ROCKET SPORTS MEDIA | LAVAL, QC. — When the “Return to Play” (RTP) committee comprised of members from the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) announced in May, a plan for the season to resume with 24 teams, I had mixed feelings on the impact it would have on the Canadiens organization.
Claude Julien had mentioned several times since the start of July’s training camp that it may not been fair that his team had a chance to make it to the playoffs, but it may have been balancing out the fact they finished 14th overall in the league in 2018-19 and didn’t earn a spot.
I think we can conclude that from a business perspective, the RTP benefited Groupe CH. At the time that the season was paused on March 12th, the Canadiens were virtually eliminated from the playoffs. Some of the feelings that the fanbase would go through during the off-season would include anger, frustration, apathy, and I can go on with a list of negative adjectives. It would have been the fourth time in the five years that they would fail participating in the post season.
The RTP format allowed the overall sentiments of Canadiens fans be more positive compared to the previous scenario. The Canadiens surprised most experts by beating the Penguins in four games in the qualifying series and it took the Flyers six games to end Montreal’s stay in the Eastern Conference bubble city. Isn’t it ironic that the roster that competed in Toronto wasn’t the one that Marc Bergevin had prepared for a potential playoff run?
All that being said, Montreal had an opportunity to play 10 post-season games in the three-week period between August 1st and 21st. Whether it was earned or not, the management shouldn’t let what they saw in those 10 games go to waste.
In the days leading to the February 24th deadline, three regulars from the forward lines were traded. Ilya Kovalchuk, Nick Cousins, and Nate Thompson were traded to the Capitals, Golden Knights, and the Flyers respectively for picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
Bergevin made the right decision to trade the three players as Montreal was 10 points out of a playoff spot at the deadline and all three were on expiring contracts.
Let’s take a hypothetical look at what the lines would have been for the first game of the qualifying series against the Penguins if all three players were still with the club.
My inbox and Twitter mentions are already blowing up from readers about these hypothetical lines. For those of you wondering, these aren’t random lines that I put together. These are the actual line combinations that were used on February 22nd, the last game that Kovalchuk, Cousins, and Thompson were still with the team. Julien had also used the same lines in the previous with the exception of Jordan Weal instead of Artturi Lehkonen on the fourth line. That’s right, Lehkonen was a healthy scratch.
Julien doesn’t frequently make changes to his lines unless he’s forced. Further to this, here’s a look at the lines that Julien actually put together for the first game against the Penguins on August 1st. You will notice that there was no change to the first two lines. That’s because the coach wasn’t forced to change them.
Would the February roster have taken Montreal past the first round? We will never know, but I would bet that the result would have been the same. Kovalchuk obtained one assist and took a total of five shots in eight games with the Capitals. If we include the regular season, he scored once in his last 22 games. He wouldn’t be the offensive difference maker that the Canadiens were missing in their series.
Thompson would improve the team in faceoffs, and Cousins would add some physicality to the lineup. Would they have prevented the Habs from being shutout in game three and four against the Flyers? The stat lines show that the odds that it would happen are very slim.
The RTP allowed Jesperi Kotkaniemi to get inserted into a regular line right from the start of training camp, which began on July 13th. On the first day of phase 3, Kotkaniemi centered the third line with Paul Byron, and Lehkonen as his wingers. That’s exact line that started the series versus Pittsburgh almost three weeks later.
In fact, all the lines from July 13th remained the same for the opening game of the qualifying series on August 1st. The only change was that Max Domi replaced Jake Evans on the fourth when joining his teammates, a week after the start of camp.
Nick Suzuki would have been a regular in the lineup regardless, however Kotkaniemi made the most of the opportunity that he was given, and it was noticed by the coaching staff and management.
“I give all the credit to him [Kotkaniemi] who realized that he had to be better, and he did. And we see a KK that wants to be a Montreal Canadien, wants to have the potential that we saw when we drafted him, and I think he has a bright future ahead of him,” said Bergevin prior to game six of the Flyers series. The RTP was the only reason that the general manager obtained the luxury to see that from Kotkaniemi.
On defence, Marco Scandella was the only defenceman moved on trade deadline, as he was dealt to the St.Louis Blues in return for two draft picks. Bergevin had began discussions for a contract extension, however Scandella wanted to wait until the end of the season before negotiating. The general manager preferred to trade him, than risking on losing him without a return in the offseason.
Below are how Julien paired his defencemen during practice on Februay 17th, the day before Scandella was traded. It’s a safe assumption that it would have been the same pairings for the start of the qualifying series versus the Penguins.
Here are the pairings that the coach used for all 10 games of the postseason against the Penguins and the Flyers. Did I mention yet that Julien rarely makes changes unless he’s forced to?
The RTP gave Xavier Ouellet an opportunity to slot into the lineup on the third pairing and bumped Brett Kulak to play with Jeff Petry. Scandella would be an upgrade on Ouellet, and would have allowed the coaching staff to better distribute the ice time on the left side of the defence.
The unexpected playoff birth this season gave the Canadiens roster some experience in the postseason, which was lacking. If it wasn’t for the RTP, it would have been at least one more year before they would get exposed to it.
“This is what you have to go through, and fortunately, we had this opportunity here in Toronto. These were big-time games and we depended on these kids for key roles and key situations. And they came through; they did what they had to do,” said Kirk Muller at the conclusion of the Flyers series on the experience gained by the young players.
Montreal’s win against the Penguins resulted that they drop from ninth to 16th in the 2020 draft. “Without any doubt,” said Bergevin when asked whether the postseason experience was worth the seven spot dip for their first round selection. “The experience of our young players, the way that they showed us their progression is priceless. To go back seven choices is a very small price to pay.”
It’s hard to quantify the experience that was gained in this year’s postseason. For Marc Bergevin’s sake, let’s hope that there isn’t a significant gap between the careers of the players selected ninth and the 16th overall.
By Chris G., Senior Writer
All Habs Hockey Magazine
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