After a wild 2020-21 season and an offseason that had many twists and turns, the 2021-22 season is upon us. Will the Habs make it back to the playoffs? Our writers make their predictions.
Terry Costaris: Someone, I wish I knew who, once wisely said, “Worry is the interest that you pay on something that is not likely going to happen”.
There is no doubt that many of the positive vibes of Montreal’s Cinderella Stanley Cup run dissipated away by what can only be described as a rough offseason. And this is fogging up what I believe will be a very good 2021-2022 season for the Habs.
So, I refuse to pay my “interest” upfront until things fully shake out by mid to late November. I may pay “more” for being optimistic but that’s a future me problem.
Let me state what I’ve said before and I’ll say again: The Montreal Canadiens are the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. They simply get no respect.
Montreal has a four solid line roster and arguably the deepest group of wingers in the NHL. And, through the Christian Dvorak trade, they now possess a decent cache of centres.
The tandem of Jake Evans and Dvorak should shut down most opposition star lines. In unison, the two are better than the club’s loss of Phillip Danault. And I’m assuming that a big-bodied player like Ryan Poehling, who only weeks ago was still recuperating from wrist surgery, will come out slow from the starting gates but like a freight train, will eventually pick up steam as the season moves along.
Defensively, the Canadiens are also very sound. Montreal’s defence, when Joel Edmundson returns, is practically as good as last year’s core. The addition of David Savard is a solid Shea Weber placeholder until the Habs’ captain likely returns in the spring. If he was truly done, a new captain would have been named for the season. The Canadiens appear to be pulling a Nikita Kucherov here. In net, they have a definite challenge with Carey Price out of the lineup. Jake Allen though, can and will likely hold down the fort until Price returns. If Allen gets injured, then it’s time to pay more attention to the 2022’s top ten of the draft class.
But I refuse to pay the interest in this potential what if. Virtually every team is a starter goalie injury away from disaster. Instead, then, I’m going to assume that once a renewed, reinvigorated Carey Price returns – one who likely will now not be burnt out from yet another draining tour of duty for Team Canada at the Winter Olympics – that Montreal’s opponents better watch out. I predict that he will be on fire.
Then there’s their more than competent coaching staff that’s like a “re-calculating” GPS. They showed in the playoffs that they can adjust on the fly and will not be outcoached.
And I have yet to mention the “grit” factor. The Canadiens are filled with a roster of heart and soul players. They remind me of the disrespected “lunch bucket” Habs of the 1980s where they delivered a similar, never quit mentally to their play. And this identity feature will make their opponents work really hard to beat them on any given night.
It’s really easy to be mesmerized by teams such as Toronto with their shiny, high-profile superstars. But hockey is not basketball. Toronto’s top four forwards cost as much as 8-10 of Montreal’s – who collectively will generate as many points while providing significantly more depth. Hockey is a sport where teams tend to buy Ferraris to be used for smash-up derbies.
It’s easier to predict a team’s outcomes based on its stars but this is a team sport and clubs like the Montreal Canadiens and the equally disrespected “fluky” New York Islanders will continue to show time and time again that having character and grit matters – at least in the NHL.
Yes, Montreal is in the toughest division in the NHL but so too are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins – meaning that they too will be beating themselves up on many nights. It’s hard to imagine anyone dominating in the standings – though Toronto almost always jumps out of the gate early and both its fans and Toronto centric media plan their Stanley Cup parade on Yonge Street in November.
Let’s also keep in mind that the Habs have one of the best schedules from a load management perspective. So, their four solid lines advantage combined with more rest and gives the Canadiens a competitive advantage.
Montreal’s brutal 2021 COVID-19 schedule continues to mislead many media analysts into defaulting the Habs’ success last season as being a fluke of sorts. They have been wrong in the past and they’ll be wrong again. The Canadiens are for real.
Will the road to the playoffs be easy? Definitely not. But the same can be said for many of its main rivals – a few of whom, if you play the odds, will likely be decimated by injuries. Mark my words, by February, when the “playoffs” basically start, it would not shock me to see two of the Canadiens’ main, lesser depth, division rivals being on the outside looking in.
I can hear the naysayers calling me overly optimistic. I’ve been called worse. What can I say, I really like Montreal’s chances of making the playoffs and if they do, history has now shown that anything can indeed happen next.
