ROCKET SPORTS MEDIA — Last season was seen as a transition for the Canadiens, as they improved from 71 to 96 points and just missed the playoffs.
With minimal movement this past off-season, it would seem that Habs general manager Marc Bergevin has placed his faith in youth to add the necessary talent to an already improved team. But will the Canadiens be able to earn a playoff berth this season?
One key to the improvements last season was the impressive five-on-five play that led to an increase in goals for by the offence from 155 in 2018 to 205 last season.
It’s my belief that the Canadiens power-play was a main culprit for the team’s failure to qualify for the playoffs dropping from a 21.2 percent success rate in 2017-’18 to 13.2 percent last year. Had they stayed in the middle of the pack in terms of power-play efficiency, it’s fair to say that they could have added a dozen or more goals to their offensive output.
The other key improvement was return of a healthy Carey Price and Shea Weber. Their arrivals made a significant impact in improvement in goals against going from a 25th ranking in 2017-’18 to 13th last year. The team focus on improving defensively allowed an improvement in shots against per game dropping from 32.3 to 31.3. The overall impact was a massive improvement in goal differential from minus 52 to plus 10 in a year to year comparison.
So what can fans reasonably expect from the Canadiens this year?
In this article, we will look at the forwards. They will be presented grouped by my expected line combinations. A follow-up article will focus on the defence and the goaltenders.
Gallagher is coming off back-to-back 30-plus goal seasons. Fans should expect the heart and soul, spark plug of the Habs to continue playing his style and lead the team by example. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect another 30 goal season.
Danault is being groomed in the model of Tomas Plekanec as the defensive conscious of the Canadiens. He faces top opposition in a shutdown role yet managed a 53 point season centering one of the top five-on-five lines in the NHL. There should be no reason to expect a significant drop from having another 50 point season.
The change of scenery for Tatar paid dividends for him as he had a career high 58 points and delivered some excitement for the fans. I expect a drop in overall offensive production but for Tatar to maintain his effective two-way play. With his amount of ice time, a 50 point season should be expected.
After Domi’s career season in goals and points, all the talk is about regression. But as a 24-year-old who led his team in points last season, he hasn’t even reached his peak yet. This is a player that thrives playing in the glaring spotlight, seeking out pressure situations. Domi has skill and a solid work ethic. If he does regress in his goal production, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him reach the 60-point plateau.
Drouin is an enigma of the Canadiens’ roster. He matched a career high in points despite disappearing for the final 26 games of the season. He needs to improve his work ethic and become dedicated to playing a consistent defensive game which can only help his offensive play in transition. If he were to find a way to compete in all areas of the ice for an entire season, Drouin could easily set a new high in career points while beginning to reach his potential. My expectation is for him to have a 60-point season.
Byron is one of the grizzled veterans of the forward group at the age of 30. Don’t let his age fool you as he still has explosive speed. Byron is able to play on any line, as well as special teams. Depth scoring will be essential for the success of the Habs. If Byron remains healthy, another 20-goal, 40-point season can be expected.
Kotkaniemi not only earned a roster spot last October, but improved his game throughout the season. This allowed him to earn Claude Julien’s trust and yielded a 34-point rookie campaign. With a full off-season of training, it’s reasonable to expect that he will continue his progression to earn a top-six role. With additional power-play time, Kotkaniemi can be a key weapon for his playmaking ability and shot from the slot. If this happens, a 40-to-50 point season is possible.
Lehkonen is an ideal two-way, top-nine forward. He is always defensively responsible and consistently creates offence for his linemates. His downfall has been his inability to take advantage of his own scoring opportunities. But in 2018-’19, Lehkonen posted career highs in assists and points. He has made consistent improvements offensively in each of his three seasons. I am expecting another 30 point season.
Armia’s 0.4 points per game pace last season was his best yet. That would have translated into 33 points over an 82-game schedule. More will be expected of Armia offensively to fill the void created by Andrew Shaw returning to Chicago. Armia can be effective using his large frame in puck retrieval and possession. If he remains healthy, a 30-point season is not out of the question, especially if he continues to be used on the power-play.
Weal is a versatile forward who can play all three forward positions, providing speed, fore-checking and the ability to read the play in a bottom-six role. If Weal is able to score 15 to 20 points, he will be helping the Canadiens’ fourth line to be trusted for 12 minutes per game.
Cousins is another versatile forward capable of playing any forward role. He plays a two-way game augmented by an abrasive style that can help him to draw penalties. Following a career high 27-point season, I expect him to be in the 20-point range this year.
When the season begins, Thompson will be 35-years-old. He is still an effective fourth line center who can win over 50 percent of his face-offs and play well defensively. That will be his niche role, as well as mentoring young Habs centers. Thompson may be able to help as the team finished 21st in the NHL in faceoff percentage last season at 49.4 percent efficiency. While providing assistance in that department, he can also play a regular shift or be used as a depth forward.
Last season, Poehling was a key piece of one of the top NCAA teams, won a silver medal and MVP honours at the 2019 World Junior Championships and capped off the year with a hat trick and a shootout winner in his NHL debut. Those experiences as well as his maturity, physically and mentally, seems to have him being pencilled into the Habs lineup for October. He’s without a doubt ready to be a professional, but he needs to perform well in training camp. If he earns a spot, expect him to be eased into an role with the Habs by coach Julien. Poehling’s success will be measured by his progression as an NHL center.
In the next article, we will look at expectations for the defence and the goaltenders.
By Blain Potvin, Staff Writer.
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