There were a lot of surprises for the Habs this season, both of the positive and negative variety. Having had time to reflect on the whole year, our writers offer up their thoughts on the biggest surprises of 2016-17.
Hilding Gnanapragasm: Sadly, the biggest surprise of the year could also be filed under ‘biggest disappointment’ and that is the sudden decline of Alex Galchenyuk. The biggest reason the Habs find themselves with a gaping hole at centre, is because Galchenyuk, who less than a year ago was a lock for the starting centre position, has now been declared a winger until further notice. The reason this qualifies as the biggest surprise, is that all signs pointed to Galchenyuk thriving in the role, dating back only as far as early season.
Galchenyuk’s entire career has been an upward trajectory up until that fateful knee injury in late January. He seemed to return a different player. When Claude Julien was brought in, there was much rejoicing over the belief that he would right the good ship Galchenyuk and get him back on course as the Habs’ number one centre. Instead, Julien not only moved Galchenyuk back to the wing after only a brief appearance at centre, but he also dropped him to the fourth line – yet another surprise. The experience left Galchenyuk sour and sullen, but hopefully not broken. Canadiens have to pray that next season’s biggest surprise involves Galchenyuk finally claiming the top centre spot that he was drafted to fill.
Brian La Rose: When Paul Byron signed his contract extension just before the 2016 trade deadline, I thought they were basically signing him as insurance. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d be a key player for the Habs this season, let alone scoring more than 20 goals and finishing second on the team in goals. All of a sudden, he’s one of the bigger bargains on the team and has played himself into a must-protect position for the upcoming Vegas expansion draft.
I also have to admit that I was surprised with the coaching change back in February. Marc Bergevin has been nothing but patient with his off-ice staff and while the team was scuffling in a big way, I figured he’d make a notable trade before sending Michel Therrien out the door and I didn’t expect Julien to be his successor either. It certainly will be interesting to see what moves are made in the offseason as Bergevin attempts to retool the team to Julien’s liking.
Alex Létourneau: Robbed of any positivity after the Habs bowed out with a whimper, the biggest surprise for me is a negative one. Galchenyuk. What happened there? After closing out last season on fire, he picked up where he left off before injuries derailed what was becoming a promising campaign. But what came back after was arguably an imposter. While at first it did look like Therrien might have been misusing him, that thought process was quelled once Julien couldn’t seem to find a way to get him going. So, how does a player on the cusp of taking it to the next level tumble down to uncertainty of even signing him in his RFA status this summer? At the moment, I would be looking to package him for a top-six centreman, and that’s extremely hopeful. Phillip Danault and Tomas Plekanec are not top-six centremen and it looks like neither is he. It is truly baffling how such promise can turn sour in less than 82 games. If the Canadiens choose not to trade him and he signs, there better not be too much term. It’s obvious he’s a talented young player, but talent doesn’t show up anywhere on the score sheet.
David Woodward: The most pleasant surprises of the year were Paul Byron’s breakout twenty-two goal season and the emergence of Phillip Danault as a solid NHL centre. Like most prognosticators, this writer never saw either of these two players performing at this level. HabsWorld’s early-season story on the opportunities for young players projected Byron as a winger on the fourth line and gave only passing mention to Danault with his most likely position being on the wing or, possibly, even in the minors. While his emergence does not establish Danault, 24, as the type of number one centre the Canadiens covet, his impressive 2016-17 season establishes him as a major part of the team’s future and, very plausibly, part of their core if he continues to develop his game. Byron, 28, is a little older than Danault and his game’s singular reliance on speed does bring into question whether his contribution this past season is sustainable over the long term. However, given the Canadiens challenges offensively, it would take a major piece coming the other way to part with Byron at this time. Paul Byron is the Habs’ best waiver wire pick-up in recent memory.
As always, there were some underwhelming performances this season. The failure of Nathan Beaulieu to seize a greater role as either a top-pairing or even top-four defenseman is disappointing. With the emergence of Jordie Benn as the likely third defenseman that will be protected (along with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry), it is quite likely that Beaulieu will be traded before the expansion draft. Galchenyuk’s season ended similarly but his performance was hampered by his mid-season knee injury. Also, absent a deal that is too good to refuse, the Canadiens’ desperate need for a number one centre and Galchenyuk’s intriguing skill set will most likely persuade the Canadiens to remain patient, at least for now.