If I’m wrong, meh.
At least I did not waste extra interest worrying about what may or may not be. The 2021-22 season will be a wild ride. Every Habs’ fan should save their worry interest, sit back and enjoy whatever will be.
Tom Haapanen: The Canadiens were dubbed “Team Chaos” by The Athletic during last season’s playoff run, for the havoc they wreaked on higher-ranked teams’ playoff aspirations. But as this season gets underway, chaos reigns within the Habs’ own lineup: captain Weber is missing for the year, Price is working through mental health issues with an unclear return date, Jonathan Drouin is back from his own mental health struggles but his capabilities are yet unknown, and Paul Byron, Joel Edmundson, Sami Niku, and Mike Hoffman are all injured. And this is before the puck has dropped for the first regular-season game.
The season was never going to be easy, given Weber’s absence and the departures of Danault and Tomas Tatar. We can reasonably expect Dvorak to fill the Jesperi Kotkaniemi-sized hole, and then maybe some, but Savard is still a work in progress, and the best-case situation is that he will come close to Weber’s regular-season form once he adjusts to Dominique Ducharme’s system. Niku and Chris Wideman might provide some offensive capabilities on defence, but their defensive reliability is still in question.
Apart from the flood of preseason injuries, so much depends on the progress of the next generation of Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge: Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Alexander Romanov. If they can raise their games, and the injured players return on the hoped-for schedule – and there is not another rash of injuries – the Habs should be able to claim one of the playoff spots. it won’t be easy in the Atlantic, but the Leafs, Bruins and Panthers have their own challenges, too.
But, if they don’t develop as fast as we might hope, or the injuries persist – or recur – a challenge for a playoff spot will become very difficult. And I expect that the likelihood of this second scenario is higher than any Habs fan would like.
Allan Katz: Last season I picked the Habs to make the playoffs; I picked them to beat Toronto, Winnipeg, Vegas, and Tampa and previously, after scoring a hat trick in his debut, I picked Ryan Poehling to score 240 goals in his rookie season. So, I don’t just wear rose-coloured glasses when prognosticating for the Habs, I am also willing to ignore some accepted realities about them. The beautiful thing is I am sometimes right. So, let’s take a moment to review what has been accepted as the new reality about the Habs and then I am going to share with you the good news.
Here are just a few issues that might concern the team: 1) They lost two-thirds of one of the best lines in hockey. 2) They lost a top prospect by having a team poach Kotkaniemi in an act of revenge. 3) They lost their number one defenceman, a man mountain with awesome leadership skills. 4) The team’s superstar, their highest-paid player, a sure-fire Hall of Fame goaltender is not available for an indeterminate amount of time. 5) Sparkplug, fan favourite, Paul Byron is out for half the season minimum. 6) Mike Hoffman is injured. 7) The team, literally, has two NHL centres. 8) The team’s prospective number four centre is expected to be their third centre. 9) Ryan Poehling. 10) Edmundson is injured. 11) Weber’s replacement, Savard, who is being counted on to be half as good as Weber – is not. 12) Samuel Montembeault. 13) Cayden Primeau is not ready for prime time. 14) When healthy, the team had been given a 46% of making the playoffs. 15) The list of NHL talent that has impressed and surprised the team during the preseason is nonexistent. 16) Looks like Alex Belzile could see time on the fourth line. 17) The coach is practically a rookie having only been the head coach for less than a year. 18) The beloved general manager is leaving open the possibility of leaving the team the first chance he gets (by beloved, I mean despised by many). 19) Dvorak is missing a vowel in his name.
So, the glass seems half empty and by that, I mean the glass has a hole in it and is as dry as the Sahara.
And now for the good news and there is a lot. 1) Lots of room for players who should not be on the team to play in the NHL right away and prove everyone wrong. 2) Michael Pezzetta, who everyone assumed was a career minor leaguer, had a good camp and did not make the team (yes that’s good news). 3) Kaiden Guhle is an excellent prospect and has a great last name. I looked up the meaning of his name and it is unknown which is very similar to all the good news Hab fans have experienced this fall. 4) Jeff Petry has not been injured yet. 5) The team has really nice uniforms. 6) Gianni Fairbrother had a good camp and might be a future NHLer. 7) Looking forward to watching Cole Caufield play and escape death at least once every game. 8) Went out to eat yesterday and had a great Moussaka. 9) No, seriously, excellent Moussaka. 10) Ducharme has great hair (compared to my bald head).
