Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Montreal Canadiens.
2020-21 Montreal Canadiens
After a promising 2018-19 season where the Canadiens posted a 44-30-8 record, just narrowly missing out on the postseason with 96 points it looked as though the Canadiens would be in the mix for the playoffs in 2019-20. However, they struggled with consistency. Stringing together two separate eight-game losing streaks setting them up to miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. This led to the Canadiens being sellers at the trade deadline, trading off pieces such as Ilya Kovalchuk, who saw his career resurge when he joined the Habs. As well as Marco Scandella, who they also acquired earlier in the season and Nick Cousins.
Tomas Tatar led the team in scoring with 22 goals and 61 points, the highest-scoring campaign of his career. Brendan Gallagher tied Tatar for the goal-scoring lead with 22 and rookie Nick Suzuki posted an excellent rookie season, scoring 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games.
Carey Price saw a dip in his production posting a 2.79 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage. However, a lot of that can be contributed to lack of rest as the Canadiens couldn’t find a reliable backup for Price. Price appeared in 58 of the team’s 71 games. This is just way too many games over the course of the season for the now 33-year-old. The Keith Kinkaid experiment failed miserably and Charlie Lindgren just hasn’t proven to be a quality backup goaltender when given the opportunity.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL season was cut short. Leaving the commissioner Gary Bettman with some tough decisions to make regarding the season. The NHL came up with a return to play plan which allowed 24 of the 31 teams to have a shot to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The top four teams got a bye, with the remaining 20 teams playing off in a play-in series to see who would make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Canadiens were the 12th ranked team in the Eastern Conference and were faced with a tough matchup against the fifth-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins. However, the Canadiens managed to pull off the upset. Riding a rested Carey Price to victory as the Canadiens beat the Penguins in four games.
The play-in victory set them up for a matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canadiens played extremely well and Carey Price turned back the clock to 2014-15 as he was nearly unbeatable. The Flyers managed to score just 11 goals over the course of the series against the Habs. Six of which went off Canadiens players. However, despite the Habs outscoring the Flyers 13-11 in the series, the Canadiens lost in six games. Still, it was something for the Canadiens to be proud of as they outplayed the top-seeded Flyers and witnessed how good a rested Carey Price can be. Triggering Marc Bergevin to get Price some help for the upcoming season.
Marc Bergevin was extremely busy in the offseason. He kicked it off with a bang acquiring Jake Allen along with a seventh-round pick in 2022 from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a third and seventh-round pick in 2020. The move gives the Canadiens arguably the best goaltending duo in the NHL and shores up a position of need. The Canadiens have struggled with back up goaltenders since they had a duo of Price and Peter Budaj back in 2013-14.
Bergevin then turned his focus to the defence and acquired Joel Edmundson from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2020. The left side on defence was also a position of need for the Canadiens. Despite Alexander Romanov coming over from Russia, the Canadiens still felt as though they should get stronger on the left side. Edmundson may not be the puck-moving defender the club needs. However, he still helps improve the defensive depth for the Canadiens. After acquiring Edmundson’s rights, the Canadiens signed him to a four-year deal worth $14 million. The deal carries a cap hit of $3.5 million per season.
With the goaltending and defence shored up, Marc Bergevin made arguably his biggest move of the offseason, trading fan favourite Max Domi to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Josh Anderson. The Canadiens locked up Anderson almost immediately, as they signed him to a seven-year deal worth $38.5 million. Anderson brings an element that was missing from the Canadiens lineup. He’s a strong power forward who plays a gritty style game and has the ability to score. Anderson scored 27 goals for the Blue Jackets in 2018-19. Something the Canadiens will hope he can accomplish for them in the upcoming shortened season.
