The 2021 Habs approached the 10-game mark riding a season-long hot streak that saw them lead the league in goals for—a remarkable feat considering no Canadiens’ forward sat in the top 20 in scoring. Suddenly, the team that last season could not find back of the net with any consistency was filling it at a pace most agreed was unsustainable even in the short term.
And sustained it was not. Because the Canadiens had yet to face the mighty Ottawa Senators, losers of eight straight heading into a two-game set against the bleu-blanc-rouge. That the Habs would suffer a letdown against a weak opponent in that first game was entirely predictable. But that second game against the Sens – a 2-1 squeaker the Habs had no business winning – was when the cracks first appeared in the Canadiens’ armour.
Then, after another loss to the league-leading Leafs, the Habs managed to right the ship in the rematch, earning a measure of redemption heading into the week-long layoff. With a quarter of the season now on the books, the Canadiens hold down the number two spot in the all-Canadian Northeast division, and there’ve been some encouraging signs.
Let’s start with the retooled lineup featuring a pair of seasoned pros with established bona fides in the scoring department: A healthy Josh Anderson, a big man with speed to burn, and Tyler Toffoli—who’s made Vancouver GM Jim Benning rue the day he didn’t re-up the Scarborough-born winger while he had a chance. That Toffoli favoured chilly Montreal over balmy Vancouver tells you he prioritized winning above all else – no one moves to Montreal for the weather – and felt he stood a better chance of a deep playoff run in La Belle province than in Beautiful BC.
Anderson? The hulking winger burst out of the gate and has given the Habs a dimension – a true power forward – they’ve lacked for years, all due respect to Max Pacioretty. Honourable mention goes out to savvy veteran Corey Perry: While he isn’t going to win any foot races – that’s never been his game – the aging antagonist can still stickhandle inside a phone booth and knows what to with the puck when it’s on his stick. Another smart signing by Marc Bergevin.
The rapid ascension of American-born Jake Evans has to rank among the season’s pleasant surprises. Evans has picked up where he left off during last summer’s play-in series with strong defensive play to go along with a still-evolving offensive game. Pivoting a line with Artturi Lehkonen (is there a bigger pain-in-the-tokus to play against?) and puck-seeking missile Paul Byron, Evans drives play by forcing turnovers on the forecheck and has the puck patience to make plays that result in scoring chances. With Evans leading the way, the Habs’ fourth line has been a consistent thorn in the opposition’s side and a threat to score shorthanded from Day 1. Sure, it’s a longish season, and the schedule will exact a physical toll on players like Byron and Evans, but for now, Claude Julien can roll four lines and wear down opponents—a luxury few teams in the admittedly weak North Division can afford.
And what can you say about the Habs’ revamped blueline corps, bolstered by the addition of Joel Edmundson and heralded Russian rookie Alex Romanov. Edmundson, in particular, has given the Habs’ defence that extra dash of bad-ass that it was missing. At the same time, with Edmundson minding the shop, Jeff Petry has newfound freedom to jump into the rush, and the Michigan-born defenceman has cashed in on the opportunity, producing at a career-best pace that, if maintained, should put him in the conversation when the time comes to hand out the hardware. Meanwhile, Romanov has lived up to the advance billing from the get-go. With two seasons in the KHL under his belt, the Moscow native, while still just 21, has showcased the impressive skills that made him the Habs’ most highly-touted defence prospect in years, and it all starts with his mobility. There’s a maturity in Romanov’s game that can only be learned through experience. Kudos to Marc Bergevin for quietly assembling what is arguably the deepest top-six in the North Division.
If I was the Habs’ GM, I’d think twice about unloading Phillip Danault. And if I was Phillip Danault, I’d give some thought to circling back to that six-year deal I (reportedly) turned down last summer. While the emergence of the kids and the acquisitions of Anderson and Toffoli have taken the heat off the Danault-Tatar-Gallagher line to carry the offence, the loss of either Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Nick Suzuki would leave the Habs thin at centre, particularly if Danault is dealt. The Habs need a healthy and happy Danault to stack up against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets, with Pierre-Luc Dubois, Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny and former Hab Nate Thompson, will ice the deepest centre line in hockey, one that could make minced meat of the Habs’ still-developing young centremen. I’m confident Nick Suzuki can hold his own against the best in the game, but the jury’s still out on KK and Jake Evans. Any team with championship aspirations needs an effective shutdown centreman who can win defensive-zone draws with the game on the line and throw a blanket around the opposition’s best players. For now, at least, Phillip Danault is that guy. Besides, Bergevin, one eye on the stat sheet – Danault, 15 games in, has yet to light the lamp – may be waiting for the Danault camp to blink first. And so he should. Money’s tight, and every dollar saved now may be better spent tomorrow.
As it stands, Marc Bergevin’s reset has the Habs sitting near the top of their division. What a difference a year makes.
A word about headshots: Every time I see a head shot go unpunished (the Dillon Dube hit-job on Kotkaniemi comes to mind) while a zero-tolerance policy is applied to minor infractions like hooking and holding, I have to wonder what lies behind the league’s bizarre focus on the head as the principal point of contact. From where I was sitting, when Kotkaniemi could easily have sustained another concussion, the head may not have been the initial point of contact, but it was definitely a close second! NHL, do what’s needed to properly protect your players. To hell with television ratings south of the border.