So other than losing out on their annual hot streak to open the season, I can see the team having their annual drought midseason and then with everyone healthy the team might make a late run for a wild card berth. And that is being wildly optimistic, but possible … kind of … maybe. Oy.
J.D. Lagrange: The Canadiens should have a deeper offence, particularly on the wing. Toffoli, Caufield, Drouin, Anderson, Hoffman and Gallagher are all legitimate top-6 wingers in my opinion. Lehkonen and Armia would be playing on most teams’ third line and with everyone healthy, they will be on the fourth line. Then good depth with Perreault and Paquette.
At centre, the top two lines will be fine with Suzuki and Dvorak. But there’s a huge question mark when it comes to Jake Evans’ offensive upside at the NHL level and Ryan Poehling certainly has not seized his opportunity, as I would have liked him to play between Hoffman and Gallagher. That’s where the Habs will miss Kotkaniemi, and Suzuki and Dvorak better stay healthy all year…
The biggest issue will be on defence. The Canadiens did not replace Shea Weber whom, in spite of having a rough season (to his standards), was still counted on to play the team’s toughest minutes. Those who think Savard can do it are already starting to readjust their expectations. He was a second, often third pairing defenceman both in Columbus and in Tampa Bay. Wideman hasn’t shown much and he is a liability in his own zone. So is Niku. Alexander Romanov will be a very good defenceman but he is not ready to face top oppositions and the Canadiens must keep the course by sheltering him and not skipping stages with him, not to burn him.
Already, the goaltenders were going to have their hands full in Montreal and now with Price out for at least four weeks, this could spell disaster. Remember the odds of making the playoffs for teams outside of a playoffs spot at American Thanksgiving. If you’re off to a slow start, your odds of making the playoffs are very slim.
I have Tampa first, followed by Toronto. Then Florida, a much-improved team. Boston may have regressed a bit, but they always seem to play well. Then the Habs will be in a battle with… Ottawa for fifth in the division. Not that the Habs are that bad, but the Sens are gaining in experience and improving. Steve Yzerman has improved Detroit but not enough yet, followed by lowly Buffalo.
Brian La Rose: I’d love to be wrong but I don’t see it happening.
Not having Price at the beginning of the season when Montreal’s schedule is fairly soft is going to hurt. Instead of having a chance to bank some extra points early on, they’re more likely to be aiming for .500. That’s enough to hang around the playoff picture but not be in it.
I have some concerns about their ability to stay healthy. In a normal year, teams that make the Final tend to be a bit more injury-prone. This offseason was the shortest in NHL history. It only stands to reason that this will be a bigger issue. Montreal has enough depth to still hang around the playoff picture but not be in it.
Then there’s the division. I happen to think Boston is better than a lot of people are giving them credit for, Tampa Bay is still good enough to lock down a top-three spot and so are Toronto and Florida. That already isn’t mathematically possible, pushing the Habs down to a Wild Card battle. The Metropolitan Division is even deeper than the Atlantic so it’s unlikely both Wild Cards will come from the Atlantic. Where am I going with this? They’re good enough to be able to hang around the playoff picture but, well, I’m sure you can fill in the rest of that sentence.
Kevin Leveille: The short answer to this question is no, the Habs are not a playoff team this season. There are three major reasons for my answer. The first is divisional realignment. Playing in the Atlantic Division is going to be an entirely different beast than the North Division. A division that features Florida, Tampa, and Boston is much more difficult than in one that features Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, even with teams in Tampa and Boston that are slightly weaker than last year.
The second reason is fatigue. We’re already seeing the injury bug hit and guys fighting to find energy and the season hasn’t even started yet. This is a team that doesn’t have the luxury to take weeks off, but I think physical human nature will hit this team a few times and there will be losing streaks that they won’t be able to salvage.