To add even more help, the Canadiens dipped into the free-agent market grabbing one of the most highly sought-after players on the market in Tyler Toffoli. Toffoli brings a solid two-way game to the Canadiens lineup and is capable of playing both special teams. He has multiple 20 goal seasons under his belt including last season where he scored 24 goals in 68 games and also has hit the 30 goal plateau once in his career. Toffoli along with Anderson should be able to help the Montreal Canadiens power play in the upcoming 2020-21 season. One that has struggled over the last few years.
The Canadiens recently added more offensive depth to the mix signing Michael Frolik and Corey Perry to identical one-year deals worth $750,000. Much like Toffoli, Frolik brings a solid two-way game and brings some depth to the Canadiens bottom six. He possesses excellent skating abilities and has the ability to produce as he has multiple 30 and 40 point seasons under his belt. While his production has dropped in recent years, Frolik is still an effective player.
As for Perry, he’s yet another big gritty player the Canadiens can add to their bottom six and a solid addition to the power play. Bergevin clearly wanted to be tougher to play against and adding a player like Perry certainly accomplishes that goal. Despite his best years being behind him, he is still an effective piece especially come playoff time as we saw while he was with the Dallas Stars last season.
The Montreal Canadiens also locked up Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry long term as both were set to become free agents after the 2020-21 season.
The top six will have a new face. Newly acquired Anderson will most likely slot in next to Suzuki and Drouin. Suzuki and Drouin found chemistry in the postseason. They tied for the team lead in points with seven and created a ton of magic in the offensive end. Add in a strong power forward like Anderson, who has the capabilities of scoring 20 plus goals over the course of the season and you create a huge problem for the opposition.
Next, the Habs have a line that has been together for the last two seasons. They have become one of the most productive lines in the NHL. Danault will once again be between Tatar and Gallagher who tend to do the bulk of the scoring for the Canadiens. This line is a possession beast and it’s mostly due to a defence-first mentality, especially from Danault. They are able to get the puck back quick in their zone and move it out well in transition before setting up in the offensive zone and going to work. Tatar and Gallagher lead the team in goals last season. Expect more of the same in the 2020-21 season.
The bottom six is where it gets really interesting. There is so much depth in this Canadiens lineup that their third line could also be a second line. It also leaves good players out of the lineup, which is not a bad thing in terms of having that option in case of injuries. However, given the cap situation, we’d expect there to be a trade at some point leading up to the season.
The Canadiens will most likely roll with a third line of newly acquired Tyler Toffoli, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia. As mentioned, This is a very gifted line that could easily be a second line. This line is very defensively sound but also possesses the offensive abilities to really hurt the opposition. Toffoli is a proven 20 goal scorer and even has a 30 goal campaign under his belt. The work Kotkaniemi put in during the break has made him one of the potential breakout players for the Canadiens this upcoming season. Add a tough power forward like Armia to the mix who has an outstanding set of hands and is excellent at winning puck battles and you have a line that’s going to torment opposing teams night in and night out.
The fourth line is something that’s completely up in the air. Especially with the recent additions of Frolik and Perry. While listed as extras, that’s simply due to the fact that they’re newcomers. It’s extremely possible we see another move in the near future given the surplus of depth forwards. No matter what way they go with it, all four of Lehkonen, Byron, Perry and Frolik are all excellent players who can play anywhere in the bottom six. They are also all excellent special teams players. So Julien can’t really go wrong with either. That group will most likely be centred by Jake Evans, allowing Ryan Poehling to play a full season in the AHL and continue his development under Joel Bouchard.
Brett Kulak-Alexander Romanov
Extra: Victor Mete
The top four is almost the same as last season with the addition of Joel Edmundson. Chiarot and Weber will be the top pairing once again. Eating minutes and being extremely tough to play against every single night. Weber lead the team in ice time last season with 24 minutes per game. Chiarot was not far behind him with 23:08. Weber also lead all Habs defencemen in goals with 15 and finished with 36 points. While Chiarot posted a career year scoring nine goals and 21 points in 69 games.
