Expectations are a funny thing. One month ago, nobody expected the Montreal Canadiens to even be in the playoffs, nevermind give the top seed in the Eastern Conference a run for their money.
What it did, as well, was raise expectations for the 2020-21 season.
If the year had ended the way it was going in 2019-20, with a whimper, there would be the normal urgency of getting the team back to the playoffs, but patience would be the order of the day with so many young players in the system.
The emergence of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, even in a small sample, proved that the Canadiens’ window of contention may be closer than people expected. The play of Carey Price proved that he can still be the best goaltender in the world. Shea Weber and Jeff Petry were pillars and seemed better in the playoffs than they had been all season.
This Canadiens team is not a contender yet, don’t get me wrong. They also have clear weaknesses that need to be addressed. But the pressure to deliver has increased. Any season where the Canadiens do not win a playoff round from now on will be considered an abject failure. The stakes have been raised.
Marc Bergevin’s reset finally has some on-ice success. Building prospect pools is one thing, but beating the Pittsburgh Penguins as underdogs, and fighting tough against the Philadelphia Flyers is more than the Canadiens have done in four years.
This doesn’t mean that the team should go all-in, or try to win the Stanley Cup in 2020-21 at all costs. But the team may need to be more aggressive than they would have been otherwise. It means potentially changing targets from, say, Ilya Kovalchuk to Taylor Hall. It may mean using some of the draft and prospect capital from the last few years to tempt a cap-strapped team in a trade. It means to use value to get value instead of looking for bargains.
The team has already added Alexander Romanov for the 2020-21 season, an addition to the left side of the defence that includes a rejuvenated Brett Kulak and Ben Chiarot. Suzuki and Kotkaniemi’s play has given the Canadiens options to use some forward depth to try to improve.
Bergevin’s team had a good return to play. There were key things learned, despite the small sample. It also gave the Canadiens’ general manager the leeway to be more aggressive in his decision-making, if he chooses to be.
The bar won’t just be making the playoffs anymore.