The Montreal Canadiens dealt with several off-season changes heading into this year, with the departures of Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov, and the high-profile addition of Jonathan Drouin. Meanwhile, the Canadiens were planning to launch their new AHL digs in Laval with a bang by stocking the team with veterans. There were questions heading in, but nobody could have predicted the calamitous seasons that the Montreal Canadiens and Laval Rocket had this year.
Some of the results can be attributed to the rapid erosion of the player depth due to the early departures and injuries to numerous players, an impact which was felt all the way down to the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, who also faced a challenge-filled season after being abandoned by the parent affiliate.
When Marc Bergevin knew he was going to lose Markov, he immediately signed Streit, who was just coming off of a Stanley Cup win with the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though the veteran had a hard time getting any ice time with the team despite a serious rash of injuries. Surely the expectation could not have been that it was a like-for-like replacement, other than perhaps in age. Streit had lost a few steps, but the Canadiens needed some veteran experience on the blue line, and Streit was ready and willing to finish his career where it started, and at a discount.
The swan song lasted only two games for Streit, whose inability to keep up with the pace of the game led to a mutual termination of his contract, allowing him to sail into retirement while an unheralded rookie forced his way onto the team.
The Canadiens were able to absorb the departure of Streit with the surprising emergence of Victor Mete who forced the team’s hand into keeping him around after training camp by playing well beyond his years, but also offering something that the current crop of defenders struggled to provide: a rapid, puck-moving presence.
If the London Knights were hoping to see Mete return after an extended look in Montreal, those hopes faded to nothing after Streit’s departure.
Davidson looked good at the tail end of last season when the Canadiens acquired him from the Edmonton Oilers for David Desharnais. This season, however, he fell victim to the numbers game when David Schlemko and Shea Weber returned consecutively from Injured Reserve in early December, Davidson became the odd man out and was placed on waivers, to be reclaimed by the Oilers.
With Mete headed off to the World Junior Championship a few weeks later, Jakub Jerabek was recalled from Laval to fill a defensive spot that could have been Davidson’s if Weber hadn’t returned from IR. Jerabek would never return to Laval.
The causal relationships are a bit muddled on the defensive corps shuffle, but the net result at the end of the day was that the Rocket were short on defencemen in a bad way after Streit was terminated, Davidson was lost to waivers, Jerabek was recalled, and Weber and Mete were shut down for the season. The Rocket had to sign numerous defencemen to professional tryouts from the Brampton Beast, notably Willie Corrin, Matt Petgrave, and Tyson Wilson, as the defensive depth, appearing bountiful at the start of the season, ended up completely depleted by January.
It was a Hail Mary pass when Marc Bergevin signed Ales Hemsky to a one-year contract, and I don’t think anybody realistically expected the veteran to replace Radulov in the lineup. But if there was any spark left in the forward, maybe he would be able to capture lightning in a bottle for one last late-career run.
He started the pre-season on the top line with Jonathan Drouin and Max Pacioretty, but his stock fell quickly. By season’s start, he had fallen down to the fourth line with Paul Byron and Jacob de la Rose, with time on the first power-play unit as well. It became quickly evident that the gamble had not paid off, and Hemsky fell out of favour, with a foregone conclusion of a mutual termination — just like in Streit’s case — on the horizon. But it never did come to that as he suffered a season-ending concussion in late October.
As a result, both Nikita Scherbak and Michael McCarron were recalled from Laval temporarily, which in turn necessitated Jordan Boucher and Yannick Veilleux to be recalled from Brampton, never to return. Eventually, Nicolas Deslauriers was brought up to Montreal when Scherbak and McCarron returned to Laval.
Everyone was glad to see Réway return to health this season after missing an entire year due to a serious medical scare. He returned at the Rookie Tournament, playing on the top line with Daniel Audette and Jeremiah Addison.
Conditioning and timing seemed like an immediate issue for him, but that was to be expected. It was assumed that he would spend the season in Laval, regaining his form, perhaps even spending some time with the Brampton Beast just to get his legs back.
Country mates Reway and Pospisil have a conversation after the game. Reway either wiping away sweat or tears. #Habs pic.twitter.com/onmzbjaRh2— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) September 9, 2017
As it turned out, Réway grew rapidly frustrated with an inability to play at the level that he felt he could play, only amplified by the home sickness he felt. After a mere five games played, being a healthy scratch every other match the Rocket had, and with a lack of a European assignment clause in his entry-level contract, Réway and Montreal agreed to terminate the contract so that he could return home.
It simply wasn’t going to work for him here after what he went through the previous year. He returned the KHL to play with his hometown Slovan Bratislava, but injuries took their toll on him there as well. He only played 18 games with the team for the remainder of the season.
Réway leaving Laval left a hole in the second scoring line that was never filled, affecting the club significantly. The team tried to replace the offensively-gifted player with a rotation of players including Kyle Baun, but results were inconclusive for the most part.
Réway’s departure and the subsequent roster juggling necessitated the recall of Thomas Ebbing from Brampton to Laval, taking the final assigned skater out of the ECHL by the end of October.
The promise that Addison showed at the Rookie Tournament was essentially lost when he underwent shoulder surgery that forced him to miss practically the entirety of his rookie season in Laval. He just recently returned to the lineup to start his first professional campaign. He would have been a big-body presence for the team, and his injury probably necessitated keeping Niki Petti on the roster rather than sending him down to Brampton at the start of the season.
Mitchell had been solidly entrenched as the fourth-line centre for the Canadiens for several seasons, doing an honourable job in the role. But with his offensive output dwindling, he was eventually traded to Los Angeles in late November when it became apparent that the newly crowned captain of the Laval Rocket, Byron Froese, was an equitable player. Bergevin jumped at the opportunity to receive an asset for a fourth-line player on an expiring contract.
The move promoted Froese to the NHL permanently and robbed the Rocket of another offensive-minded forward, and of one of the veterans who was brought in to buoy the youngsters on the team. In addition, it brought an end to the Rocket’s second scoring line as McCarron took over. Combined with the departure of Réway, the move turned the scoring line into a top-notch checking line instead, with Jeremy Grégoire and Yannick Veilleux completing the trio.
With these six names that were never adequately replaced by the organization, combined with numerous other injuries throughout the season, the Brampton Beast were completely plundered of AHL overfill. The Laval Rocket themselves became populated with ECHL depth players for the majority of the season, and the Montreal Canadiens struggled to compete because their low-risk signings completely failed to pay off.
Not as designed during the off-season, but through circumstance allowed to occur, this season was yet another reminder of the importance of strong and abundant depth at every level of professional hockey.
But there was no way to respond to losing so much depth so quickly without sacrificing something since the season had already begun, and all equivalent players had already found a home to start the season. The Canadiens were unable to equitably replace three NHLers and three AHLers internally, and would have had to sacrifice the future by making some forced trades.
The decision was made to stay the course, and the results are what they are. It was certainly a difficult position to be in, but when the dust clears on the season, it won’t be the departed who will be remembered, but rather the arrivals through the entry draft as the team turns to the future, leaving the disappointment of this season behind.