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HEALTHY SKRATCH: PLAYOFFS OR BUST FOR CAREY PRICE, REVAMPED HABS

The Habs had a very active offseason, bringing in some much needed size, goal scoring, nastiness and leadership. Oh yeah, and they added a long-awaited, high end back up goalie. Their roster went from having zero cup winners to five in the process.

Their forward depth may be the best in the division, though they lack star talent. Here’s hoping Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi take big strides towards becoming that, because a lot is riding on them this year.

They’re similarly deep on defence, and while they’re lacking elite talent there as well, they’ve got two high end options in Weber and Petry leading the way. To boot, the days of having a seventh defenceman (or worse) occupying a regular role appear to officially be over. Good riddance.

The addition of Jake Allen in net gives them the reliable backup goalie they’ve struggled to find for so long. A rested Carey Price is an elite Carey Price, so the importance of this pickup can’t be understated.

They’ve improved considerably in my eyes, and though there are more variables attached to their new acquisitions than you’d like to see, this is a clear cut playoff team, barring any major injuries. 

UP FRONT

Josh Anderson was acquired straight up for Max Domi and subsequently signed to a 7 year, $38.5 million deal. A big risk on a guy who had a single goal and 4 points in 26 games last season before being lost to a major shoulder injury. 

If he can stay healthy and pick up his development from where it left off following his 27 goal, 230 shot, 214 hit 2018-2019 season, he’ll be fine. He’s a very rare breed with a surprisingly high ceiling and I think he figures it out, but those are bigger “if’s” than you want for a contract of that size.

Tyler Toffoli was brought in for 4 years at $17 million, in a bargain of a deal. He’ll look to bring some two-way acumen and goal scoring to the club, though his M.O is unfortunately similar to the Habs of recent years: good possession player who generates a lot of quality chances, but capitalizes on far fewer than expected. Regardless, he improves this offence significantly.

Corey Perry is nearly on his last legs, but the nastiness and two way ability are still there. Plus, as he showed last playoffs, he’s still a very valuable contributor offensively when it matters most, albeit in a Bottom 6 role.

Michael Frolik is a veteran Bottom 6er who can slide up and down the lineup and offer solid two-way play with sneaky (if inconsistent) skill to his game. Both he and Perry are Cup winners and should be valuable contributors off the ice.

Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi will both be counted on to build off of their impressive playoff showing, and there’s a lot riding on their ability to do so. I think they’re both up to the challenge, but if one (Suzuki in particular) or both should underperform, it’s going to put a dent in the club’s ceiling. 

Joel Armia, Arturri Lehkonen, Jordan Weal, Jake Evans, Ryan Poehling and Paul Byron will all join Perry and Frolik in the battle for Bottom 6 spots, which is a real testament to just how deep this group is.

For the first time in his current tenure with the club, Claude Julien will have the kind of deep, talented forward group he does his best work with. The Habs will have no problem rolling four lines night in, night out. They’ll continue to lack elite offensive talent in the process though, barring a big step forward from Suzuki or Kotkaniemi.

ON THE BACK END

General Manager Marc Bergevin flipped a third round draft pick to Carolina for the rights to Joel Edmundson, then promptly signed him to a 4 year, $14 million deal. It’s a year longer and 500k per year more than I’d like, but that’s what you have to do with UFA’s, which he was set to become. It’s likely less than he would’ve fetched on the open market, too.

Edmundson is a bit of an analytics black hole, but he’s a mobile, hard nosed big man who can play the PK and chip in a few goals. Bergevin’s objective seemed to be to make this D corps tougher to play against, and from a psychological/physical standpoint I think Edmundson does do that. Time will tell if his underlying impact hinders these contributions, though.

Alexander Romanov is the other big newcomer after finishing his contract with CSKA Moscow in the KHL. Currently listed at 6 foot, 208lbs, he’s put on over 20lbs (and apparently grown an inch or so) since last year.

There’s a ton of hype surrounding this kid, and, shockingly, much of that hype has come from the organization itself. It’s an uncharacteristic move, one you wouldn’t think they’d make unless they felt extremely confident in his ability to be an impact player this season.

He’s got excellent four-way mobility, good gap control, strong puck moving ability, a good shot and a punishing physical game. I think he finds his way into the Top 4 by mid-season, possibly making his veteran D partner better in the process.

Shea Weber and Jeff Petry will lead the charge yet again, and while Weber is slowly declining, both remain high end options capable of playing top pairing minutes.

