Montreal Canadiens 2017-’18 Season Preview

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Montreal Canadiens

47-26-9, 103 points, 1st in the Atlantic Division

Eliminated in the 1st round by the New York Rangers

Additions: D Karl Alzner, C Jonathan Drouin, C Byron Froese, RW Ales Hemsky, C Peter Holland, D Joe Morrow, D David Schlemko, D Mark Streit, D Matt Taormina

Subtractions: D Nathan Beaulieu, C Connor Crisp, RW Bobby Farnham, C Brian Flynn, LW Dwight King, D Andrei Markov, D Nikita Nesterov, RW Alexander Radulov, D Mikhail Sergachev, D Dalton Thrower

Offseason Analysis: I wonder if Marc Bergevin‘s phone has stopped smoking yet…

After a roller coaster 2016-’17 campaign, which saw a scorching 13-1-1 start simmered by an 18-18-7 stretch and then doused by a 1-5-1 run that ended Michel Therrien’s coaching tenure (again) and saw Claude Julien replace him (again), they finished the season with a 16-7-1 hot streak to win the Atlantic Division and carry solid momentum into the playoffs.

And then the Rangers beat them in 6.

Sports. They’re weird.

After looking like potential Cup contenders, the Habs now found themselves facing a very ominous offseason with little to show for it. GM Marc Bergevin had loaded up at the deadline in an effort to take a shot at a deep playoff run, and now many of his assets were pending UFAs. There was also the endless stream of Carey Price rumors to add to the pressure. But Bergevin didn’t wait long to start silencing his critics.

With Tomas Plekanec‘s production declining rapidly (the former 70-point producer managed just 10 goals and 28 points in 78 games) and questions over young Alex Galchenyuk‘s ability to shoulder the load of #1 center duties, Bergevin stunned the hockey world when he shipped promising defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev and a 2nd round pick to Tampa Bay for human highlight reel Jonathan Drouin and a 6th round pick.

Though he’s had his struggles in Tampa (including a controversial holdout after an AHL demotion), a breakout performance in the 2016 playoffs followed by dominant stretches of the ’16-’17 campaign showed that the former Halifax Mooseheads superstar is coming into his own in the pro game, and is likely to soon be making fools of NHL defenders just as he did to QMJHL d-men a few years ago. As long as his play at center continues to improve, Montreal will have a devastating 1-2 punch up the middle for many years to come.

Next up was possibly the biggest fish Montreal needed to fry: Locking up arguable best-goalie-in-the-world Carey Price. With Price’s deal entering its final year, dark clouds seemed to be looming in the distance. What were the Habs going to do? Would they re-sign him? COULD they re-sign him? Was there any foreseeable way to replace him?

Well, as often happens in situations such as these…homeboy got paid. In fact, this particular homeboy got paid more than any goaltender in history, to the tune of about $10.5M per year from the time it takes effect in 2018 until it expires in 2026. Habs fans, go ahead and buy that #31 jersey.

Now we get to the meat and potatoes of Montreal’s offseason. On July 1st, the Habs lost roster regulars Dwight King, Brian Flynn, and Nathan Beaulieu on top of key components Andrei Markov and Alex Radulov. The former has been the guiding force of the entire defensive corps for the better part of a decade, and the latter was a free agency homerun from last season, contributing 18 goals and 54 points. But with Shea Weber now firmly at home in red and blue, and Drouin arriving to bolster the offense, Bergevin could afford to let them go in the interest of cap space.

Speaking of cap space gained on July 1st, Bergevin wasted little time utilizing it. On the opening day of free agency alone, he brought in useful depth in the form of Byron Froese and Joe Morrow, and solidified his blueline with former Washington Capitals stalwart Karl Alzner. Though certainly not an offensive dynamo, Alzner’s career +61 rating and ice time average north of 20 minutes per game show his value as a reliable blueline anchor. Alzner is also one of the league’s resident ironmen, having not missed a single game of action since the 2009-10 season. Couple that with being on the right side of 30 years old, and his 5-year, $4.625M contract carries very little apparent risk.

Two days later the Habs brought in speedy winger Ales Hemsky on a 1-year, $1M contract. Though his production has dipped in recent years, he can still be relied upon for around 15 goals and 40-45 points in a full season, and with a low-risk deal, he could be another free agent success story similar to Radulov.

Hemsky also potentially fills a hole in the Habs lineup, as they really don’t possess a bonafide top line RW. But if he would happen to find chemistry with Drouin and captain Max Pacioretty, that line would feature a generous mix of speed, elusiveness, skill, and power. Add in a 2nd line of last year’s big surprise in Phillip Danault, who put up 40 points in 82 games after netting just 10 in 53 prior NHL appearances, Galchenyuk, and pesky Brendan Gallagher, and opposing teams have more than just one line to pay attention to.

The bottom six is going to be a brawl. I have Charles Hudon, Tomas Plekanec, and Artturi Lehkonen making up the 3rd line with Paul Byron, Torrey Mitchell, and Andrew Shaw completing the lineup. But Montreal has a spoil of riches at forward on the depth chart, with the option of adding size (6’3″ 214lb Jacob de La Rose, 6’3″ 220lb Andreas Martinsen, or 6’6″ 237lb Michael McCarron), skill (former 1st round picks Peter Holland and Nikita Scherbak), or versatility (veterans Chris Terry and Byron Froese) all at their disposal.

Scherbak is a particularly interesting option, as the 21 year-old 26th overall pick from 2014 is possibly more highly skilled than anyone not named Drouin or Galchenyuk on the entire roster. A WHL standout, his production has been solid (if not spectacular) in the AHL. Depending on his preseason/training camp showing, Scherbak could land himself anywhere from a continued AHL role all the way up to knocking Hemsky off of the top line.

On the blueline, I expect to see Shea Weber sharing top pairing minutes with Jordie Benn, with new arrival Karl Alzner partnering with Jeff Petry on the 2nd pair (though Alzner could certainly swap with Benn should the latter faulter under heavy minutes). I’d expect the 5-6 defensemen to be Brandon Davidson and David Schlemko, with veteran free agent signing Mark Streit likely to draw in should they need a little extra firepower. There isn’t nearly as much competition here as in the forward group, but Joe Morrow and Zach Redmond could throw a wrench in the top 6 with strong preseason showings, as could PTO invite Eric Gelinas.

The goalies are Carey Price and Al Montoya, with little likelihood of that changing, as youngsters Charlie Lindgren and Zach Fucale continue getting their feet wet in the AHL.

Offseason Grade: B+

With so much on his plate, it would have been easy for Bergevin to falter over the summer. But he managed to replace (and arguably upgrade) multiple lost pieces, all on reasonable terms, and lock up the cornerstone of his franchise well into the next decade. They’ll need to rely on the improvement of some young talent, but should they get that, the Habs look poised for another division title and maybe even a solid playoff run.

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