The Montreal Canadiens have some decisions to make about which players they will be protecting and exposing players ahead of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. Marc Bergevin will have to have his list complete by July 17.
He has the option of protecting seven forwards, three defencemen, and one goaltender, or if he wants to prevent more defencemen from being eligible, he can take eight skaters off limits along with a goaltender.
There are sure to be some tough decisions for the general manager, but he will also have some clarity after a long playoff run, seeing what a team with a lot of new acquisitions and players in their first few years of their careers could do in the future.
As is often the case, the Canadiens faced top-quality goaltending throughout the run to the Stanley Cup Final, but even so, ranking 12th of the 16th playoff entrants in goals per game (2.32) didn’t put them in the best position to claim the trophy, especially when the team they faced in the Final averaged nearly one goal more. Which players were doing the most to carry the offence?
It’s important to note that Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Alexander Romanov are exempt from the expansion process and can’t be claimed, but the stats for every skater who played in the post-season are included in the tables for reference.
Looking at the production of the forwards, it’s a great thing for the organization’s future that two of the top three offence-generators aren’t even experienced enough yet to meet the criteria for needing protection. We all expected Caufield to become a key member of the team’s offence at some point, but I don’t think many of us thought he would be a star as soon as he arrived. The top points-per-60-minutes mark of anyone and ranking second behind human wrecking ball Brendan Gallagher is scoring chances prove that he’s already achieved that level.
With three years of NHL experience, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is eligible, but there’s little question he’s going to be one of the players protected. The offence was there in the post-season, and he was earning the scoring opportunities he got.
Eric Staal also had a strong post-season offensively, as did Corey Perry even though he had fewer goals than expected. Both made their case to stay, and Perry sounds eager to do so.
Artturi Lehkonen had a decent amount of goals, and was getting into good position to score them as evidenced by his team-best individual expected goals per 60, but he didn’t guarantee his protection slot by ranking high in the forward core. He and Armia had similar performances, but the senior Finn added some assists to his tally to take the edge in this comparison.
Playing through various injuries, Gallagher’s lack of offence is understandable, and there’s about a 0% chance that Bergevin leaves his sparkplug available. The same might be true for Toffoli even though he had a disappointing playoff run, much lower on the list than his regular season would have indicated.
Tomas Tatar really needed a big showing to make his case for an extension, but was unable to deliver that performance. In terms of players who hurt their status during the run, the player who sat out 17 of the 22 games is at the top of the list, and is likely already out of the organizational picture.
Jake Evans also wasn’t able to take advantage of his opportunity with some eye-opening offensive totals, but there will be much more to say about him in the next part of this discussion.
A lack of offence from the defence was a main storyline for the Habs. Yet Alexander Romanov wasn’t so far off the expected-goals mark Tatar posted. Perhaps that says more about Tatar than the rookie defenceman, but it at least shows there’s a bit of offensive upside to work with in Romanov’s case. Very little of that number (only slightly better than his regular-season mark) would have come from the flipped shot he scored his one goal on, so the did get a few looks in his tiny three-game sample. Again, Romanov isn’t eligible to be drafted by the Kraken.
Jeff Petry, dislocated fingers and suspected wonky shoulder and all, was able to make a small offensive contribution, and somewhat surprisingly Joel Edmundson did even better with five assists versus Petry’s four.
Shea Weber was unlucky to not score at five-on-five, because he was all over the offensive zone with by far the most scoring chances of the blue-liners, and his breakaway on a power play isn’t even included here. Weber looked like a rejuvenated player despite the thumb injury, and that was a positive development after he had some mobility issues during the regular season.
Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson had respectable showings. Jon Merrill, on the other hand, had virtually no impact on the offensive side. Other than the only goal in Game 1 versus Tampa Bay, neither did Ben Chiarot.
Preventing the opposition from scoring is just as important an aspect of the game, especially given the offensive clubs Montreal faced on its run. The four opponents ranked sixth, 12th, third, and eighth in goals per game in the regular season, but were limited by Montreal’s defensive play in the playoffs.
This is where Evans’s game truly shone. He may have only played a third of the games, but he had by far the best metrics of any forward in his seven matches, and it wasn’t a sheltered deployment for the rookie centreman with only 44.4% of his end-zone shifts taken in the offensive zone. It may not be a coincidence that the series with the Toronto Maple Leafs changed when he was introduced to the lineup, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were held to their lowest goal totals once he entered the Final.
The next three players in the list are no surprise, as Gallagher, Tatar, and Danault had comprised one of the greatest lines in the NHL over the past three seasons, with their shutdown skill a major part of that. It does show the impact that Tatar leaving would have on the team’s defence, but perhaps an off-wing Evans could seamlessly slip into that role.
What Lehkonen lost to Armia on offence he made up on the defensive side, being the one chosen to replace Tatar on the line for much of the run. Lehkonen had a defensive deployment, while Armia was part of a big fourth trio that Ducharme liked to use in the offensive zone to grind down the opposition.
