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Meet the new Habs, same as the old ... Bruins?

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Montreal’s new lineup evokes memories of Claude Julien’s time in Boston.

Vancouver Canucks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens overhauled their roster this off-season, spending up to the cap ceiling in an effort to propel the team back into the playoffs, and hopefully Stanley Cup contention.

It’s not that Marc Bergevin just threw money at random players; every single move was made with a clear intention in mind. This was a team that played with speed and tenacity — which they still will after the roster overhaul — but now they’ve added a meaner side to their game, the kind that helps teams win playoff games.

If a physical, menacing club coached by Claude Julien sounds familiar, well, it should, as the Canadiens have started to model their lineup after Julien’s Stanley Cup Final team in Boston.

Before you start panicking that Shea Weber is going to shove someone headfirst into a stanchion, or that Josh Anderson will blindside someone with a dirty hit, this doesn’t mean they’re going to be a perfect clone of the 2011 or 2013 teams, but the style of play on the ice will be strikingly similar. This new Montreal team is going to make you fight and battle for every inch of ice in the defensive zone, and then use its speed and relentless attack to batter you at the other end of the ice. Opposing teams are going to win games, but it’s gonna hurt like hell to do so.

Julien brought a pair of Bruins teams to the Final, winning the Cup in 2011 and falling short in 2013 to the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty. The identity of those teams was plenty of offensive depth, with defined roles up and down the forward group. The defence was highlighted by hard-hitting, menacing defenders who embody the cliché of “hard to play against,” for multiple reasons. They also had an entrenched starting goaltender, with a backup behind him capable of shouldering the load if needed.

Forwards

In 2011 the Bruins’ forward lines shook out like this, according to HockeyViz:

2010-11 Boston Bruins forward deployment
HockeyViz.com

The 2011 Bruins were led by a strong top six, featuring a heavy dose of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron, and Mark Recchi, with a sprinkling of Brad Marchand, and Blake Wheeler before he was traded. Across the board the attack was balanced, with just two players topping 60 points in the regular season and only four topping 50. They had just one 30-goal-scorer, and three more topped 20 goals on the year. This was not a team built around elite talents like they would be in a few seasons’ time.

On defence, the team consisted of Zdeno Chara and a cast of hard-nosed, physically talented defenders. While Chara led the group with 44 points, only his partner, Dennis Seidenberg, topped 30 points, while the rest put up around 10 to 15 points each. However, their strength wasn’t in their offensive production, but the physical aspect they brought to the game, a style the Canadiens are looking to emulate with their changes.

Fast forward two years and one lockout after the Bruins captured the Stanley Cup, and they found themselves back in the Final against the Blackhawks. The roster, with some slight tweaks, remained mostly the same, but had many of the same patterns from the 2011 club,

2013 Boston Bruins Forward Deployment
Hockeyviz.com

There were plenty of familiar names that remained from the 2011 club, with the biggest absence being Recchi, who had his minutes replaced by rising star Tyler Seguin on the Bruins’ top line. While the fourth line featured more rotation than any other line, there were again some clearly defined roles within the forward trios.

Julien likes to have his lines broken up into three distinct roles: a shutdown line, an offensive line, and an all-around line that balances the two, while also having a fourth line that can bring some physicality and defensive acumen. In the upcoming season he can find that same structure thanks to Bergevin’s off-season moves.

Shutdown line: Tomas Tatar - Phillip Danault - Brendan Gallagher

The role may sound defensive in nature, but when we look at the Bruins and how they deployed Bergeron, it doesn’t mean this line can’t still generate offence. For the last two years, the trio of Tatar, Danault and Gallagher has been among the NHL’s best at shot-generation, and that isn’t likely to change. At the same time, they do incredibly well shutting down the opposing team’s top line every night.

Danault has been a Selke-calibre centre for the Canadiens for the last two years, and with two play-driving wingers this has been among the best lines in the league. It’s highly unlikely that Julien will change it up given its overall success, and it will continue to be his most-used group in tough situations.

The offensive line: Jonathan Drouin - Nick Suzuki - Tyler Toffoli

We saw the chemistry between Drouin and Suzuki flourish at the end of the series against Philadelphia, and now they could another consistent 20-goal threat on the right win in Tyler Toffoli. While Suzuki enjoyed an expanded role in the post-season, he still has some work to do on his defensive game. What isn’t in doubt is his offensive creativity, and with a healthy Drouin back in the fold, plus a stable goal-scorer on the opposite side, this is the sort of line Claude Julien can deploy the way he did Krejci’s in the past.

