With the start of the 2019-2020 season fast approaching, the big question within the Habs’ nation is whether this team will make the playoffs in 2020 after missing the postseason the last two consecutive years. And a more mature generation of Canadiens fans, not content with a playoff birth, are questioning whether this organization is capable of building a Stanley Cup winner.
First things first
Before dreaming about another Stanley Cup Parade it is imperative that the Habs make it into the postseason with some consistency, progressively winning more playoff series so as to establish themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders.
At the time of Marc Bergevin’s hiring as General Manager, he explained to the media that a champion must be built essentially through the draft, as no team has built a Cup winner through free agency – all of which is true. Interestingly, for at least his first few seasons, the Habs continued their previously established patterns of drafting poorly, ineffectively developing their young talent and trading away second and third round draft choices. Combined with repeated failures to lure some fairly high profile unrestricted free agents, this approach has generated the predictable results of progressively poor playoff performances, and even fewer playoff appearances, finishing very near the bottom of the entire NHL regular season standings in 2017-2018.
This futility may have been the wakeup call that the Canadiens organization needed. It appears that they have finally begun to take the team building approach that Bergevin talked about in 2012, acquiring rather than trading away draft choices, wisely drafting players considered to be more promising, making intelligent trades that include hopeful young talent and hiring good hockey people like Joel Bouchard, Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson while promoting Shane Churla to the position of Chief of Amateur Scouting. Bergevin might have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had learned a lesson early on from studying the legendary Sam Pollock. Pollock was known to have always surrounded himself with the best hockey people, rather than his best hockey friends.
The immediate challenge for the new season is to make the playoffs and try to develop a winning culture with their nucleus of young talent. Making the playoffs will be a challenge despite very nearly making it into the postseason last Spring. The six teams in the Eastern Conference do not appear to be any weaker and there is every reason to anticipate a return for them to the playoffs next April.
The Habs biggest challenge for a playoff spot should come from Carolina – already a wild card playoff team they were strengthened by the additions of Jake Gardiner, Ryan Dzingel, Erik Haula and a will have a full season from Nino Niederreiter. As well, look for Florida to be a strong postseason contender, considering their significant additions which include Coach Joel Quenneville, All-Star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, along with veterans Anton Stralman and Brett Connolly.
Other teams not to be overlooked in the playoff race could include Philadelphia who may have finally found a much-needed goaltender in twenty-one-year-old Carter Hart. Additionally, the Flyers appear to have gotten bigger, more experienced and more physical with additions Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun and Tyler Pitlick. Although further back, the New York Rangers with significant additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox could surprise. Same for the New Jersey Devils with an expected full season from Taylor Hall along with the additions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and much-heralded rookie Jack Hughes.
Then, there is the Columbus Blue Jackets. To the potential benefit of the Eastern Conference hopefuls, the Blue Jackets – a playoff qualifier last season – may be in for a tough year. The Jackets lost Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Sergei Bobrovsky and Ryan Dzingel all to free agency. That is a truckload of talent…..forfeited, without compensation.
As for the Canadiens, questions continue to abound. A number of their players had ‘career years’ in 2018-2019. Can these players repeat or eclipse their successes of a year ago? Can some of the Habs young players progress their respective games significantly? Can one or more of their rookies contribute at the NHL level this season? Who will replace the on-ice production and overall team presence which Andrew Shaw contributed? Will the goaltending of Keith Kinkaid prove adequate? Can they improve their anemic power play?
All things considered, the Habs appear to be a bubble team regarding a potential playoff spot. To qualify for postseason play they would need Carey Price to remain healthy and have a customary good if not exceptional season. Ditto for Shea Weber. The young players will have to progress, at least somewhat. They certainly need more from players like the enigmatic Jonathan Drouin. Improved goaltending from Kinkaid is a necessity. The addition of Ben Chiarot, although not considered an impact player, may turn out to be a bit of an upgrade on the defence. And of course, an improved power play would be helpful to the cause. Overall it appears that the Canadiens will have to get more out of their current roster. The season will be interesting.
As for an eventual Stanley Cup parade? Assuming management continues their current course of team building, the Canadiens may have a shot at reaching the championship level. This is possible only if Geoff Molson is as fully committed to winning a Cup as he is to making a handsome profit – something to which he is very much entitled. For many owners, winning a Stanley Cup is little more than a pipe dream. It appears that few owners like the Ilitch family, the Wirtz family and the Lemieux family are fully committed to winning at the championship level. Can the Habs’ nation expect such a commitment from Geoff Molson?