FanPost

Predicting 2020-21 Roster

Introduction

Projecting the Canadiens lineup for 2020-21 in late July is normally a fairly easy thing to do. In 2020? Not so much. But fear not, I made it my task to predict what the Canadiens will look like in December 2020. An important note I'd like to make is that this is going to be primarily focused on the players currently under contract or pending UFAs, as well as free agent targets. I omitted any trade proposals as I wanted to focus more on what the Canadiens currently have within their organization, and what kind of roster they could have opening day without any trades. With that being said, let's take a look at who the Canadiens currently have under contract.

Forwards

(Italics indicates pending RFAs likely to be re-signed)

Tatar Danault Gallagher

Drouin Suzuki Armia

Domi Kotkaniemi Lehkonen

Byron Evans Weal

Vejdemo

Pending Free Agents: Dale Weise, Charles Hudon

Barring any major changes such as winning the draft lottery to add Alexis Lafrieniere, I would be surprised to see major changes to the forward group prior to 2020-21. Given the uncertainty of the upcoming season, and the smaller period of time after the Stanley Cup is awarded, I don't see any major names being traded. The line of Tatar-Danault-Gallagher is as cohesive a unit as you can hope for in the NHL, so I predict Bergevin will look to bring all three back next season.

Jonathan Drouin and Nick Suzuki make a strong duo for the second line, and Joel Armia will be asked to play a bigger role should he continue on that line. Moving forward, I see this as a potential area to upgrade, Ilya Kovalchuk being the most likely target. Given his success alongside Suzuki, and his apparent willingness to return to Montreal, Kovalchuk gives the Canadiens a scoring threat to play alongside two fantastic passers in Drouin and Suzuki. It is likely that whomever may be brought in on the right wing would be a more established veteran, as long-term Jesse Ylönen and Cole Caufield project to fill a scoring role with the Canadiens. Two other scoring RW UFA targets outside of Ilya Kovalchuk that could slide in well into a middle 6 role are: Craig Smith (NSH) and Evgeni Dadonov (FLA). While Kovalchuk is the obvious target, Bergevin and the Canadiens are in a position to take advantage of their cap space available and signing a veteran to a short-term deal would help bridge the gap until Caufield turns professional. The Canadiens have no shortage of playmaking forwards and adding a player like Kovalchuk/Smith/Dadonov would immediately add a goal scoring touch that is desperately needed.

Even if there aren't any veteran wingers added to the team, it is likely that Joel Armia will still spend some time on the 3rd line next season. Other players likely to fill out the remaining sports are Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Arturri Lehkonen, and Paul Byron. I've listed Drouin here as well, as he and Domi play similar roles for the Canadiens. Both will be looked to on the powerplay, and they will each likely play roles in the middle 6. Despite being listed as the 4th line centre heading into the playoffs against the Penguins, Domi will in all likelihood need to make the shift to LW at some point if he hopes to maintain a spot in the lineup. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has also played some time as a LW, however his long-term projection remains as a centre, and he will likely be asked to play in a 3rd line role once more. It is possible the Canadiens will take advantage of Kotkaniemi's waiver exemption, as he could play some time in Laval to continue to develop his game. Arturri Lehkonen and Paul Byron are both extremely responsible wingers, who can both chip in offensively at times. Both players will play roles as bottom 6 wingers as well as being key penalty killers.

Speaking of the penalty kill, one area that will require some attention is the 4th line centre/penalty killer role. Nate Thompson filled this role for Claude Julien for parts of the last two seasons until his trade to the Philadelphia Flyers at the trade deadline. The Canadiens have multiple candidates for that role internally (Jake Evans, Lukas Vejdemo, and Ryan Poehling), however I anticipate a free agent signing to help solidify this position. It is possible that one of the 3 listed names could fill that role, however I believe in each case, more time in Laval would be in their best interest for the future. I expect one of Vejdemo or Evans to be the 13th forward initially, learning from a veteran centre. A few UFA centres that could fill this role are: Brad Richardson (ARI), Mikko Koivu (MIN), and Cody Eakin (WPG). Once again, I am not predicting one of these players specifically will be signed, I just see this as the type of player we can expect Marc Bergevin to target.

The last player to talk about is Jordan Weal. Weal is mismanaged in some regards, but he is an NHL player without a doubt. While I don't view him as a top 9 player, playing a 4th line role is a perfect role for Weal. He had respectable possession metrics and has the ability to score at times. That being said, I hope for Bergevin to add a player to compete with Weal for the job at training camp, similar to what Nick Cousins was in 2019-20. Since both Evans and Vejdemo can be sent down, there isn't a huge risk of signing a potential 4th line/13th forward to compete with Jordan Weal. Dale Weise and Charles Hudon are the candidates within the organization currently. Weise is a more traditional 4th line player, and it is evident Julien has more trust in him than Hudon or any of the other younger players currently. If Weise hopes to earn another contract, a strong playoff against Pittsburgh would go a long way. Hudon on the other hand needs to convince Julien he can be trusted in a depth role. He has shown he can score at the AHL level, however Julien demands accountability from his 4th line, something that Hudon has struggled with over the years.

