Easy to forget, given how the playoffs went, that the Montreal Canadiens were pretty damn good last season.
They had the third-best possession number in the league for 2016-17, and that was with Michel Therrien being their coach until mid-February. That number didn’t change much after Claude Julien came aboard, but with a full offseason in which to nail down that system, the number could take off.
Yyeah, okay, systems alone don’t win you everything over 82 games, so that’s why it’s important to note the Canadiens also have Carey Price — who was merely “very good” last year at .923 over 62 appearances and not “transcendent,” as he was in his previous full season — as well as a good amount of talent up front in Jonathan Drouin, Max Pacioretty, Ales Hemsky, and so on. The blue line isn’t great but it’s got some solid guys from Nos. 1 through 6, so that’s not a big issue either.
While they didn’t have the best summer, and there are still plenty of controversies surrounding the management of the team, and there are sexier picks within the division, one has to ask: What, if anything, stops Montreal from being a 100-point team again this year and probably winning the Atlantic?
Any argument against the Canadiens’ third division title in four season, at this point, has to be an argument in favor of another team taking their place. They didn’t really drop off much this summer, even if you expect the loss of Alex Radulov hurts (which it likely does). People expecting the Leafs to take a step forward are right to do so, but how much of a step do we expect here? The Habs were eight points clear of them. The same is true of Tampa, which barely missed the playoffs in a season when almost everything went exactly wrong for them. To predict a big bounce-back season from the Lightning is very understandable.
But for both Toronto and Tampa, the only two other credible picks to win that division, they’d have to get bounces to go their way. They’d need better-than-league-average goaltending from their two goalies. They’d need most of their top guys to keep shooting north of 10 percent (as eight of their top 10 scorers did last year). It’s possible, even plausible, that this comes to pass because that’s their talent level, but is it likely? I’m not so sure.
Same with the Lightning. The talent level is obvious but they need some guys to stay healthy (Steven Stamkos), round back into form (Tyler Johnson, Anton Stralman), and prove they can play the full slate (Andrei Vasilevskiy). If all those things happen, that’s a big stumbling block for the Habs to overcome.
But again, you look at this Montreal roster and see various problems — they don’t have top-end guys up front and no clear No. 1 defenseman, which you usually need to win in the playoffs — but they have enough players who are higher-end for their positions that they can roll with their depth. Price obviously adds a strong pretty reliable safety net as well, if he stays healthy. Plus that whole “They have Julien for the full 82 now” thing is going to work very well in their favor.
Consequently, it’s fair to say that while the Leafs or Bolts need at least a few things to go their way to make a run at the division title, things would probably have to go pear-shaped for the Habs to allow them anything resembling an easy path. That’s not to say there aren’t questions for the Canadiens. How does Drouin look as a center? How well does a D-corps that, talent-wise, scans as largely being defense-first, non-puck-moving guys do in today’s game? How does that forward depth hold up from October to April?
These are all good questions, but if the answers are even something like, “Just fine,” you have to like the Habs’ position to fend off a challenge for that top divisional playoff spot.
I really think the impact of Julien’s expertise can’t be overstated in this discussion. The Canadiens have been a weirdly up-and-down team the past few years. In Price’s MVP year, got killed in most games only to be bailed out every time by their best player. The next year, they got a lot better in terms of how they played the game, but cratered because Price got hurt and one or two key contributors had slightly down years. Last year, everything went well on both fronts and, look at that, they had 103 points despite getting worse the previous summer.
The reason Julien helps so much, then, is that he makes the process even better. Here’s what he did with an ever-worsening Bruins roster over the past five seasons, in terms of league rank:
This speaks, I think, to Julien’s clear talent and adaptability. The Bruins were horrid in both 2014-15 and ’15-16. Not a lot of talent, and Julien had little to work with. The roster got a little better last season thanks in part to an infusion of youth but also because Julien changed the way they played to be more responsive to the roster’s talent, something he arguably hadn’t done the previous seasons. I think the pre-2013-14 track record speaks for itself in terms of what Julien can do with a high-end NHL roster.
Specifically, the Bruins played a lot faster in attack last season (attempting the most 5-on-5 attempts per 60 in the league) but still locked it down defensively (with the second-fewest attempts against). And he did that with a defense giving a lot of minutes to Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller.
