The question many people are asking themselves this off-season is a simple one. Are the Montreal Canadiens a better team than they were last year?
It’s one that gets asked every year, and often the answer is simple. This year, there are so many moving parts that it is harder than ever to determine.
For the Canadiens, it comes down to how you feel about 10 specific players. In a perfect world, Marc Bergevin would have had Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov back. But he wanted them back on his terms, and the fact he didn’t surrender to their every desire proves that he felt it was not essential to bring them back; that the team is still improved from a year ago.
And he may be right.
The Canadiens added five players to their lineup this off-season: Jonathan Drouin, Karl Alzner, David Schlemko, Ales Hemsky, and Jakub Jerabek. They also lost five regular contributors from last year’s team: Radulov, Markov, Nathan Beaulieu, Brian Flynn, and Alexei Emelin.
Offensively, the move to Drouin and Hemsky from Radulov and Flynn is an overall win. Even if you feel Radulov is better than Drouin, the upside of Hemsky far outweighs what Flynn contributed to the lineup, and the upgrade is bigger than the difference between the two top forwards. Even if Hemsky’s injury history creeps up, he can be replaced by someone with more to offer than Flynn.
The biggest question mark comes on defence. The Canadiens failed to get anyone to replace the contributions of Markov, who went to the KHL. But Bergevin’s thinking is that the wholesale changes made on the blue line are greater than the sum of its parts.
The drop-off from Markov to Jerabek (or Brandon Davidson, or Mark Streit, or whoever claims his spot) is definitely significant. But Bergevin is banking on the gains from Emelin to Alzner and Beaulieu to Schlemko being able to offset that enough that the defence doesn’t become a complete liability.
Even if the team comes into the season with a defence that is worse than last year, there are other variables in play. This will be the team’s first full campaign under Claude Julien — one of the better coaches in the entire league. They also have a very young forward group with several players who can be expected to improve on their performances from last year.
If Drouin, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and Artturi Lehkonen post better numbers than last season (not out of the question given a combination of injuries, bad luck, and just potential growth), it will be a significant boon to the team. Even if you don’t believe that the seasons from Paul Byron, Torrey Mitchell, and/or Phillip Danault can be repeated, any gains from the players above should more than offset the losses of the latter three.
And that’s before you get into players who can step into lesser roles, like Charles Hudon and Daniel Carr, who would be significantly better than Steve Ott or Dwight King were at the end of last season.
They also have the best goaltender in the world in Carey Price. This season he won’t have the World Cup of Hockey added to his already heavy workload, isn’t stepping onto NHL ice for the first time after a major injury, and knows he has a coach currently devising a game plan geared toward reducing the number of shots he faces.
But things don’t always work out the way we think they will. There’s no guarantee the young forwards take a step up. There’s no guarantee that Julien can put his team in a better position to win more games.
However, when several projection systems have the Canadiens missing the playoffs ... I just don’t see it.
At the end of the season, it’s possible that the Canadiens will be on the outside of the playoff picture, but in order to project them to do so, most everything would have to go wrong. Price would have to be just OK. All of the forwards mentioned above, and even some who aren’t, would have to have off years. The defence would have to be so bad not even the master of trading for defencemen can fix it.
This Canadiens team has holes, and is far from perfect. But it is still a playoff team. There may even be an argument to be made that it is a better team than a year ago when you factor in every aspect of the team’s construction.
Marc Bergevin is betting on it.