The final reason is that this is really a transition year for the franchise, and so while one player may thrive in a new role, it’s unlikely that these transitions all work on the first try. Suzuki has to be the uncontested top centre, Petry has to be the team’s top defender all year long, Caufield will be playing much more than his usual 36 game schedule, Romanov has to establish himself as a true top-four defender, and all of this without Price now. It’s entirely possible that one of the three points I’ve made ends up being wrong. But I don’t think it’s possible that I’m wrong on two or even all three of these reasons, and for these reasons, I think the Habs are on the outside looking in when it comes to this season Spring Dance.
Peter Longo: Absolutely, and the key to their success is in their depth. Starting in net, they have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league. While it’s being tested right now, they can still boast about having a strong starting goaltender. Will anyone want Allen to play 60+ games? Of course not. But as long as Price returns to play 40+ games, this tandem will provide great goaltending for the team.
On defence, with injuries to Weber and Edmundson, critics are denouncing their depth. But let’s be honest: Weber hasn’t been the player of his prime for a few years now. Petry has been the best defenceman on the team for years and has more than stepped up when Weber has previously missed time. With Edmundson’s short-term injury, the Habs are forced to bring Brett Kulak into the lineup. He has played solid hockey in his years as a Canadien; maybe not flashy, but solid. Is the Habs defence better with Weber and Edmundson? Of course it is. But despite key injuries to two of their top four defenders from last year, they are still able to field a respectable top four. The biggest question is the third pairing right side, but as we’ve seen in last year’s playoffs, it can be mitigated for short periods of time (until Edmundson returns and bumps someone else down).
On forward, I think the Habs have by far the best overall set of wingers in the league. What other team can boast of having a consistent 30-goal scorer (Gallagher) on their third line? Will a perennial 20-goal scorer (Mike Hoffman) play on the third or fourth lines? I’ll acknowledge the first line doesn’t have the pedigree of an Auston Matthews, but as we’ve seen, a good defensive player can completely shut down the superstars. How can other teams stack up trying to shut down a perennial 20-goal scorer (Hoffman) on the fourth line? I think Montreal’s third and fourth lines are going to enjoy a lot of success this year.
The power play is going to see a big improvement as well. Consider the addition of two bonafide snipers to the powerplay (Caufield and Hoffman) plus an improvement in centres with a one-year older Suzuki and a proven performer in Dvorak.
Did the Habs improve enough to catch Toronto or Tampa Bay for the division lead? No. But Toronto didn’t improve at all in the offseason and another first round exit will continue to haunt them in 2021-2022. Tampa lost a significant amount of depth and aren’t likely to dominate (as much) as they did last season. Boston has a great first line and a half, but has limited depth beyond this and has serious goaltending questions.
While the Habs didn’t make any superstar additions in the offseason, they did add quality players that have added significantly to their depth to make them a better team. Their top three competitors for a playoff berth either did not improve in the offseason or took a step back. The parity in the division will lead to some great games, but ultimately, it’ll be the depth of the Habs that sees them into a playoff berth.
Ken MacLeod: The Montreal Canadiens can be a playoff team this season if their best players are their best players, but they have to stay off the injured list. Last season’s blistering start was ruined by crippling injuries, with the full roster unable to be reassembled until a week before the start of the playoffs.
Moving back into a much stronger Atlantic from the North will be a challenge. Defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay along with Toronto and Florida look like the playoff teams here. Montreal will likely have to battle it out with a Boston team that lost key players in the offseason for a Wild Card spot.
The team is in decent shape to open the season in goal, with steady Allen expected to take most of the starts until Price makes his return to the lineup. Allen was the main reason the Canadiens made the playoffs at all last season when Price was injured, sometimes playing four games in seven nights behind a Swiss-cheese roster missing many of its top players. Waiver pickup Montembeault will spot-start for Allen to start the season, mostly in the second game of back-to-backs.
The defence won’t be much different from last year, but hopefully it can stay healthier this season. Savard was brought in from Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup winner to try to fill the massive hole on the right side created by captain Weber’s departure. Holdovers Petry, Chariot, Edmundson and Romanov are the other pieces in the top six, with Kulak, last season’s KHL defenceman of the year Chris Wideman, waiver wire pickup Niku and top prospect Mattias Norlinder in the hunt for the final spot.
