Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey 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 2018-19 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: 2018-19 Montreal Canadiens
Entering the 2017-18 season, the Montreal Canadiens did not have a lot of expectations. The excitement of newly acquired Jonathan Drouin was quickly soured by the rest of the off-season. Habs general manager Marc Bergevin had a disastrous free-agency period. First, he signed Karl Alzner to a five-year contract, then he lost both Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov to free agency. He replaced them with Mark Streit and Ales Hemsky. The Habs also entered into the season with around $8.5 million in unused cap space. It was quite obvious that the Habs would only go as far as Carey Price could carry them.
Things got off to an ominous start in the pre-season, where the Habs struggled, dropping their first six games before winning their last two. Initially, the bad play was shrugged off. Being the pre-season, people try not to get too excited or depressed by the results. Still, many thought the Habs would struggle to put pucks in the net, and the pre-season did nothing to quell those concerns. Another issue was Carey Price‘s uninspired play and the team’s defensive lapses. Unfortunately, the pre-season was a sample of things to come for the Canadiens.
Even before the season began, there were questions about the Habs defence. The team lacked a top pairing partner for Shea Weber and were lacking speed and playmaking from the backend. Compounding the issue was Claude Julien‘s defensive system which was different than his predecessor. The Habs would need Carey Price to be at his best to cover up any growing pains. Unfortunately for the Habs, the defence never really found their footing in the new system. The difficulties on the backend only exacerbated the team’s inability to score. The biggest issue for the Habs, however, was that Price struggled all season long. When a team struggles in goal, on defence and scoring, its a recipe for a long and difficult year. Price posted a 16-26-7 record with a 3.11 goals-against average and a 0.900 save percentage.
The newly acquired Drouin was thought to be a potential solution to the issue at centre. While he had never played the position at the NHL level, the team needed to figure something else since pronouncing Alex Galchenyuk was not a centre. The team thought Drouin would excel on a line with Max Pacioretty. The chemistry was not there however and Drouin struggled in his first season in Montreal. Truthfully, most Habs struggled last year. Pacioretty, usually good for 30 goals only netted 17. The team only had two players score 20 or more goals.
Injuries also played a major role. Weber was injured in the first game of the season in Buffalo. He soldiered on as long as he could, but when it became apparent the Habs were not going to make the playoffs, he was shut down. Weber only played in 26 games. Carey Price would only play in 49 games after dealing with a lower-body injury, chronic fatigue, and a concussion. Other Habs to miss significant time were Andrew Shaw, Paul Byron, Phillip Danault, and Pacioretty.
All of these issues led to the Habs missing the playoffs, with a 29-40-13 record. The Habs had the fourth worst record in the league. With the Habs missing the playoffs, they traded away some veterans including Tomas Plekanec, Al Montoya, and Joe Morrow. This was the second time in three seasons the Habs failed to make the playoffs. There was some speculation that Habs general manager Marc Bergevin could be shown the door, but that was not the case.
Coaching and Management
The biggest changes made to the Canadiens was made off the ice. The Habs fired the coaching staff of their AHL affiliate. They hired Joel Bouchard as the new head coach for the Laval Rocket.
They also fired Daniel Lacroix and J.J. Daigneault form their NHL coaching staff. They hired Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson as replacements. After such a poor season, fans were expecting some sweeping changes to the front office and coaching staff.
With the Habs out of the playoffs, their off-season began very early. Marc Bergevin, while never publicly saying it, he began to make over his roster with a focus on youth and speed. It started in March and April when Bergevin signed Hayden Verbeek, Jake Evans and Alexandre Alain. He also signed a couple of defencemen from the Czech league, Michael Moravcik and David Sklenicka. Bergevin’s big move came on June 15th, when he traded Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi.