The all-around line: Artturi Lehkonen - Jesperi Kotkaniemi - Josh Anderson

It might be lazy to call a line an all-around group, but it would fit in this case, as each player has a mix of offensive talent and prowess on the defensive side of the puck. They won’t be counted on to eat up the harsh defensive minutes like the Danault line does, but they can handle those secondary minutes without much struggle. In that same vein, they can provide secondary scoring in all three forward positions, and offer a tenacious forecheck as well.

They key addition is Anderson, a power forward on the right wing who fits Julien’s physical style of hockey. In the past, both Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton filled this role quite well on Julien’s teams, Anderson is a modern version of both those players, with plenty of offensive upside, so he’ll more than likely feature heavily at even strength.

The fourth line: Paul Byron - Jake Evans - Joel Armia

It’s been a long time since the fourth line resembled anything more than whatever was left of the NHL-contracted players. Both Byron and Armia can play up and down the lineup, and are a massive luxury for this fourth line, while Evans has grown into a capable NHL centre since being drafted in 2014. They can all score goals, cover defensive responsibilites well, and are a general nuisance to play against, which should earn them ice time. They aren’t the truculent force that was the old Boston “Merlot Line,” but they bring a larger offensive impact and aren’t just there to be physical on the ice.

Across the board, the members of the Canadiens’ forward group can fit multiple roles, and there isn’t one glaring weakness that could disrupt everything like in years past.

Defence

Everyone knows that the Bruins are a feisty bunch of jerks (sorry Carolina, they were first), and that trying to manoeuvre around their net meant taking all kinds of abuse from their defencemen. The 2019-20 Canadiens started following that trend with the arrival of Ben Chiarot and his partnership with Shea Weber. In the 2020 playoffs opposing teams found life to be abjectly miserable if they got near Carey Price as both hulking defenders made it their goal to punish anyone nearby. The Habs then went out and added a steady stay-at-home defender in Joel Edmundson who also relishes the physical side of the game, while adding prospect Alexander Romanov as well.

The group identity is simple: gets pucks out of the zone, and make life a nightmare for anyone who gets within your area of coverage. We’ve seen teams follow this sort of play style to multiple Stanley Cups in recent memory, and it’s not surprising that after a highly physical post-season that the Canadiens want to emulate parts of it as well.

They still have offensive firepower in Weber, while Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak possess plenty of puck-moving skill, and prospects like Noah Juulsen and Cale Fleury can continue to grow under the watchful eye of Joël Bouchard in Laval.

Goaltenders

While the nasty, physical team in front of them got a lot of the headlines during the Cup runs, the Bruins also had another ace up their sleeve. In both 2011 and 2013, they had a stable with two quality netminders that allowed the coach to manage his starters’ number of games played. In 2011 it was Tim Thomas with Tuukka Rask serving as his backup, and in 2013 Rask was the entrenched starter with Anton Khudobin playing as the number-two.

The numbers speak for themselves, as Thomas went 35-11-9 with a .938 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average along with nearly 46 goals saved above average. Rask was 11-14-2 but still posted a .918 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average. In 2013 it was Rask as the starter with a 19-10-5 record, .929 SV% and 2.00 GAA, while Khudobin was 9-4-1 with a .920 SV% and 2.32 GAA, showing that a strong backup benefits the starter just as much as the team.

This off-season, the Canadiens went out and got a quality NHL backup in Jake Allen, who can take the pressure off so Carey Price no longer has to play over 60 games a season due to the lack of a quality goalie behind him. When Price is rested, as we saw in the playoffs this year, he’s still one of the best goalies in the world. Adding in Allen who could easily start 25 to 30 games a year allows Julien that same flexibility he had in Boston, which should in theory result in more wins.

It’s not so much that the Canadiens cultivated their own new persona this fall, but borrowed heavily from one their coach used to great success with another organization. There’s a mountain of talent on both sides of the puck for Montreal to utilize, and looking at how the lineup might be constructed it’s clear this team is going to evoke memories of the Boston Bruins teams that Julien brought to the Stanley Cup Final.

Hopefully there will be far fewer suspendable actions with this group in Montreal, but the core message remains very much the same: you might beat the Canadiens, but it’s going to be a battle every single shift.