This is the last post where we look at the teams in the North division dispassionately. And yet, the truth is I’m sick of the damn Habs and the season hasn’t even started yet. Ten games. Ten. I’m not sure there will be that much dispassion.
Last season, Montreal squeaked into the play-in round by virtue of having the Buffalo Sabres as their competition for the last play-in spot. They played the Penguins and beat them, and I can’t complain about that because that led directly to the Maple Leafs ending up with a 15th overall pick, so thanks, I guess.
It was an odd series where neither team seemed to really want to be playing, and considering their respective regular seasons, the outcome was a surprise. Making the most of their serendipitous trip to the playoffs, Montreal played the Flyers decently close, and ultimately lost in game six of the first round. They did less well than the Canucks, in other words.
Under Claude Julien, the Canadiens have transformed from what once was a team that made excuses about why being grossly outshot was fine to one that explains why never scoring is totally the route to success. They are absolutely better than they were in the Michel Therrien days, and they need Carey Price to be less dominant (which is good as he’s getting on in years), but the formula always seems to be missing something in Lower Canada.
The Canadiens had a great Expected Goals percentage last year, one they actually got via offensive pace more than defensive ability — although that was good too. They had an even better Corsi percentage, which is what happens when you lack skilled forward talent and just religiously play a system, but on those numbers, they should have been top of the division.
In fact, they had a negative goal differential and their shooting and save percentages were bottom seven of the league for all situations. Was that all bad luck or was it more than that?
Some of it was how they play, some of it was how they form a team. Their power play is so predictable, no one can fail to know how to defend it. They have some great puck possession lines devoid of shooting skill. Carey Price was arguably worse than Frederik Andersen last year, and their number two was a committee of ageing backups, failed prospects and a kid named Cayden.
They weren’t built to be any better then they ended up being in the playoffs, and the regular season really was partly a mirage of Julien-induced play driving that never reaches its destination.
Did they get better or are they running it back trusting to the percentages?
Montreal bought out Karl Alzner, a big, big mistake signing, and that caused a big cap hit this year with less in the future. On a roster of 23, they’re over the cap, and don’t have any obvious players not healthy. They need to run a short roster like a lot of teams this year.
The Canadiens made trades in a hurry before the draft, and one has dramatically changed their team. They traded the younger Max Domi, who goes on shooting percentage binges and then disappoints everyone by not sustaining it, for the older, more talented Josh Anderson, who just had major surgery.
Anderson played 26 games last year and had four points, and he did not recover in time for the playoffs. Marc Begevin signed him for seven years at $5.5 million, so he must think that surgery was a success. He is the guy who signed Alzner, though, so who knows. Bergevin is bad at signings and good at trades usually.
To prove he’s not always good at trades, Bergevin spent a pick to get the rights to replacement-level Joel Edmundson and then paid him $3.5 million. He then signed Victor Mete to a Dermott-sized contract, raising some familiar questions about which defenceman is actually worth playing and which just looks the part.
Bergevin did three things that were smart. He got Jake Allen from the Blues for a decent price, and he re-signed Brendan Gallagher instead of pissing him off like he likes to do with players who want decent deals when they haven’t just arrived on the team. He also added Tyler Toffoli for a good price.
The final act was to add Corey Perry, who was bad in the regular season last year and extremely useful in the playoffs for Dallas. He’s not likely to be an impact player. At least not on the standings.
That adds up to a team that has more offence than they used to, but still needs their youth to take steps to succeed. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki need to be top NHL centres now, or else the Habs will be as weak down the middle as Ottawa. And Kotkaniemi is coming off a terrible season and a sojourn in the Liiga that was okay, but not outstanding. (Somewhere out there is an analysis of all the things he did that weren’t scoring plays as proof he’s neato, which is fine when the league isn’t training-wheels on a trike compared to the motorcycle NHL.)
Montreal may benefit very greatly from the divisional realignment. It seems hard to imagine them missing the playoffs, and they have the potential to be the best team out of the five middle-class teams.
If Price returns to something like his old form, and Kotkaniemi produces an NHL-quality game, reversing the trend to his first year in the NHL, they might start making a fight of it for the top of the division.
But what about where it counts in the playoffs? Let’s take it back to last summer. They didn’t find Pittsburgh troubling because they didn’t need much scoring to beat them, but despite a couple of five-goal games, they struggled to put it in the net against the Flyers. In theory, they should score more than they did last year, where all that offensive pace fizzled on the way to the net, while the defensive problems were really just the goalies.
But I can’t help but think of the mass of cap space spent on third liners and bad defencemen who are very, very good role players, but that’s all they are. Anderson has played one complete NHL season ever, and that’s the only time he scored more than 20 goals. Taffoli has a better history, and together they’re good support staff in a top six, but where’s the game-breaking spark? You want that depth of theirs in the playoffs for sure, but you don’t want that depth to be your cream too.
When it comes to the Canadiens, this year, like every other year, the cream that rises to the top looks suspiciously like skim milk.