The Habs were one of the big winners of the draft lottery, jumping up one spot, from four to three. There was a lot of speculation about the pick. The top two prospects in the entry draft, Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov were no-brainers. The consensus third overall prospect was Filip Zadina, however, the Canadiens needs were not on the wing. In the end, the Habs selected Finish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the pick. Kotkeniemi’s name jumped up in the rankings leading up to the draft. The Canadiens had 11 picks to make in the draft. Looking to address their organizational depth at centre, the Canadiens selected seven centres with their 11 picks. For a complete review of the Canadiens draft, click here.
The Canadiens were rather quiet when it came to free agency. While there were some that felt signing a marquee free agent could turn the Habs around in a quick manner, the reality was the Canadiens were not a desirable destination. There was hope they could address their long-standing issues at centre by signing John Tavares, those hopes were not realized. Rather, they were dashed quite harshly when Tavares refused to even meet with the Habs.
Bergevin re-signed veteran Tomas Plekanec, who was traded to Toronto at the deadline. He also signed depth players Matthew Peca, Michael Chaput, Xavier Ouellet and Kenny Agostino. Bergevin also signed Simon Despres to a tryout.
Despres is an interesting case. He is a former first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He showed promise as a puck-moving defenceman but had his career derailed by concussion issues. Because of the concussion issues, Despres has only appeared in 33 games between 2015 to 2017. After being bought out by the Anaheim Ducks, Despres looked to get his career back on track by signing with HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL. He performed well enough for Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin to offer him a chance to revive his NHL career.
It’s a low risk, high reward move for the Habs. If Despres can prove he has fully recovered from the concussion issues and plays at a high level, the Habs found a reliable puck-moving defenceman. If he can’t find his game, then the Habs only offered him a tryout, so he would be easy to move on from.
Using the Cap Space
After being shutout in the free agency sweepstakes, Marc Bergevin shifted his focus to using his available cap space to his advantage. He helped relieve the Winnipeg Jets of veteran goalie Steve Mason and his $4.1 million contract. The Habs then bought out Mason, making him a free agent. The Jets had to add forward Joel Armia and a fourth-round pick in 2020 and a seventh-round pick in 2019. The Habs sent Simon Bourque to Winnipeg in the exchange.
With the Canadiens out of the 2017-18 playoff race so early, it seemed anyone was available leading up to the trade deadline. That included captain Max Pacioretty. The thought was a team would be willing to pay a hefty price for a proven goal scorer on a very digestible contract ($4.5 million) that expires after the 2018-19 season. At first, there were whispers about Pacioretty’s availability. The closer the deadline got, the louder the speculation became.
In the end, a trade was not made at the deadline, but Pacioretty’s future in Montreal was in serious question. After the trade deadline, Pacioretty suffered a season-ending knee injury and the speculation quieted down for a bit. Once the season ended, however, the speculation reached a bit of a fever pitch. Heading into the draft, it was expected that Pacioretty was going to be traded. Again, however, he was not. The issue was simmering all summer with a very public PR battle taking place between the Habs and Pacioretty.
On September 10th, the Canadiens pulled the trigger on a Pacioretty deal. The Canadiens traded their captain to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second round pick. While Tatar will help the Canadiens right away, the centrepiece for the Canadiens is Suzuki. He is a supremely talented centre. Picked 13th overall by Vegas in the 2017 draft, Suzuki is a dynamic offensive player.
While the way the relationship between the Canadiens and Pacioretty deteriorated was extremely unfortunate, both the team and player will be happy for the saga to be over. Now the Habs and Pacioretty can start fresh.
2018-19 Line Combinations
The Canadiens lack of depth at centre is quite obvious. Philip Danault is not the ideal number one centre, but he is a gamer and will give it all he has. Despite his effort, Danault is playing way out of position and it will have an effect on the team. Newly acquired Tomas Tatar should bounce back from a bit of a down season for him. He will replace Pacioretty on the top line to start the season. Joining him on the top line is Brendan Gallagher, who led the Habs in scoring with 31 goals and 54 points.
