The Montreal Canadiens are going to see a lot of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Elias Pettersson, and Patrik Laine this season. While the team doesn’t have the offensive star power of the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, or Winnipeg Jets, the Canadiens have something the other teams don’t.
No, (though he does help) not Carey Price — balance.
We already know that Canadiens head coach Claude Julien loves to roll four lines, but since taking over the team he’s rarely had the roster to do so consistently, at least effectively. However, Marc Bergevin’s moves this off-season have provided the Canadiens with their deepest and most balanced roster in years.
The off-season started with the additions of Jake Allen and Joel Edmundson, and it was clear at that point that Bergevin was trying to make the Canadiens deeper. The trade of Max Domi for Josh Anderson has its critics, but anyone who watched the team in the post-season saw the writing on the wall. Anderson is by far a better fit in this lineup, and provides it with a lot more balance. The signing of Tyler Toffoli was just icing on the cake.
If you compare the Canadiens’ roster from their final game played at full health (Game 5 versus the Philadelphia Flyers and not Game 6 when Brendan Gallagher was missing) they have essentially replaced Domi, Charles Hudon, Xavier Ouellet, and Charlie Lindgren with the players above.
With a condensed 56-game schedule, goaltending depth will be very important. This has been an issue for years with the Canadiens. Price has been overworked, leading to inconsistent play or injured, leading to an out-of-his-depth backup being thrown into the fire. It’s no coincidence that Price’s great play in the post-season came when he was rested.
With Allen, the Canadiens kill two birds with one stone. They have a player who has shown to be one of the more capable backups in the league, and someone who has started games in the NHL and had success recently in case an injury hits.
It’s not outrageous to go as far as saying that the Canadiens have the best goaltending in the division. The Calgary Flames (Markstrom/Rittich), Canucks (Demko/Holtby), and Maple Leafs (Andersen/Campbell/Dell) are their closest rivals. Winnipeg may have the best goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck, but in what is a common theme in the division, the Canadiens have the better depth.
Unlike in previous years, the Canadiens can give Price the night off without giving the opposing team the same benefit.
The Canadiens may not have the best defenceman in the division (depending how you feel about Shea Weber and/or Jeff Petry, of course) but they make up with the quality all through the lineup.
Other teams have better defencemen than Ben Chiarot, Edmundson, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, and Alexander Romanov. They may even have better depth options than Ouellet, Noah Juulsen, and Cale Fleury. But it’s the combination of both, plus the aforementioned Weber and Petry, that makes the Canadiens unique.
The playoffs hosted the coming-out party for the trio of Chiarot, Weber, and Petry, and Kulak’s performance was just as notable. Adding Romanov and Edmundson provides two options that improve the depth. If Edmundson gets a spot next to Petry in a similar role to what he played next to Alex Pietrangelo, it improves the third pairing that could include any combination of Kulak, Mete, and Romanov. Either way, nobody is making this defence by default. The internal competition all the way through to the taxi squad and Laval will be fierce and every spot will be earned.
It’s hard to imagine former Canadiens Mikey Reilly, Nathan Beaulieu and Jordie Benn — all penciled into the lineups of division rivals — having a spot on this Montreal blue line.
The three-headed monster of Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi is essentially locking out the top-nine spots. I would argue that most nights, figuring out which order they are in would be a challenge, and that’s by design.
I don’t think you can necessarily expect the performance that Suzuki and Kotkaniemi provided in the playoffs. There are reasons to believe, with the additions at wing that we’ll get into, that different lines will be leaned on through the peaks and valleys sure to come with a shortened season.
Jake Evans is likely pencilled into the fourth spot, but regardless of whether it’s him, Ryan Poehling, or even someone like Lukas Vejdemo or Jordan Weal, the player in that spot will earn it. They’ll be responsible enough defensively to not be exploited (especially with the depth at wing) and may even be the exploiter in matchups against their counterparts on other teams.
Opponents have better talent at the top. That’s not even up for debate when you’re in a division with McDavid, Matthews, and Mark Scheifele. However, when you factor in both ends of the ice, I don’t believe there’s a crack for a team to exploit.
This has actually been a strength of the team for a few years. Two years ago, Paul Byron and Andrew Shaw were the opening-night wingers on the fourth line. The issue here has always been the quality of the replacements
Last year, the season went into a tailspin when the team lost Jonathan Drouin and Byron. There just wasn’t the depth. This year, between Tomas Tatar, Gallagher, Drouin, Anderson, Toffoli, Byron, Joel Armia, and Artturi Lehkonen, it’s hard to even rank most of them in any sort of order. Regardless of their internal ranks, all of them could have an argument for more playing time.
It’s hard to see where Wayne Simmonds — whom the team was interested in before he chose to sign with Toronto — would fit in and, perhaps more importantly, who he would displace.
If there’s an injury in the top nine this year, there’s a ready-made replacement and someone deserving of that spot. If there happen to be more than one injury, the depth is strong enough there, too. Weal and Alex Belzile are capable depth options and that’s without considering other players who could be called up from Laval in Jesse Ylönen, Joseph Blandisi, Poehling, or anyone else who emerges.
The main difference, and a common theme with the Canadiens roster this season, is not only do they have a solid top six, or top nine, or top-four on defence. They have built-in contingencies should something go wrong. It’s something that they didn’t have in previous seasons. When Gallagher couldn’t play in Game 6 against the Flyers, as an example, Armia filled in nicely, but there wasn’t an adequate replacement for Armia further down.
Don’t get me wrong: the roster isn’t perfect as there’s still is room for improvement. It’s also not fair to say that the Canadiens have the best team on paper in the division. They’ll be in the fight for the playoffs with six teams that probably expect to make the playoffs, and the improving Ottawa Senators.
Every team brings something different to the table, and every team is at a different stage of its contending window. Where the Canadiens have their strength is with their balance. We saw glimpses of it in the post-season a few months ago, and the team is markedly improved from that point.