Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Montreal Canadiens

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com 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. Make 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Montreal Canadiens.

Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Montreal Canadiens

Last Season

The Montreal Canadiens were active in the off-season leading up to the 2015-16 season. In an effort to continue their trend of making it to the post-season, general manager Marc Bergevin sent Brandon Prust packing to the Vancouver Canucks for a younger, bigger, cheaper version of the same player in Zack Kassian, and a fifth-round pick. Along with some signings for the farm team, Bergevin signed forwards Alexander SeminTomas Fleischmann, and defenseman Mark Barberio.

The preseason also saw a significant change in goaltending duties, as Mike Condon‘s play was more than enough to convince management that he deserved the backup role over Dustin Tokarski.

The season kicked off on a high note, with the Canadiens going 9-0-0 to start the season, their best start to a season in franchise history. Their first loss came in the 10th game, a 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

The season took an unfortunate twist from there for the Habs as starting goaltender Carey Price went down with a knee injury. Though he did return for a brief stint, the injury was too much to handle and the reigning Vezina and Hart winner was forced out for the remainder of the season. If one image could describe the Canadiens 2015-16 season, look no further than @MoeninGlory‘s contribution:

Injuries and disappointments were the main factors in the Canadiens suffering their worst slump since the 2000-01 season. A season that started off as Dr. Jekyll but quickly revealed itself to be a Mr. Hyde in disguise. The Canadiens went from an 18-4-3 record in the months of October and November, to a 3-11-0 record in December (an all-time franchise worst for this month) and a 3-7-1 record in January. From top dogs in the National Hockey League, to on pace for one of the worst records they’ve posted in the team’s 100-plus year history.

Apart from Carey Price‘s double-jeopardy injury, the team lost notable players like Brendan Gallagher and P.K. Subban for long stretches of time, while countless others were sidelined for long stints, including David Desharnais, Jeff PetryNathan BeaulieuAlexei Emelin, Brian Flynn and Tom Gilbert.

The team was in a downward spiral and mixed into that concoction was the failure of Semin in Montreal, who was frequently scratched before ultimately being waived from the team and sent packing, and the never-was of Kassian, who got mixed up in some off-season mischief that forced the hand of Bergevin. He was sent packing to the Edmonton Oilers for goaltender Ben Scrivens, in an effort to re-enforce the goaltending situation.

Realizing there wasn’t much left to salvage, Bergevin made a number of trades. Tokarski was sent to the Anaheim Ducks for prospect Max Friberg, prospects Jarred Tinordi and Stefan Fournier were both shipped to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Victor Bartley and all-star John Scott, forwards Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann were packaged to the Chicago Blackhawks for prospect Phillip Danault and a 2nd-round pick, and finally forward Devante Smith-Pelly was dealt to the New Jersey Devils for prospect Stefan Matteau.

The Canadiens finished with a record of 38-38-6, good for 6th in the Atlantic Division and 13th in the Eastern Conference. A monumental difference from last season’s second-round elimination against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Off-season

With most of the fanbase in Montreal calling for the head of Head Coach Michel Therrien, Bergevin did them one better; by trading P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Shea Weber. Despite continuously denying and rumors of a trade or shopping the star defenseman, Bergevin pulled the trigger on the mega one-for-one deal.

The message was clear that Bergevin wanted his team to be more aggressive and focus more on team toughness and physicality. After trading Lars Eller to the Washington Capitals for 2017 and 2018 second-round picks, Bergevin packaged two 2016 second-round picks (theirs and Minnesota’s) for Chicago’s Andrew Shaw.

On free agent frenzy day, the Canadiens acquired the services of back-up goaltender Al MontoyaThe move is acknowledged by most as an upgrade on their current back-up situation which included Mike Condon, Charlie Lindgren and Zachary Fucale. Montoya, 31, appeared in 25 games last season and posted a 12-7-2 record, with a .919 save percentage, backing up Roberto Luongo in Florida.

Defenseman Zach Redmond received a two-year deal, leaving the Colorado Avalanche for Montreal. The chippy, bottom-pairing defenseman appeared in just 37 games last season, scoring two goals and adding four assists. The season prior to last, he finished third in scoring among defensemen with five goals and 15 assists.

Perhaps the biggest signing of the off-season for the Canadiens was forward Alexander Radulov, who spent the last four years in the KHL. The Russian winger had put up 102 points in 154 games with the Nashville Predators in two seasons (plus nine games in 2011-12). Unfortunately, some off-ice issues forced him out of the line-up and eventually off the team and out of the NHL completely. Now at the age of 30, Radulov has matured and managed to put up a point-per-game (or higher) in all four seasons he played with CSKA Moscow.

Bergevin also ensured that the team would have bodies to count on in both the AHL and NHL, signing Phillip Samuelsson, Chris Terry and Bobby Farnham to one-year, two-way deals. Leaving the team during free agency were Michael Bournival (Lightning)Tom Gilbert (Kings)Gabriel Dumont (Lightning)Darren Dietz (Capitals), Victor Bartley (Wild), and Morgan Ellis (Blues).

