Season Recap: Canadiens 1, Doubters 0
Updated: Sep 13, 2019
What. A. Year.
Let’s go back in time to the beginning of September. Training camp is about to start. Nobody thinks that the Canadiens will make any noise this season. Everybody thinks that they’ll be front-runners for Jack Hughes in the draft. Maybe they’ll get another top-three pick, they said, and hopefully not waste it on some kid who’s not remotely ready for the NHL, like they did last June.
Then training camp started.
The Canadiens flew out of the gate, soundly beating the New Jersey Devils 3-1 to start training camp. The “kid who’s not remotely ready for the NHL” scored a beautiful goal from the high slot. This team looked like it was rejuvenated, like they were here to play. They had a lot of character, and watching them was a real treat, night in, night out. Then real hockey started. The Canadiens played their first game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a game that I remember as one of the most exciting games I’ve ever watched. The Canadiens lost 3-2 in overtime, but they dominated the Leafs. That domination continued throughout the first month, with the Canadiens going 6-3-2. However, November storm clouds loomed on the horizon.
The Canadiens went 5-6-3 in November. That’s pretty bad. Pundits said that the Canadiens are finally falling back down to Earth, and things will only get worse from here. Why is it that whenever a team is projected by pundits to do badly, but suddenly does well, the pundits still do their best to make the team look bad? The Canadiens did not fall all the way back down to Earth; they only fell a few feet, before rising a few light years in December. They went 10-4-0. Carey Price returned to form, Shea Weber picked up the pace, Max Domi and Tomas Tatar continued to shine. This was one of the best months to be a Canadiens fan. It only gets better from here, however.
The Canadiens breezed into 2019 with a 7-4-0 record in January. Some highlights include Max Domi breaking his goal slump (against Florida), Jesperi Kotkaniemi scoring one of the top goals of the year (against Florida), Jeff Petry going full-out baseball in OT (against Boston) and the Canadiens’ defence managing to shut out the legendary Colorado line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. February was so-so. The Canadiens went 6-5-2, which is just above .500. There were bright spots, however. The Canadiens played one of their best games of the year against the Winnipeg Jets, beating them 5-2, they ravaged Detroit 8-1, and Jonathan Drouin scored a beautiful OT goal to beat Edmonton 4-3. There were low points, too. There was giving up six unanswered goals against Toronto, there was losing 6-3 to Florida, and there was scoring just one goal between two games against Nashville and Tampa. Things were starting to heat up for the Canadiens. The playoffs were drawing nearer, and the Canadiens were in the thick of a wild-card race with two teams that loaded up at the trade deadline: Columbus (acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, among others), and Carolina (Nino Niederreiter).
Here comes March. The Canadiens did not start off well, but recovered to finish with a 9-5-1 record. The Canadiens gave up valuable points in the playoff race to non-playoff teams, which most thought would be a problem, as the Canadiens were not expected to beat playoff teams down the stretch. However, the Canadiens were able to beat playoff teams, beating the New York Islanders and the Winnipeg Jets in March. The Canadiens finished the month tied with Columbus in points for the last wild-card spot.
Early April was a huge time for the Canadiens. They were to play the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs, three really good teams. The Canadiens beat the Lightning 4-2 in what was a surprising domination of the league’s top team. They then proceeded to lose to the Washington Capitals 2-1, which put a dent in their playoff aspirations. The Columbus Blue Jackets eliminated the Canadiens on Friday night from the playoffs, with a shootout win over the New York Rangers. The Canadiens still had one game left, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Knowing the game was meaningless, coach Claude Julien opted to put in 2017 first-round pick Ryan Poehling as the fourth-line centre. Poehling had just signed an entry-level contract a couple weeks before. Poehling did not disappoint, scoring a hat-trick and the shootout winner in his first ever professional hockey game. Poehling helped the Canadiens end the season on a high note, even if they won’t be participating in this year’s playoffs.
General thoughts on the season:
· Let me list all the players who had career years this season: Max Domi (73 points), Tomas Tatar (58 points), Jonathan Drouin (53 points), Phillip Danault (53 Points), Brendan Gallagher (career-high 33 goals), Andrew Shaw (47 points-and in just 63 games), Jeff Petry (46 points), Artturi Lehkonen (31 points), Jordie Benn (22 points), and many more that I am not aware of. That’s a lot of career years. This clearly shows that the Canadiens gave everything they’ve got this year, and many played well above their previous level.