Newly acquired Max Domi should see time on the second line. He joins Jonathan Drouin who will be looking to bounce back after struggling in his first year in Montreal. Artturi Lehkonen rounds out the line. Lehkonen is a smart player who is responsible in all areas of the ice. He also has the ability to score some goals, given the right circumstance.
The third line sees Charles Hudon and Nikita Scherbak on a line with Tomas Plekanec. Hudon and Scherbak had good chemistry with the Laval Rocket and it would be worth seeing if they can rekindle that magic. With the Habs seemingly desperate for offence, it would be worth seeing is the two can find chemistry with the big club. It will be interesting to see what Plekanec has left in the tank. He had an extremely sub-par season in 2017-18 but he was rather effective for Toronto in the playoffs. Still, one can’t expect too much from the 35-year-old Czech native.
The fourth line will feature Nicolas Deslauriers joining newly acquires Matthew Pecca and Joel Armia. The line looks like a more traditional energy line, at least for the time being. Jacob de la Rose is on the outside looking it right now, but he should see some action as well, splitting time with Peca.
All of this is subject to change, especially once Paul Byron and Andrew Shaw recover from injuries. Both are expected to miss training camp and the start of the season recovering from shoulder and knee surgery back in April.
There is one glaring omission from this group. Shea Weber, it was announced on July fifth, will be out five to six months. That means the team will be without their best defender until mid-December. So, he will not be in the opening lineup.
Jeff Petry played inspired hockey last year once Weber was shut down in December. He will again be relied upon to play top minutes. Joining him on the top pair, to the chagrin of most, is Karl Alzner. Alzner had a forgettable year in Montreal last year. Still, the Habs will be a bit tentative to throw one of their young defensive prospects into the fire. Alzner is nobody’s idea of a top pairing defender, but until Weber gets back he will slot in with Petry.
The second paring consists of Mike Reilly and Noah Juulsen. The Habs have an opportunity to let this pair play some heavy minutes and gain valuable experience. The pair should complement each other as Juulsen plays more of a stay at home game, while Rielly plays a more offensive style. Looking at how the Habs are set up, they should let these two learn and play important minutes when they can.
Rounding out the parings is Simon Despres and Victor Mete. Depending on how they play and who the Habs are playing should split time with David Schlemko and Jordie Benn. If Despres makes the team, he will likely be playing. A pairing of Mete and Despres could be interesting, with their speed and ability with the puck. Mete was a surprise last season and it will be interesting to see how he will build off of his rookie season. His game did tail off in the second half of the season so the Habs might consider a bit of a rotation early in the year. Still, the Habs have too many defencemen. That means the Habs are probably looking to unload at least one of Jordie Benn or David Schlemko.
Carey Price will be back between the pipes for the Habs. Despite his poor season in 2017-18, he will be the team’s unquestioned starter. Backing him up will be Antti Niemi. Claimed on waivers last year, Niemi found his game in Montreal after struggling with Pittsburgh and Florida. In 19 games with the Habs, Niemi posted a 7-9-4 record with a 2.46 save percentage and a .929 goals against average. Should Niemi falter or the team run into injury issues, Charlie Lindgren proved he is also capable of filling in at the NHL level.
Players to Watch
The Habs will need Price to bounce back from his poor season last year. As the Habs are constructed right now, they will need Price at his best to have a chance most nights. It will be interesting to see how he responds after having such a disappointing season. Especially now, with his eight-year, $84 million contract kicking in, there is a lot of pressure on him to perform. Carey Price is the best player on the Canadiens by far and he will play a major role in how they do this season. There will a lot of eyes watching to see how if Price can find his game again. While there are bound to be some mistakes, if Price is on his game, he will be able to cover those up.
Weber will start the season in the injured reserve recovering from off-season knee surgery. There will be many people interested to see how his body responds from his injury-plagued 2017-18. He was limited to 26 games during the season due to a foot injury. The Habs depend on him a great deal and, along with Price, will need to be at his best if the Habs want to be competitive on most nights.