Petry will find himself with a new partner in Edmundson. Edmundson will bring a game comparable to Ben Chiarot, as a big rugged defenceman who likes to take the body. His style will compliment Petry well as he will play a more stay-at-home style of game. This will allow Petry to jump up in the play as he likes to do.
The bottom pairing will be interesting as we should see a mix of Kulak, Romanov and Mete. With this being Romanov’s first season, it’s possible we see him come in and out of the lineup. However, given his skill set and how high the Habs are on him, don’t be surprised if he’s an everyday player and it’s Kulak and Mete fighting for ice time. It’s possible Romanov meets everyone’s expectations as well and he ends up working his way into the top six. The Canadiens also have Noah Juulsen and Cale Fleury who will be challenging for ice time as well. There’s a good chance we see them as the season progresses.
The goaltending duo for the Canadiens is arguably the best in the league. Price will finally have a solid backup in Allen who played excellent in that role behind Jordan Binnington last season. Fans got to witness how great a rested Carey Price can be. He posted a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in 10 postseason games last season. With a quality goalie like Allen behind him, Price will be able to play less games, allowing him to be at his best all season long. No matter who the Canadiens put in between the pipes, they’ll have a legitimate shot to win every night.
Players to Watch
Suzuki put together a solid rookie campaign in 2019-20. He scored 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games while also showing off his strong hockey IQ and defensive abilities. He took his game a step further during the postseason, taking over as the Canadiens top centre, logging just 23 seconds less ice time than Danault over the course of the whole postseason. Suzuki also tied Drouin for the team lead in points with seven in 10 games. The strides he made during the regular season were phenomenal and have Habs fans buzzing about the potential of “Slick Nick”. Suzuki will certainly build off his postseason run. With the newfound chemistry between him and Drouin as well as adding the powerful Josh Anderson to their line. Expect Suzuki to one of the Montreal Canadiens leading scorers during the 2020-21 season.
Kotkaniemi was hit with the sophomore slump during the 2019-20 campaign. He had an injury-riddled season appearing in just 36 games and scoring only six goals and eight points during that time. However, a demotion to the AHL seemed to light a fire under Kotkaniemi. He produced 13 points in 13 games before suffering a spleen injury. Kotkaniemi used the time over while the season was on pause to work on his two biggest flaws. His skating and strength. This was evident during the postseason as Kotkaniemi looked like a totally different player. He was more engaged physically and controlled the play for the Canadiens. At just 20 years old, the sky is the limit for the young Finn.
It seems as though the Montreal Canadiens are always left wanting more from Drouin, however, that’s about to change in 2020-21. Drouin was excellent to start the 2019-20 campaign. He scored 15 points in the first 19 games before suffering a wrist injury that would keep him out most of the season. He was lacklustre in his return going pointless in eight games. However, in the postseason, after jumping on the wing next to Suzuki, Drouin caught fire again and lead the Canadiens in points with seven in 10 games, tied with Suzuki. The two had instant chemistry and is something they will look to build on in the upcoming season. It’s very possible we see both Drouin and Suzuki as the top two scorers for the Montreal Canadiens during the 2020-21 season.
Prediction for the 2020-21 Montreal Canadiens
The 2019-20 season a whole for the Canadiens can be seen as a disappointment as they didn’t truly deserve to be in the postseason. However, healthy, they showed they can role with the big dogs. This forced Bergevin to acquire the missing pieces he needed to turn the Canadiens into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. He did just that.
Of course, were still in a global pandemic with COVID-19 still running rampant in North America. This has brought many changes to the upcoming NHL season with the Canadiens playing in an all Canadian division. Teams will only play teams within their division for the entirety of the regular season. The Canadian division already had some strong teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. However, moves by the Calgary Flames and Canadiens this offseason have them right in the mix of being the top dogs of the division. Given the work Bergevin has done improving every single position on his roster and the growth of young players like Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens are definitely a playoff team in this division. It wouldn’t even be surprising to see them come out on top.