· The NHL playoff format is ridiculous. The Montreal Canadiens finished with 96 points, and still missed the playoffs. They would have been ahead of three teams in playoff spots in the Western Conference, but they still missed the playoffs. They finished 14th in a league where the top 16 teams are supposed to make the playoffs, but they missed the playoffs. Why? The Eastern Conference was so much stronger than the West, and the playoff format goes by conference. Now, a playoff format that goes by the entire league would have its issues, but it would be nice to have a playoff format that rewards teams that deserve to make the playoffs, but are stuck in a strong conference.
· A lot of people would point to certain games as the reason the Canadiens missed the playoffs. I’ve heard that the OT loss to Carolina was the reason, the loss to Columbus was the reason, the loss to Washington was the reason, etc. The truth is, you can’t pin the loss of a season on one game. Had the Canadiens beaten Columbus and/or Carolina, they might not have played as hungrily and as desperately against Winnipeg and Tampa, and they would not have beaten Winnipeg and Tampa. Had the Canadiens beaten Washington, they still would have missed the playoffs because they would be tied in points with Columbus, and Columbus holds the tiebreaker advantage. Here’s the one reason why the Canadiens missed the playoffs: they needed a 99-point season to make it. That was not going to happen, whether the Canadiens traded for a Matt Duchene at the deadline, or nobody at all.
· This summer should be interesting. The Canadiens’ biggest UFA to re-sign is Jordie Benn, their third-pairing defenseman. They have a lot of cap space. Their priorities are fixing the left side of the defence and the power play. It just so happens that this free agent class is one of the deepest seen in a long time. Free agents that could be of use to the Canadiens are Jake Gardiner, who is a left-handed defenseman and could look good next to Weber, Anders Lee, who is a scoring machine and could look good on the power play, Jeff Skinner, who fits the above description as well, and Wayne Simmonds, who is good on the power play and adds a veteran presence to the team. Let the rumours… begin!
· Next season, the Canadiens will be crazy good. Their centre depth will include the likes of Max Domi, Phillip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling, who is currently on pace for 1500 goals in his first 500 games. None of those centres sound like they belong on the fourth line, do they? Depending on how everyone performs in training camp, Max Domi could be moved back to the wing, creating even more forward depth. To properly illustrate this allow me to create a way-too-early lineup prediction:
(Potential UFA pickups for forwards: Skinner, Lee, Simmonds)
Gardiner (potential UFA pickup)-Weber
When Joel Armia is on your fourth line, you’re in good shape. As well, keep in mind that Columbus is losing all of their good players to free agency, while Tampa and Toronto are going through a cap crunch. Should make for some easier competition.
· The Canadiens have a 1.0% chance at getting Jack Hughes in the upcoming draft. Nice odds. More realistically, most are suggesting that the Canadiens will get Philip Broberg at #15. Broberg has been regarded as one of the better skaters in this draft. He is said to have great offensive upside, but could use some work in the puckhandling department, as well as avoiding turnovers. He is OK defensively, but here is definite room for improvement. Some scouts rank him second to only Bowen Byram as the best defenseman in the draft. He’s also a left-shot defenseman, so he could fill a big need for the Canadiens in the near future. Should the Canadiens get him, I don’t think he’ll make the team for 2019-20, but he’ll probably make the team in 2020-21.
· I’ll be covering the Jets for the playoffs. They are my second-favourite team, and they are the most intriguing team to follow this year. They have the best chance at ending Canada’s Stanley Cup drought, and seeing them win the Cup would be a dream come true for me. The Jets have a great team put together, with lots of speed, firepower, grit and hard work. However, they have been prone to slumps over the course of the season, which, if they carry over into the playoffs, could hurt their chances of making it very far. My prediction: loss in the Cup final to Tampa Bay. This should be a fun story to cover.
Until next year, boys, it’s been a slice.
Here’s to another exciting season come October.
Go Habs Go.
Signed, Le Bo