So if Julien can make these kinds of on-the-fly changes even with a not-great team, and generally has a strong track record with talented ones, it’s hard to imagine the Canadiens stumbling, even if Price isn’t .920-plus again next season (and certainly, that’s a “he’d have to prove he can’t be .920-plus before I’d stop penciling him in for it).
Toronto and Tampa both look well-positioned for both next season and the long-term. Montreal only falls into that first category. But that’s really all that matters right now. They’re not the most exciting pick to win the Atlantic, but then who ever called Claude Julien hockey exciting until last year?
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: Pulling for Ondrej Kase to have another strong season in Anaheim. Fun player last year.
Arizona Coyotes: Man am I excited for Clayton Keller to get power play minutes at the NHL level. He was a treat to watch in college and his skills will absolutely translate, hopefully right away.
Boston Bruins: Under no circumstances should anyone read too much into preseason results, and the loss Saturday night is a good example why: Their roster looked more like the Providence Bruins’ midseason offering than anything their Boston counterparts will roll in October.
Buffalo Sabres: Roster decisions are pretty easy to make at this point in September. To wit, the Sabres — with that blue line — are still carrying 12 defensemen in their NHL camp. Imagine being the 12th-best Sabres defenseman. Yeesh.
Chicago: Look, if you can’t find room on the roster for a player with Alex DeBrincat’s skill level, but you’re finding room for one of John Hayden and Vinnie Hinostroza, I don’t know what to tell you.
Edmonton Oilers: Keeping track of McDavid on the rush must be a nightmare. One day, Julian Melchiori will be able to tell his kids, “Yeah, one time Connor McDavid skated by me like I wasn’t even there.”
Florida Panthers: Can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t think of James Reimer as a legit NHL starter at this point — check that track record — but skepticism about Luongo turning back into The Roberto Luongo is well-founded.
Minnesota Wild: For the record, I can totally see the Wild winning their division. They’re a lot like the Habs in that they have a great coach, solid depth, and (potentially) top-level goaltending. But I can’t be convinced this team is a legit Cup contender, as much as I like them.
New Jersey Devils: Everyone seems to think Jesper Bratt has earned himself at least a nine-game tryout with the big club. That’d be fair. And hey, if you’re tanking anyway, now’s the time to experiment.
Pittsburgh Penguins: If you had asked me to guess on Saturday afternoon which of the four “major” sports — if we’re being extremely generous to the NHL these days — was going to have someone put out the worst possible take of this whole Trump/“sons of bitches”/“stick to sports” thing, I might not have said “The NHL.” This only serves to highlight my embarrassing naïveté. Because of course the stupid-ass Penguins took a day when everyone — well, everyone who isn’t some MAGA C.H.U.D. goober named Sackston Gricklesby and has a Twitter name like @DeplorableCovfefeDivorcedDad with a picture of himself holding a fish in the back of a $70,000 pickup truck — agreed Donald Trump was in the wrong and using his bully pulpit for dumb-assed red-meat-for-the-base reasons, to say, “Well, you gotta hear both sides and by the way, Don, see ya at the White House.” Get lost with this. Of course most hockey players are probably Trump guys; they’re rich and white and from meat-and-potatoes places in North America. I get that and it’s fine. Well, not fine but you know what I mean. But for this to be the official team statement is the organization, and the league, and the sport showing their collective asses and humiliating themselves as cowardly bootlickers of the highest order. Even if the Penguins always planned to go, which of course they did, the thing they should have said yesterday, when this was a huge deal: Nothing. Just, like, don’t say anything. Pretty easy. But because this is the NHL, of course the Penguins not only took a dump on the floor but also stepped in then fall backwards on top of it. Classic stuff. That’s Hockey!
St. Louis Blues: Robby Fabbri comes back from injury, immediately re-injures himself. Bummer.
Tampa Bay Lightning: All I can say is, welcome to the club.
Toronto Maple Leafs: There’s a 50 percent chance the Leafs get another defenseman before the start of the season? Now that’s going out on a limb, baby!
Vegas Golden Knights: This is actually not good. If normal, local fans can’t have ready access to Knights games, how do you build a long-term fanbase in Las Vegas?
Play of the weekend
Please to inform you of this great pass from Anthony Mantha:
Gold Star Award
Minus of the Weekend
The Penguins are the dweebs who tell the teacher she didn’t give the class any homework.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “Neutrinos” is firing on all cylinders.
To Sabres: Horvat, Tanev
To Canucks: Eichel, Moulson
Well, I acquired it legally. You can be sure of that.
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)