Ben Chiarot is coming off an impressive debut season with the CH, playing on the top pair and silencing many doubters in the process. The big question is if he’s capable of continuing that strong play into subsequent seasons. I wonder if having both he and Edmundson (two relatively similar players) in the Top 4 at once doesn’t expose their respective flaws a little bit. 

Victor Mete’s development has stagnated but I still feel there’s good potential there, be it in Montreal or elsewhere. He’s going to have to come out guns blazing to carve out a permanent spot this season. More on him later.

He’ll be in direct competition with Brett Kulak, Noah Juulsen, Cale Fleury and Romanov for a spot on the bottom pair in what should be a pretty fierce competition, with Mete, Kulak and Romanov being the favourites.

This is a deep group of good, if unspectacular, defencemen. They’re big & mean, they move the puck well, and they’re surprisingly mobile. Between Weber, Petry, Chiarot, Edmundson and Romanov, this will not be a fun group to play against. 

Similar to the forwards, this is exactly the kind of group Claude Julien has done his best work with in the past. Something tells me he got Marc Bergevin a nice Christmas gift this year.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Carey Price will man the pipes once again. Yes, his numbers have been declining year over year for a few seasons now, and yes, that’s given me pause. Am I ready to say he’s no longer elite? Nope. When games matter most, he’s still proven capable of elevating his game to all-world levels. 

Management had also struggled for about a decade to provide him with a quality backup capable of taking on 25-30% of the starts. Bergevin put an end to that this year, acquiring Jake Allen from the Blues for a third round pick. I think this leads to a rested and dominant Carey Price.

In Allen, they’ve got a former starter coming off an impressive season playing second fiddle to Jordan Binnington, posting a 2.15GAA, a .927(!) SV% and a 12-6-3 record.

If he can take on a healthy number of starts, put up a .915+ SV% and not be the reason for losses, Montreal should have one of the best goalie tandems in the league, with a strong chance at having the best in the division.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Last season, the Habs ranked 22nd and 19th on the power play and penalty kill, respectively. While the power play improved from 30th overall 2018-2019, the PK fell from 13th. 

I think the PK sees some improvement by virtue of adding several capable penalty killers to the mix, offering up a glut of depth options. I think that’s going to be huge as the season rolls on. Improvements in net will go a long way, as well.

The power play has been an unmitigated disaster for years now, and if Claude Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller can’t solve it this year, it’s time for a fresh set of eyes to run it. With a strong – or even middle of the pack – power play, this is a different team. 

They’ve added some nice weapons to the mix, but no bonafide goal scorers. I don’t know if they’ll improve upon last year, but if they want to be taken seriously as a playoff team, they’re going to have to.

UNDER THE RADAR

Jonathan Drouin. It’s an eye roll choice, but it’s the obvious one to me. Nobody capable of transforming the team’s performance is going under the radar like he is. He’s very much in the “show it now, or get the hell out” stage of his career.

Encouragingly, he did show it at the beginning of last season, prior to getting hurt. He was hustling, he was engaged, he was involved along the boards and in puck battles. These were critical areas of improvement he had identified the previous offseason while studying tape with assistant coach Dominique Ducharme in their quest to improve his consistency and mental approach to the game.

He wasn’t the same player after rushing back from his injury (and suffering a couple new ones), but he did show signs of life in the playoffs. I’m expecting him to be fully healthy, playing on a line with the most talent he’s been surrounded by yet, ideally with Josh Anderson on the opposite flank opening up space.

CAMP SURPRISE

Victor Mete. This is a choice I’m not overly confident in, but he’s got so much going for him in his game. The biggest hiccups I see are mental and size related, both of which can be overcome (though not easily).

I’m thinking he matures out of those struggles and plays with a fire under his ass for the duration of his 1 year, $735k contract. It’s his last shot at sticking with the team that drafted him, despite initially showing so much promise after being thrown to the wolves in his rookie year just three seasons ago.

CONCLUSION

The Canadiens might be the most improved group in the league this season. They’ve turned every glaring area of need into a strength – save for goal scoring, which is improved but still appears to be lacking. If there’s an area that will be their undoing, it’s this one, particularly if their trend of having an ineffective power play continues.

All in, I see big improvements to their depth, grit and goaltending. I think Claude Julien’s system is tightly played throughout the condensed season, to the tune of a second place finish in the division.

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