At the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Canadiens walked to the podium six times and selected four players from the Ontario Hockey League. With the ninth overall selection, the Canadiens went with Windsor Spitfires Russian-born defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

A big-bodied defender who plays well at both ends of the ice, Sergachev was the recipient of the OHL’s Max Kaminsky Trophy for the most outstanding defenseman of the year.

The Canadiens had no second-round pick, lost in the trade for Andrew Shaw. They selected center Will Bitten, a Franco-Ontario player from the Flint Firebirds, a team that was shrouded in controversy. The Habs went back to defense in the fourth and fifth rounds, selecting Victor Mete (100th overall) and Casey Staum (124th overall). They then continued to go off the board with their final two picks, drafting center Michael Pezzetta (160th overall) and defenseman Arvid Henrikson (187th overall).

The Forwards

Max Pacioretty – Alex Galchenyuk – Alexander Radulov
Sven Andrighetto – Tomas Plekanec – Brendan Gallagher
Daniel Carr – David Desharnais – Andrew Shaw
Paul Byron – Torrey Mitchell – Phillip Danault
Brian Flynn – Stefan Matteau

Last season, the Canadiens had a hard time finding the back of the net, mostly thanks to the injuries that accumulated to top-line players. This year, the top line will feature some of the best talent the Habs have seen in a long time, with Alex Galchenyuk centering newly-acquired Alexander Radulov and captain Max Pacioretty. Last season, both Galchenyuk and Pacioretty shared the team lead in goals, with 30 each. Pair them together and add some Russian love, and you have a dynamite first line waiting to explode for goals.

The second line is a little trickier when it comes to who plays on Tomas Plekanec‘s left side. Brendan Gallagher is a shoe-in for the top-six and some could argue that he and Radulov could be interchangeable in order to mix things up. For this spot, Sven Andrighetto should have the chance to show if last year was a fluke or if he really is the real deal. The 22-year-old winger scored seven goals and added ten assists last season in 44 games. Should he falter, the Habs have some players in the pipeline that could make the jump on the left side, include Artturi Lehkonen, Martin Reway or even Charles Hudon.

Centering the third line is David Desharnais, who started last season in the same spot with Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise on his wings. This year, he has Daniel Carr returning and newly acquired Andrew Shaw on his right. Carr showed his willingness to go to the net and crash it the way Gallagher did, which gained him respect from the coaching staff. With his skill, Desharnais’ passing ability and Shaw’s gritty play in corners, the third line for the Canadiens could once again be a solid exploitation line.

The fourth line could be anyone’s guess. We’re going with a mixture of speed and strong two-way play over man-beasts that could decimate the opposition with body checks and fisticuffs. Paul Byron‘s speed alone is efficient on both the fourth line and the penalty kill, which makes him an asset to the team. In addition, Torrey Mitchell‘s face-off game and Phillip Danault‘s fore-checking could make for a great trio of dump-and-chase hockey, which means less time in the defensive zone.

The Defense

Nathan Beaulieu – Shea Weber
Andrei Markov – Jeff Petry
Mark Barberio – Greg Pateryn
Alexei Emelin – Zach Redmond
Mikhail Sergachev

The biggest suspect in the Canadiens line-up is the defense. After trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, the juggling commences in order to ensure there are puck-moving defensemen on each trio. For this reason, Nathan Beaulieu is best suited on the top pairing with Weber. It’s baptism by fire in the sense that nobody knows if he’s ready for the role, but having a veteran presence on his other side could aid him in taking that next big step.

Andrei Markov would then get bumped down to second-pairing duties, which means fewer minutes and wear-and-tear on his body. For the longest time, the argument has been made that he plays too many minutes and his body tends to break down by the mid-way mark in the regular season. By placing him on a pairing with Jeff Petry, logging less ice time, the Canadiens could get more out of Markov in his final years as a member of the team.

That leaves us with the bottom pairing, which will likely be a game of musical chairs. We give an edge to Mark Barberio, who played his way back to the team for the 2016-17 season, while Greg Pateryn is the type of blue-liner that won’t amaze you but he’ll do all the small things right.

If the Canadiens need some extra reinforcements physically, Alexei Emelin could jump in. If they need a different look on their special teams, Zach Redmond would be a good fit. Plus, there’s the youngster Mikhail Sergachev, who signed a three-year entry-level contract and could surprise right out of the gate.

The Goalies

Carey Price
Al Montoya

There will be a different look to the goaltending tandem for the 2016-17 regular season. For one, the life of the party will be back as Carey Price is one hundred percent healthy and ready to go. The face that runs the place recovered during the off-season and seems to be in prime form and ready to take back his throne as the best goaltender in the world.

Backing him up won’t be Mike Condon, who appeared in 55 games last season while posting a 21-25-3 record with a .903 save percentage. It also won’t be Charlie Lindgren, who was victorious in his debut and only game of the season. Instead, it will be 31-year-old veteran Al Montoya, who backed up Roberto Luongo last season, as a member of the Florida Panthers.

