This 2014-15 NHL season preview features the Montreal Canadiens.
What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?
Many wondered if PK Subban would be a “one-hit wonder” with his Norris Trophy winning season in 2012-13. While he wasn’t quite as offensively dominant, he still set career-highs for assists (43) and points (53) as well as ice-time (24:37). What really made an impression however was his playoff performance, where he led the Canadiens with 14 points in 17 games while playing over 27 minutes per game.
Not many 26 year-old goaltenders can claim they’ve completed 7 NHL seasons as a starter. PK’s good friend Carey Price is one of them. Last season, Price had a career year, finishing 6th in the NHL in wins (34), 4th in save percentage (.927) and second in shutouts (6). He also added a career best 2.32 goals-against-average on his way to finishing 4th in Vezina Trophy voting. He also answered any questions about whether or not he could win the “big game”, leading the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Final before suffering a season-ending injury.
A consistently great season from Price also helped the Canadiens ice the league’s 4th best penalty killing unit at 85.1%, nearly 6% better than the previous season.
Despite taking a lot of heat for not having a good post-season, Max Pacioretty had an unbelievable year. His 39 goals were good for 4th in the NHL, and were the highest total for a Canadiens player since Vincent Damphousse scored 40 in 1993-94.
Speaking of taking heat, on November 19th, Pacioretty’s linemate David Desharnais found himself the latest target of Montreal fans’ criticism after starting the season with just one point (an assist) in his first 19 games. In the 60 games he played following that date, his 51 points gave him a point-per-game average that would equate to a 70-point season over 82 games. Considering the fact that he’s small enough to skate on an ice cube, he continues to prove the doubters wrong.
What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?
Had the offense been a little more productive, the Canadiens may have challenged for the Presidents’ Trophy. They finished 16th or worse in goals scored, powerplay, shots for and 5-on-5 scoring.
A more productive season from Danny Briere certainly would have helped. His 25 points were his lowest total since scoring 15 points in 30 games in 2000-01.
Adding to the Canadiens’ offensive woes up the middle was a major regression for Lars Eller. After posting a solid 30 points in 48 games the year before, and starting last season with 7 points in his first 5 games, Eller managed just 26 points and a -15 in 77 games total in 2013-14 despite playing a minute more per game.
The interesting thing with both Briere and Eller is that their production greatly increased come playoff time. While Briere’s 7 points in 16 playoff games wasn’t enough to keep him in Montreal, Eller’s 13 points in 17 games were enough to earn a 4-year contract extension. Questions remain about whether or not he will develop into the second line player some believe he can be.
Another veteran who struggled was (former) captain Brian Gionta, whose 18 goals in 81 games represented the lowest goals-per-game average he’s had since 2002-03, his second NHL season. Some of that can be attributed to an unusually low shooting percentage of 9.8% though, well below his career average of 11.3%.
So what did they do to get better?
After just one season in Montreal, Briere was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for PA Parenteau. Parenteau will be expected to play a top 6 role with the Canadiens and provide the kind of production that earned him top line minutes in the two years before 2013-14. He had posted point-per-game averages of 0.84 and 0.9 before injury issues caused his average to fall to 0.6 last season.
Joining Parenteau as a new addition will be defenseman Tom Gilbert who signed as an unrestricted free agent. He’s been a consistent performer so far in his career, posting a 0.3 point-per-game average or better in each of his 8 NHL seasons thus far. While he’s not a top pairing player, he’s well-rounded enough to give the Habs quality minutes in nearly any situation.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to adding Gilbert, a right-handed shot, is the fact the Canadiens can now move Alexei Emelin back to his natural left side, where he’s proven to be much more effective.
The final addition was Jiri Sekac, who signed as a free agent from the KHL. The Canadiens won a bidding war this past summer to secure the services of the two-way winger. They hope he can fill a top nine spot and provide the kind of solid play in all three zones that saw him finish with 28 points and a +18 in 47 KHL games for Prague Lev last season.
Player to watch
After being selected 3rd overall in 2012, Alex Galchenyuk has had an up and down couple of seasons in Montreal. Many believe the talented 19 year-old has the highest upside of his draft class, something that’s been evident at times during his short career.
He started last season on fire, with 7 points in his first 4 games and ended it well with 3 points in 5 playoff games after returning from injury.
He’s got all the tools to be a top-line centre in the NHL or at the very least, a top-line left winger. All that is needed is patience and experience.
Look for Galchenyuk to take a giant leap this season, much like Ryan Johansen did in his 3rd season last year.
…they have a chance to cement their place among the league’s elite for years to come.
They will make the playoffs if…
The trio of Price, Subban and Pacioretty continue producing at an elite level, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise.
They will miss the playoffs if…
Head coach Michel Therrien “over-coaches” his team. The Canadiens’ bench boss sometimes has had a tendency to be overly strict with his star players and too forgiving with his veterans. Now that the leadership has officially passed to the Price/Subban/Pacioretty generation, that needs to stop before we have another Patrick Roy fiasco.
What should we expect this season?
This Canadiens core has grown up together. The job started by Bob Gainey and co. and continued by 3rd year GM Marc Bergevin is starting to bear fruit, as the young stars are reaching their prime years.
Bergevin has shown a calculated aggressiveness (the Thomas Vanek trade last season) and a willingness to admit his own mistakes (the Briere trade this summer) so far. He also seems to want to build an organization the right way, through the draft and player development.
That has led to a very good talent pipeline that keeps growing, and an evolution from a perennial “bubble” team satisfied with a playoff appearance to a group that demands more of itself.
Expect that trend to continue this season. If Montreal can get some more production out of their forwards, they have a chance to cement their place among the league’s elite for years to come.
48-24-10 106 points, 1st in the Atlantic Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference