Ninety-six points, a 44-30-8 record, and a 7-2-1 run to end the year, yet the Montreal Canadiens couldn’t find their way into a playoff spot. It is a bitterly disappointing pill to swallow after the Canadiens shocked everyone this season, following a 71-point campaign the year before. A tumultuous summer saw the departure of a former top-three pick in Alex Galchenyuk, embattled captain Max Pacioretty was traded on the eve of training camp, and despite an abject disaster of a season, Marc Bergevin was still the general manager.
In came Max Domi, Tomas Tatar (and Nick Suzuki), and the 18-year-old third-overall pick, Jesperi Kotkaniemi. In fact, by the start of the preseason, only three players remained in the Canadiens’ organization from before the start of Bergevin’s tenure; Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, and Charles Hudon. Call it attitude, a chip on their shoulder, or whatever other cliche you need, but the new-look Canadiens came into the year with something to prove. And they sure as hell did.
Part of a high-profile trade that saw Galchenyuk going the other way, and with just 18 goals over the course of his previous two years, Domi was arguably the one under most scrutiny. On a team that’s dying for goals, trading a sniper for a playmaker seemed like a poor choice at the time and Domi didn’t help his case by getting suspended for the entire preseason for sucker-punching Aaron Ekblad.
In the regular season, Domi seemed to have gotten his priorities in order. He not only became an offensive force, he blew away all expectations en route to a 28 goal, 44 assist season, while becoming the catalyst in Montreal’s incredible 5v5 play. He wouldn’t be the only player setting new career highs either.
The trio of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Gallagher each enjoyed career bests while being a part of one of the NHL’s top lines. Tatar set a new high in points (58) and assists (33), while compiling a respectable 25-goal effort as well. Gallagher followed up his first 30-goal season with another one, marking a new personal best with 33 goals. While Domi smashed his career-best numbers, Danault might very well have had the best year on the team. With 41 assists and 53 points, he was third in scoring, only trailing Tatar and Domi overall. Danault ended up being Claude Julien’s go-to centre in all situations, and his strong play should merit him some attention in the Selke discussion at the NHL Awards.
Separately they each had fantastic seasons, but together as a line the trio dominated defences night in and night out, while also being defensively sound against top assignments.
While not the flashiest group, the Canadiens’ top line put together a season where they were far above league average in terms of expected goals per hour. They produced shots in high-danger areas, and did it in dominant fashion. Given how all three will be back next season, it is more than likely they’re the only guaranteed line to be together next year.
Jeff Petry posted new highs in goals and assists while playing part of the year in Shea Weber’s stead, again making it all the more hilarious that the Edmonton Oilers surrendered him for next to nothing. Speaking of Weber, despite missing several months — and likely playing injured down the stretch — he outpaced P.K. Subban’s point totals with a fantastic 14-goal effort, one that could have been higher if the power play had any functionality.
Perhaps the two players with the biggest spotlight on them to live up their contracts were Andrew Shaw and Jonathan Drouin. First and foremost, Shaw was the player that the Canadiens needed when they traded two draft picks for him years ago. Between on-ice indiscipline and injuries, Shaw never really found a spot as a reliable offensive presence. He still missed time this year with injuries, but when on the ice, he made the most of it with 19 goals to his name and by becoming the player Montreal traded for a few years ago.
As for Drouin, there were highs and they were great. His partnership with Domi seemingly lit a spark in both players and made them threats during every game. Then, in the second half of the year, Drouin vanished like the Avatar when the Canadiens needed him the most. Regardless, he tied a career high in points and set a personal best in assists with 35 helpers. The biggest goal for next season is to tap into the Drouin from the first half of the year, because there were nights that he just could not be stopped and Montreal could use that game-breaking talent more often.
Then, of course, there is Kotkaniemi. Who, stumbling finish or not, showed fans why he was the third-overall pick last June. He’s only going to get better as the seasons go on, and after an impressive showing at both ends of the ice, it’s looking more and more like the Canadiens finally have their star centre after years of searching.
As a whole, the team put together an impressive season when all was said and done. In almost every measure they were one of the best 5v5 teams in the league this year, and missing the playoffs is a brutal break. With all of their major pieces in place, and several top prospects joining the professional ranks this off-season, the Canadiens should very well be right back in the thick of things next year. A few small tweaks is all they need in their system to work, and they’ll have all summer to work on that.
Missing the playoffs is harsh, but the season as a whole cannot be cast aside as it does a massive disservice to the players who put up career years on the ice.