As the season is set to begin, I had a problem. I had several thoughts in my head, and they weren’t enough for a full article on their own. Even if they were, the season starts Wednesday. There’s simply not enough time for that.
These aren’t necessarily bold predictions, or even predictions at all. Just food for thought as the hours to puck drop tick down.
1. Kings of the North?
The Montreal Canadiens are in a better position in the North Division than they would have been in the regular Atlantic Division. The North Division is very talented, but I would be more surprised if they missed the playoffs than if they won the division. The Canadiens are a top team in this group.
2. Be Aggressive
Speed has been a part of the Canadiens’ identity for most of this generation. They have always been on the smaller side, meaning their speed was their weapon. This season, I am curious just how aggressive the team will be. The penalty kill has already shown itself to be relentless in pressure in scrimmages, and players have talked about that. How will that translate to the team at five-on-five?
3. Surprises are in order
It hardly comes as a surprise that the Canadiens don’t have the top-end talent of some of the other teams in the division. The lack of star power is something that may cause the Canadiens to be underestimated somewhat. With the way the schedule works, it won’t take people a lot of time to get used to Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen, and others on the team. It only takes a few games to understand how relentless these players can be.
4. Phillip Danault may have his coming out party
It’s not ideal for Marc Bergevin, perhaps, but the stars are aligned for the Canadiens centre to have a great season. With the star power on other teams, Danault will likely get the task of playing against those stars. When games are spread out, it’s easy to forget Danault’s ability, but when teams see him up to 10 times this season, it will open eyes to how good he can be on a game-to-game basis.
5. Alexander Romanov... Finally
It has been a few years that people have been waiting to see Alexander Romanov in North America, and his first impression went pretty well. We have to remember he’s still an NHL rookie, but the team is allowing him to ease into things. The pressure to move him up the lineup won’t be there as long as he is playing on the right side with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry ahead of him.
6. Josh Anderson will lead the Canadiens in short-handed goals
I know, I know, I said no bold predictions.... He’ll have to compete with Paul Byron for this honour, but just as he surprised his Canadiens teammates with his speed, the ability to counter-attack an overwhelmed defender at the blue line and break away will be an asset. In women’s hockey, I have watched teams have to play against Marie-Philip Poulin killing penalties. One small mistake, and it can end up in your net. That threat alone (and we already saw it with Byron) makes the penalty kill better on its own.
7. How will teams match up versus the Canadiens when healthy?
Coaches often look for any advantage. They look for matchups to exploit. I am curious how teams will look to attack this Canadiens team. My instinct says that they will try to put pressure on the young centres, but they are so well insulated by their wingers that may not be a winning recipe.
I expect they’ll try to attack Alexander Romanov, but that may backfire if the Russian is up to the task. One thing is for sure: The youngsters on the Canadiens will be challenged and it will be interesting to see how they respond.
8. What adjustments will the Canadiens make?
Already through the scrimmages you can tell that there are some strategic differences on special teams. It’s hard to tell in a scrimmage what other things the team is working on, every year there have been subtle changes to the team’s system. I’m very curious what changes they have in store this season.
9. The Canadiens aren’t counting on one specific player
Whether it was Carey Price, Shea Weber, or Brendan Gallagher, Canadiens rosters have always been top-heavy. Now, a player like Gallagher, or even Jonathan Drouin, is simply one enemy on the radar. Josh Anderson has high expectations, but there are so many layers to this Canadiens squad that there isn’t a need for him to lead the team. If Anderson doesn’t score, they have Gallagher and Tyler Toffoli. If Nick Suzuki struggles, they have Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Danault.
If Joel Edmundson struggles, they have Victor Mete and Brett Kulak. Jeff Petry has taken a step forward every year. Carey Price has Jake Allen. Depth will be a major factor this season, and Marc Bergevin has set himself up well.
10. For the first time in a long time, this team is expecting to make the playoffs
How many times have we heard Marc Bergevin say that the goal is to get to the playoffs and then see what happens. Notice how that message was missing this year? The expectations are raised and everyone knows it. I wouldn’t call it pressure, necessarily, because everyone knows what is possible.
For all of Bergevin’s tenure, even when the team was winning division titles, the tone around the team wasn’t like this. Since the reset, optimism about what was being built was tempered by lacklustre results on the ice. This organization needs to start to see results. It started with a positive performance in the bubble and Bergevin put the team in the best position to take the next step.
11: It feels like full circle for Marc Bergevin and the organization
Ever since camp started, and with a January regular season start date looming, I couldn’t shake something: How much this feels like the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season in some ways.
The circumstances around this team are not the same at all — the 2011-12 Canadiens were a disaster in most senses of the word. But that year had a sense of optimism and chaos that makes it feel similar to this team.
That year’s optimism was built around a couple of young players, and a few new additions to the lineup to surround the base that was already there.
This team is better in almost every way than the 2012-13 team. The optimism is different as well as the reason for the shortened season. That team surprised everyone en route to a division title. They followed that up with an extremely banged up version of that roster (which may still be an understatement) falling in the first round.
That was the first year that the “No Excuses” sign was infamously plastered on the dressing room wall. Four years after the sign was removed, it finally feels like that era is behind us.