Given the suggestions made, that leaves an opening lineup of:

Tatar Danault Gallagher

Drouin Suzuki Scoring RW (Kovalchuk)

Domi Kotkaniemi Armia

Byron UFA Centre Lehkonen

Evans/Vejdemo Weal

In this scenario, one of Jake Evans and Lukas Vejdemo would start in Laval. Jesperi Kotkaniemi could just as easily be sent down with Domi playing 3C, Lehkonen/Byron as 3LW, and Weal playing 4RW. If Hudon/Weise are re-signed, or a free agent LW/RW is brought in, expect both Evans and Vejdemo to play in Laval.

Defence

Chiarot Weber

Kulak Petry

Romanov Mete

Juulsen

Pending Free Agents: Xavier Oullet, Christian Folin

The defence for the Canadiens is fairly set moving forward, as 5 of the 6 positions seem to be locked in place going into 2020-21. Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber were often paired by Julien and can be expected to make up the top pairing once more. While some fans may want Alex Romanov to play in a bigger role, the fact is he will face an adjustment coming to North America and will be in competition to make the opening day lineup. Jeff Petry is a lock as the right defenceman on the second pairing, and Brett Kulak is the most obvious choice as his partner. Despite struggling to maintain a consistent spot in the lineup, once paired with Petry, Kulak was able to stabilize the second pairing and elevate his game to a new level.

This is an area that could also be looked at via free agency to bring the team to new levels. Long term the Canadiens hope Alex Romanov can fill the void on the left side, and the depth chart is full of younger players showing promise in various leagues around the world. For the immediate future, the Canadiens could look to add a veteran on a short-term deal. Similar to the logic of signing a player like Kovalchuk, it could help bridge the gap to when Romanov and the various other prospects (Harris, Struble, Norlinder, etc) are able to make the jump. Continuing on the free agency theme, Torey Krug is a defenceman I would love for the Canadiens to be in the mix for. Whether he makes it to UFA status is yet to be seen, however he is the kind of star the Canadiens desperately need and could slot in right away next to Shea Weber. Admittedly a long shot, I am optimistic Bergevin will attempt to make a splash like he did last year (Aho) to add star power instantly. Another name I see as a potential target is Erik Gustafsson (CGY). Gustafsson would fit the faster tempo the Canadiens play, and would likely be willing to accept a shorter-term deal with higher AAV that the Habs could offer. Both Gustafsson and Krug would alleviate the pressure off Romanov, and would allow Kulak, Chiarot, and Mete some leniency if their play regressed.

Speaking of Victor Mete, he seems like a virtual lock on the third pairing. He is currently set to play RD against Pittsburgh, and given his mobility, I believe he should perform well on his off hand. If no free agents are signed, I predict Mete will play with either Alex Romanov, Noah Juulsen, or Cale Fleury to begin the season. I've slated Juulsen here initially as he will require waivers to play in Laval. Mete will be asked to take a leap forward this upcoming season. Through 3 seasons he has shown he can be a reliable defenceman and will be asked to help less experienced defenceman get more comfortable in the NHL. If Noah Juulsen can return to full strength, he has the inside track at starting in the NHL over Romanov and Fleury, though I predict each will see NHL time in 2020-21. While both Xavier Oullet and Christian Folin spent time in the NHL, I only expect Oullet to be retained. It would not surprise me if neither are retained at all, as Laval have numerous left-handed defencemen as it is, and Christian Folin had minimal impact in 2019-20.

I don't anticipate major changes on the back end as the Canadiens are loaded with young defenceman not yet in the NHL, and a top 4 Claude Julien trusts. If there are any changes, I expect it to be to alleviate the pressure off the young players or trying to make a big splash.

Goaltenders

Carey Price

Charlie Lindgren

I won't spend much time on goaltending as I previously wrote about each goaltender's role going forward. Quite simply, the Canadiens need stronger play behind Carey Price. The problem will more than likely be addressed, as Bergevin will look to right his wrong from last offseason with Keith Kinkaid. The logic for signing Kinkaid can be applied to any free agent goaltender the Canadiens bring in, however I believe Bergevin needs to be more aggressive in finding a proper backup. Four players that fit this description are: Anton Khudobin (DAL), Cam Talbot (CGY), Corey Crawford (CHI), and Thomas Greiss (NYI). To me, this is the number one priority for the Canadiens, and failure to properly address this would be a failure of an offseason.

Conclusion

As I wrote this, I kept wondering to myself, what are the big takeaways from all this? The first thing I realized is the Canadiens don't have the pressing concerns that some teams will have. This team is still incredibly young, and if they have any hope of contending in the near future, it will be on the shoulders of youngsters such as Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Alex Romanov. So, the 2020-21 season should be focused on putting the young players in positions to succeed. Playing Kotkaniemi as a 4th line LW, or Romanov playing 12 minutes a night on a third pairing won't help them grow as much as valuable minutes in the AHL with the right players and system around them. Canadiens fans will be patient but can remain optimistic. This team has a top prospect pool for the first time in a long time, 25 draft picks in the next 2 years, a coaching staff in Laval that is committed to developing players, financial flexibility, and a group of players that have great chemistry and play an exciting style of hockey. Am I being a little optimistic? Maybe. But maybe in 2020, that's what we all need a little bit more of.

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