When he is right, he is one of the best defensemen in the league. On a team that is lacking top-tier defencemen, Weber needs to be in the lineup. He, like Price, can cover up a lot of mistakes that go on around him. If he can’t properly recover, that leaves a huge hole the Habs will need to fill.
This is a make or break year for Scherbak. The talented winger looked very good with the Habs last year. Unfortunately, his season was derailed a bit by injuries. He was out six weeks after knee surgery stemming from an injury sustained on October 26th. It was unfortunate timing for the Russian winger, who looked very good before the injury. Still, Scherbak came back and was an effective player for the Habs, posting two goals and six points in 26 games played.
Scherbak, 22, needs to solidify his place with the Canadiens. He has proven he can dominate in the AHL and now needs to take the next step and prove he can play consistently at the NHL level. A good training camp and pre-season are also paramount for Scherbak. Last year he had a poor training camp and he failed to make the roster out of camp. Another poor training camp and the Habs might look to other players before Scherbak.
Scherbak should make the team if everything plays out like it should. If Scherbak can build off his promising start last year, he could inject the Habs with a boost of offence the team desperately needs.
Players on the Rise
Juulsen was called up to the Habs on February 21st last year. In 23 games, he posted one goal and three points. Point production, however, is not Juulsen’s game. He is a stay at home defencemen. He logged 19:25 of ice time last year. Last season, Juulsen saw action on the penalty kill and was a regular fixture on the Habs second pairing.
He is poised to maintain his position on the second pairing and primed for an increased role. With the Habs skewing younger, it would be wise to get Juulsen as much experience in as many situations as possible. The question becomes, can Juulsen handle the extra responsibility and playing time. If his play last season is any indication, it seems like he is. This is good news for the Habs who are getting a bit long in the tooth on the blueline.
Players on the Decline
It might be strange to see a 27-year-old as a player on the decline, but here we are. Andrew Shaw is entering his third season with the Canadiens, and his first two have been marred by injury. He has suffered three concussions and two lower body injuries, including one, last year that needed surgery. The recovery time is six months minimum. So the Habs will start the season without Shaw.
There is no question Shaw brings a lot to the table. He is a gritty, tough forward that plays with an edge that straddles the line and occasionally crosses it. Shaw can add some offence, topping 10 goals in both his seasons in Montreal. He has also become a strong faceoff man, despite being a natural winger.
So why the projected decline? Well for Shaw to be effective, he needs to be able to agitate and play physical. While nobody expects Shaw to change his game, the reality is that his body might not be able to handle that type of play. Especially the concussion issues. If Shaw can’t stay on the ice, then he, obviously, won’t be effective. If he changes his game, he will be less effective. It’s an unfortunate situation, really.
There are not a lot of expectations on the 2018-19 Montreal Canadiens. After a disastrous 2017-18 season, the Habs might be even worse this year. Even at full strength, the team was going to struggle to be competitive. If you add their top defencemen (Weber), second-leading goal scorer (Byron) and top utility forward (Shaw) are all going to miss time to start the season, it paints a bleak picture.
Still, the Habs will go as far as Carey Price will take them. If he can find his game, he can keep the Canadiens in most games, even carry them into a wildcard race if things fall just right. Things aren’t falling just right, however. With the Habs already a bit injured, it’s going to be a struggle. The Habs need their big guns to be at the top of their game. With Weber out until Christmas and Pacioretty now traded, the Habs will probably be competing with Ottawa in the Atlantic basement.
While nothing is official, it does seem as if the Habs are at the beginning of a rebuild. So, with the expectations low for the season, fans will have to find their joy where they can. It will be seeing how the younger players play and progress. It will be looking at who impresses in training camp to get excited about the future. If the reality sets in that the team will struggle there can still be fun and excitement to find in the season buried under a sea of losses.