The question becomes; Which goaltender will we see in Montoya? With a career .909 save percentage, he’s experienced his valleys and peaks. In the last five seasons, Montoya has hit under .900 in save percentage three times. However he did return to form last year with a .919 save percentage. His best days aren’t behind him, as he managed a .920 save percentage three seasons ago, and his career-high of .921 occurred just five years back.

However, with that said, the Montreal Canadiens will live and die by the sword that is Carey Price‘s knee. Limiting his starts to the 65 game mark would be beneficial, but it also leaves Head Coach Michel Therrien with a team forced to play more defensive-minded for the remaining 17 games. Playing chance with potentially 34 points could be what makes or breaks the Canadiens’ post-season aspirations.

Players to Watch

Alexander Radulov
What could very well make or break Bergevin’s off-season face-lift of the team is the success of Alexander Radulov. The Canadiens have had their struggles of scoring goals for the better part of a decade and each time they think they’ve figured out a solution, a dozen problems make their life difficult.

At the age of 31, Radulov is no longer the immature, mischievous character that the media portrayed, earlier in his NHL career. After becoming a father and playing the game with a different approach, Radulov could be one of the biggest reasons why the Canadiens turn things around.

Jeff Petry
Two separate injuries took a big chunk out of Jeff Petry‘s season, but he should be back at 100% and ready to step into his usual top-4 role and provide. It won’t be easy, as the suggested line-up in this article will have him paired with Andrei Markov. Taking a look at  the past season, Petry was paired with three partners throughout the season; Markov, Nathan Beaulieu, and Alexei Emelin.

The only player that could keep Markov afloat, in terms of advanced stats, was Subban. Now that he is gone, the team will need to find a way to balance out these problems and Petry will have some major responsibilities ahead of him.

Daniel Carr
Daniel Carr took the team by storm last season when he arrived in the scene and score on his first shot, playing on his first shift in his first game. His tenacious attitude and nose for the net was comparable to that of Brendan Gallagher‘s play, and he managed to score six goals in 23 games played. This would put him on pace for 20 goals, which would be beneficial to have on your third line.

It’s possible that Carr would have been sent down last season, but remained up with the team due to a knee injury. Still, his showing in the sample size he provided was enough to earn him another year on his contract. His skating is not quite elite, more middle of the pack when compared with the rest of the NHL, but his drive and positioning could suffice.

Players on the Rise

Alex Galchenyuk
Moving up in the line-up, Alex Galchenyuk is expected to surpass centers Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais to take charge of the number-one center position. Last year, Galchenyk was rewarded that very spot after Desharnais went down to injury and showed excellent form.

Along with interim-linemate Max PaciorettyGalchenyuk scored 30 goals and finished second in points among his teammates. A full season as the top-line center and playing with top-tier linemates, look out for Galchenyuk.

Nathan Beaulieu
The blue-line took a significant blow when they traded away their most agile defender in Subban. They’ll need to replace his 25-30 minutes per game and nobody fits the bill better than Nathan Beaulieu. While he has yet to be tested in a top-pairing role, his ability to move the puck up quickly and his offensive awareness could be enough to mask the loss of Subban. This would also mean that Beaulieu would have to concentrate less on dropping the gloves, on a team that doesn’t possess many players capable of doing so.

Players on the Decline

David Desharnais
Heading into the final year of his contract, center David Desharnais should have a career year. However, after being passed by both Plekanec and Galchenyuk on the depth chart, Desharnais’ offensive-minded days are over. Since the 2011-12 season, where Desharnais put up 60 points while centering Pacioretty and Erik Cole, his point totals have hit a decline. His ice-time has also decreased from 18 minutes per game down to 16 minutes.

In his revised role, it’s probable that Desharnais finishes out his contract with Montreal before moving on to another team.

2016-17 Season Predictions

Are the Montreal Canadiens a better team now than they were last season? Without a doubt. Besides the trade that sparked a fueled debate, Shea Weber is still an outstanding defenseman. The Canadiens upgraded by switching out Lars Eller for Andrew Shaw and then added a legitimate top-six scoring winger in Alexander Radulov. Of course, getting Carey Price back in goal should make the team a playoff contender.

History indicates that the Montreal Canadiens can bounce back from missing out on the playoffs. Since the 2002-03 season, the Habs have followed up a failed season by making the playoffs. They made the post-season for three straight seasons, including a Conference Finals appearance, after missing out in 2011-12.

The major focus heading into this season will be remaining healthy. Up front, the Canadiens have depth with players like Bobby FarnhamChris Terry and Jacob De La Rose ready to fill in. The main issue is on defense, especially if the team loses one of their top-four defenders. There’s always Carey Price too, who is 100% and fans will be holding their breath every time he gets back up from a pad save.

Given the team’s overall look and new approach, and an elite goaltender guarding the pipes, you can expect the Montreal Canadiens to be back in form and making the playoffs once again. Whether they are a threat from that point forward revolves around one thing that can make or break the Canadiens; Coaching.

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