The worst metrics actually came from those who were used more in an offensive capacity. Josh Anderson was heavily sheltered, but still had some of the poorest numbers on the team. The net-drives were a lot of fun to watch and helped the Canadiens win a few games, but he will need to be a more reliable option on the other side of the puck.
It really just wasn’t a good line with him, Paul Byron, and Kotkaniemi. All three had detrimental defensive numbers, overshadowing most of what they were able to do on offence. Bergevin won’t be parting with Anderson after signing a player with a unique skill set to a long-term deal, and Kotkaniemi will be given the time to work on his game, but Byron needed to do a lot more to earn protected status.
We can also give Caufield a pass for his overall defence since he was dropped onto an NHL treadmill running at full speed. He showed a good aptitude for that part of the game and made several quality defensive plays in the playoffs, but it’s clear a lot more attention is required there.
Toffoli’s difficult post-season carried over to his play away from the puck as well, once again among the least effective forwards on the team. More was expected from the player who led the team in scoring from the regular season, though his defensive issues weren’t a new development.
Like Caufield, Gustafsson was used almost exclusively in offensive situations, and his metrics look like what you would expect from getting those minutes. Even so, being so much better than his fellow blue-liners is still an impressive feat.
The pairing of Petry and Edmundson maintained its solid lockdown form from the regular season. Combined with the offence they showed even with Petry labouring, there should be little doubt that this has become the top pairing in Montreal.
Weber’s numbers were also solid, but his partner wasn’t up to the same standard. There is quite a marked difference between the captain and Chiarot, which isn’t what you’d expect from one of the members of what had been dubbed the “Big Four.”
Five-on-five play makes up the majority of the minutes of an NHL game, but the most crucial ones tend to come when the penalties are called. There’s plenty of opportunity for players to make their impact in those moments.
Toffoli is surely thankful for that, because the odd-man situations were the only ones he was able to contribute in a positive way, and he did so on both the power play and the penalty kill.
Caufield, Suzuki, and Perry definitely earned the right to join him on what was essentially the only power-play unit, with only minor roles for Gallagher, Kotkaniemi, and Anderson, who made little impact. Tatar’s performance in those big minutes was another factor in getting him pulled from the lineup.
Danault’s tough minutes were added to on the penalty kill, the most used of all forwards on the top unit. The numbers relative to his teammates may not look impressive, even though those 7.19 expected goals against ranked 54th among all the players to play at least 15 minutes on the PK in the post-season.
Evans was thrown into that same role when he was in the lineup, and his expected-goals-against mark ranked ninth in that sample. He was also second in the metric on the team in the regular season, right behind Toffoli. Evans played a total 108:40 through seven playoff games, and wasn’t on the ice for a single goal against.
The Canadiens only used three defenceman on the power play, but all of Gustafsson, Petry, and Weber did decently well in contributing to the offence. Weber was quite active as well, finishing just behind Suzuki is individual expected goals.
There was much more of a distribution of duties on the penalty kill, though Weber, Chiarot, and Edmundson served as the main options. Weber was again very impressive in his time on the ice, as was Edmundson. Petry also excelled in more of a secondary role, while Merrill’s 0:58 seconds were probably 0:58 seconds too many.
Chiarot’s numbers aren’t poor by any means, but they are just one more case of him not reaching the level of the three other big-name defenders.
Which players helped/hurt their chance of being protected?
If there was a debate about whether Bergevin would go the 7-3-1 or the 4-4-1 route in the expansion draft, that debate should have been settled by the difference in play between Chiarot and Edmundson. With Weber finding his best level of play all season in the playoffs, Chiarot’s issues really started to stand out. If Weber is going to have to carry a partner going forward, it may as well be a more dynamic player like Romanov.
Tatar needed a great post-season. Instead his year was ended early by a coaching staff unimpressed with his contributions.
Perry had a chance to make up for last year’s disappointment in the Final, and he did his part to help make that happen. He wants to return next season, and he should be given the chance to do so.
Evans may not have been high on the priority list going into the playoffs, but it’s impossible to ignore the defensive showing he had. He really put himself on the map to be one of the seven forwards to be out of reach for Seattle.
There’s one player who hasn’t been mentioned in this article at all, and that’s Jonathan Drouin. He took a leave of absence partway through the season and didn’t play the rest of the year. He was probably pencilled into one of the protection slots when the season began, but it’s unlikely he will be now as the focus has to be on preserving the roster that got Montreal to the Stanley Cup Final. We will wish Drouin the best as he continues on his road to recovery.
So we’ve established that Bergevin’s protected roster should probably consist of seven forwards, three defencemen, and one goaltender. What could that roster look like? We’ll dive into all the rules and try to set a list based on what Seattle’s game plan will be in an article in the next few days.