender Ben Bishop, who had missed the previous encounter due to injury. Montreal was eliminated in six games, as they were unable to stop the league’s best line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.
Despite their shortcomings, Montreal’s star goaltender swept at the NHL Awards night, adding a Hart, Vezina and Ted Lindsay awards on top of the Jennings. Max Pacioretty evolved into a more complete player, leading the team in scoring again and playing in all situations.
General Manager Marc Bergevin kept himself busy in the offseason, re-signing his restricted free agents on two-way deals, including Jarred Tinordi, Michael Bournival and Christian Thomas. Jeff Petry was locked up to a six-year deal, Greg Pateryn got his one-way deal and both Brian Flynn and Torey Mitchell were brought back as well. Alex Galchenyuk got his new deal, a bridge contract of two years worth $5.6 million total.
Bergevin made somewhat of a splash during free agency, acquiring forward Zack Kassian from Vancouver, along with a fifth-round pick, for veteran Brandon Prust, becoming younger, bigger and cheaper in the process. Bergevin also signed Alex Semin to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million. Shoring up for their AHL and ECHL depth, the Habs added Joel Hanley, Mark Barberio, George “Bud” Holloway and Ryan Johnston. They did lose the services of P.A. Parenteau (Maple Leafs), Davis Drewiske (Flyers), Eric Tangradi (Red Wings), and Drayson Bowman (UFA).
At the draft, the Habs selected defenseman Noah Juulsen at the 26 spot. They also picked up centers Lukas Vejdemo and Matthew Bradley, defenseman Simon Bourque, and left winger Jeremiah Addison.
2015-16 Opening Day Lineup
Max Pacioretty – Alex Galchenyuk – Brendan Gallagher
Alex Semin – Tomas Plekanec – Zack Kassian
David Desharnais – Lars Eller – Dale Weise
Jacob De La Rose – Torey Mitchell – Devante Smith-Pelly
Andrei Markov – P.K. Subban
Nathan Beaulieu – Jeff Petry
Alexei Emelin – Tom Gilbert
Mark Barberio – Greg Pateryn
Players to Watch
Galchenyuk has improved his numbers and play every season since joining the Habs as an 18-year-old. He had a career high year in the 2014-15 campaign, notching 20 goals and 46 points in 80 games. He also put up 163 shots and repped a 12.3% shooting percentage, which is a new best for him. This year, Galchenyuk will be switching to center, his natural position. This will be a big boost to the Habs top six and will allow him to play with Max Pacioretty, the team’s leading goal scorer. This could be a new dangerous duo, watch for Chucky to be making some snazzy passes to Pacioretty this year.
He was brought in on a low risk, high reward one-year, $1.1 million contract. It doesn’t really matter if he produces or not, the team has numerous options on right wing that can take his spot and they have no obligation to re-sign him. BUT if he does return to the goal scoring Semin we remember from his days as a Washington Capital, then it will be a huge boost to the team. Even just scoring 20 goals will help and it’ll bring some much needed firepower. I still remain skeptical, as he had only six goals in 57 games last year but a change of scenery may be just what he needs to get his mojo back.
On the Rise
Smooth-skating defenseman Nathan Beaulieu is climbing the ranks of the Canadiens blue line. The two-way defender should start off the season on the second pairing and will likely get the chance to earn playing time alongside Subban on the first pairing. While Beaulieu has not put points up on the board at the NHL level, he did score a lot in junior and the AHL. He is quick in transition and can move the puck effectively, ultimately helping out his club offensively. The 22-year-old is still a work in progress and needs become stronger both on and off of the puck. If he can improve on a few areas of his game, he could become a legitimate top-two defenceman for the Habs. Fans might even see Beaulieu showcase his skills for Team North America Youngstars at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.
On the Decline
Last season, Weise put up career numbers, scoring 10 goals and finishing with 29 points on the season, in 79 games. His previous best was 12 points in 44 games. While it’s not likely he’ll slump down to the 10-point margin, it’s expected he’ll take a hit from his 29-point campaign, finishing somewhere in the middle. He’ll likely end up outside of the top-six, where he saw significant time last year, playing with Desharnais and Pacioretty. With the signings of Semin and Kassian, Weise’s role should be reduced to bottom-six minutes, where he can provide some extra skill and energy and let the more offensively-capable players to provide the point production.
How do you improve your ability to score first period goals?
It’s a tough question. It’s also a question no analyst seems to want to answer when it comes to the Montreal Canadiens improving their scoring. TV Analysts go after the powerplay. Blog analysts criticize the coaching. Nobody wants to look at how the Canadiens were 11th in second period scoring, fifth in third period scoring and then an atrocious 29th in first period scoring. Worse than the Buffalo Sabres! If the Canadiens were even, say, 15th in first period scoring (17 more first period goals) they’d be sitting in the top 10 for goal scoring and it wouldn’t be pointed out by everyone as a place the Canadiens have to improve in.
Montreal got better in the summer and despite compliments on the Alex Semin signing and Zack Kassian trade, plus re-signing trade deadline acquisition Jeff Petry, nobody wants to discuss how much better the Habs will really be. Any question marks on the coaching still exist but how does a coach tell his team to score more first period goals? It’s such an anomaly.
Even if Semin doesn’t perform to his Washington Capitals levels, he could perform like he did in his first season with the Carolina Hurricanes and give the Habs a huge boost. Kassian was tossed away by Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning, despite being 6’3” 214lbs, a right handed shot, 24 years old and over the last 82 games (2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons) had 17 goals and 19 assists. Both players should contribute significantly to boosting the Canadiens top nine scoring. I don’t know if either man is a great first period scorer, but it’s better than P.A. Parenteau and Brandon Prust.
The Montreal Canadiens should once again be fighting the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Atlantic Division crown, due to the fact that nobody in the Atlantic improved to the point of competing with either team. Buffalo might look like a different team, but not 50 points better. Toronto should still be in the basement. Boston has made some bewildering choices and the Florida Panthers should fight for a wildcard spot. That leaves the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators to fight for that third spot in the division, as well as a spot in the wildcard. In other words, not much should change in the regular season.
Where things could be different in the playoffs, and it all depends on whether the Montreal Canadiens can get their powerplay woes figured out (Craig Ramsay could contribute positively to that) and if they continue to be tied in knots by two goaltenders (Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop). The only way to the Stanley Cup is through the Atlantic Division and the Habs need to stop letting goalies do to them what their goalie does to the rest of the league: frustrate. If the Canadiens can score on a more consistent basis, start games better, engage the special teams and see the same bill of health they had last season, the Canadiens can go right to the Stanley Cup final. If these problems persist? It won’t fall upon Price’s shoulders, nor will it fall upon the new captain. It’s going to fall on public enemy of Habs blogs number one: Michel Therrien.
MONTREAL, QC – MARCH 28: Alex Galchenyuk #27 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his second period goal with teammates during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on March 28, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)