Up front, some important key players have moved on, but GM Marc Bergevin filled all the holes on the forward lines with capable replacements through free agency, trades and the return of a healthy Jonathan Drouin to the team to give the roster much the same balanced, four-line approach that started last season. Both wings are solid, but centre is a question mark after Suzuki and Dvorak, though Jake will be given every opportunity to grow into the shutdown centreman role Danault once filled so capably. Like last season, Bergevin has assembled a playoff-ready set of four balanced lines, with arguably enough NHL-calibre players left over on the press box and Laval to make up a decent fifth line.
It will be a tough row to hoe, but the 2021-22 Montreal Canadiens, firing on all cylinders, can be a playoff team in a highly competitive Atlantic Division. But the margins for error are even slimmer than last season – and if the injury bug bites them again as badly as it did last year, they have no chance at all of playing for the Stanley Cup again.
Paul MacLeod: After a tumultuous off-season (which involved the loss of Weber – possibly forever, exposing Price to Seattle in the expansion draft and then having him unavailable after entering the Player Assistance program, the loss of Kotkaniemi via offer sheet to the Hurricanes, and the losses of Danault and Corey Perry to free-agency, not to mention a long-term injury to Byron and hopefully short-term injuries to Edmundson and Hoffman to start the season) it is reasonable to ask: are the Canadiens better than last season? The reasonable answer is, probably not.
However, the addition of Dvorak and the continued emergence of Suzuki and Caufield will probably more than compensate for the losses upfront. Defence is a bit of a worry though. Savard was brought in to cover some of Weber’s minutes, but he has looked more like Karl Alzner than Weber. Wideman and NIku may offer more offence than last year, but both are suspect in their own end. If Savard falters or Romanov regresses, it is going to be a very long season. Ultimately, the team will need their young players to step up but I think they will be up to the task. My prediction: the Canadiens will make the playoffs and some teams that most pundits think are a lock to make it e.g., Boston will not. Once in the playoffs, a rejuvenated Price, and – dare we hope – Weber will inspire the squad…
Norm Szcyrek: It’s very difficult to gauge if this team will make it to the playoffs this season. Unlike the last two seasons when the team started strong to pad their points, then finished weak but had just enough points to make it to the postseason. This time, it’s more likely the Canadiens will start off very poorly. The loss of Carey Price and Shea Weber for an undetermined amount of time is a big blow. Shorter-term losses of Edmundson and Hoffman also hurt the team’s depth; when you further add the absence of Byron, to go with new arrivals Norlinder and Niku, combine to put the team health in a poor state before the puck drops for game number one.
Before training camp started It was expected that Weber would be lost for at least the regular season, Price for perhaps two weeks, and Byron half the season, which combined would have been more manageable. But I do not recall a time when Bergevin had to make multiple waiver wire claims before the season started. If this team loses any more players when the season gets underway before some of these players return, then this team may get too far behind the rest of the divisional and conference contenders. For the Habs to make it to the playoffs, they will need exceptional performances from *everyone* on this team, and a little luck/bad seasons from their opposition. If that happens, this squad has an outside chance at the last postseason position.
Dave Woodward: The Canadiens will have a very difficult road to the playoffs this season for many reasons.
The Atlantic Division has at least four teams that have comparable or better talent on their roster, namely Florida, Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. The continued improvement of the young players on the Ottawa Senators may also challenge the Habs and may well have them place sixth in the division. The loss of Weber and Danault will fundamentally alter team chemistry and their ability to defend in particular. While Bergevin did an excellent job acquiring Dvorak, the defence lacks enough puck-moving defencemen and Savard will not come close to replacing Weber. In fact, in some preseason action, Savard looks like the second coming of Alzner. Add to this all the injuries and absences coming out of camp and it is difficult to be optimistic about their chances for a playoff spot.
Of course, for some time, the Canadiens have relied far too much on Price. That has now appeared to have taken its toll on Price and they enter the new season without their franchise player who will miss at least a month. This type of problem could easily extend well into the season. If Price is not available for a lengthy period, the Canadiens’ chances of making the playoffs are probably nil.
To be sure, other teams will have their own challenges and perhaps the Habs’ challenges are just peaking earlier as they break camp. It is possible that these injury issues and Price’s leave will resolve more quickly than expected. If that occurs, there may be some hope to compete for a Wild Card playoff spot but only if some other teams underachieve.
On balance, this pundit hopes he’s wrong but I don’t like their chances.