With the puck set to drop on the 2017-18 season, what are Montreal’s keys to success beyond the continued health of Carey Price? Our writers offer up their thoughts on what needs to happen for the Habs this year.
Gordon Black: Leaving health issues aside – as they are the key to any team’s successful season in the league parity reality, I see three major questions whose answers will determine, to a significant degree, how the season will go for the Habs this year.
1) The Claude Julien Factor: The single biggest factor and change from last year to this one will be a new head coach, and a new system in place from the outset of the season. If the team is able to buy in and play a much more possession-driven system, it will go a long way towards hiding some of the warts and adjustments the defence corps is likely to after a high degree of turnover. Simultaneously, getting away from a dump and chase system should benefit their speedier skilled forwards and also create more turnovers that can lead to high-quality scoring chances and force opposing teams to be more cautious about their won zone-entry attempts.
2) The Great Centre Experiment: A no-brainer perhaps, but if Jonathan Drouin works out as a legitimate first-line centre it will immediately provide the Canadiens with much-needed depth at that position, allowing other players to slide into roles they are perhaps better suited for (Tomas Plekanec and Phillip Danault especially, at this point in their respective careers). The other notable, though less tangible, benefit will be that it will allow Marc Bergevin some respite from both the media and other predatory GMs. There will be no need to rush a trade that does not make sense for the future of the team and hopefully provide the Habs with an increased ability to use their fairly massive cap space for a significant in-season upgrade or asset-gathering cap dump from some other unlucky club.
3) Bounce-back Performances: Whether Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Plekanec or a host of other players (both new and old to the team), there are numerous candidates in need of a bounce-back season to prove that last year was an aberration. Luckily, a new coach and significant amount of turnover on the team provides the perfect opportunity. With new roles, new systems and a blank slate in terms of how they play for the new bench boss, how these players react and embrace this opportunity could be the difference between a lengthy run into the spring or a call to a real estate agent.
Brian La Rose: Getting scoring beyond the top line is something that the Habs haven’t had with much consistency in recent years no matter who has been in that spot. A top line involving Drouin and Max Pacioretty should be able to score at a solid clip so they should be okay there. Beyond that is where the questions lie. For me, an engaged and producing Galchenyuk is going to be critical to Montreal’s success. We saw in the preseason how ineffective he can be when he coasted for good chunks of it but we also saw how good he can be when he’s confident and moving his feet. If he can play like that consistently for a full season, Galchenyuk can help carry a second scoring unit which should help alleviate a lot of their scoring concerns. If that doesn’t happen and he remains consistently inconsistent though, they could be in some trouble (and the trade speculation will heat up even more).
Kevin Leveille: The play of David Schlemko and Jakub Jerabek’s ability to adapt to the North American game will be important difference makers for the Habs this season. If both can succeed, the team can maybe even contend (after spending the remaining cap space on scoring help). If only one succeeds, the team should still be able to make the playoffs. If they are both busts and Victor Mete must carry the load for the greater portion of 82 games, the golf season may be an early one.
This is not a knock on Mete and the awesome camp he had, but he’s 19 and will likely go through a learning curve at some point in the season, not to mention exhaustion with playing so many games at such a higher level than he’s accustomed to. What was seen through the preseason is that the players that were signed as depth by Bergevin are not viable options. Brandon Davidson, Joe Morrow, and Mark Streit are not capable replacements. The eternal optimist in me says that Streit can perhaps fill in occasionally, or be a power play specialist, but even that remains to be seen.
At the end of the day, Bergevin needs the cap space created to find scoring help so if he’s forced to spend a portion of that to acquire a defender, then this season is toast. So with all other options exhausted, Jerabek and Schlemko have to find success on the Montreal blueline if this team wants to be taken seriously in 2017-2018.
Paul MacLeod: The keys for the Habs this season are:
1) Victor Mete/David Schlemko or Brandon Davidson managing to play adequately as Shea Weber’s partner.
2) Drouin’s ability to play centre. If Drouin is an adequate # 1 centre then Bergevin has finally met this organization’s most pressing need and the team will do well.
3) Related to #2, the ability of Drouin to spark the power play–or lack thereof– will be the difference in a number of close games this season.
4) Secondary scoring– the Habs need Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Charles Hudon, and Artturi Lehkonen to provide some scoring depth.
Norm Szcyrek: The competition for the Habs to perform well enough within their division and conference to make it to the playoffs and then succeed far into it will be dependent on many factors. The first one, of course, will be how well Drouin will adapt to the permanent role of the team’s #1 centre. Then there’s the added pressure of his first season in Montreal after signing a huge contract. He will face a higher level of scrutiny by the opposition’s top checkers and defenders, so the team will need him to rise to that challenge by both producing offensively and still playing a respectable defensive game.
The Habs need rebound seasons from players that were injured from a significant number of games, namely Galchenyuk, Gallagher, and Andrew Shaw. Their offensive skills are badly needed along with their leadership. Montreal’s prospect depth on the farm team level is not deep, so a relatively healthy squad for the team’s core players will be a huge help.
Coach Julien has implemented some new coaching styles and strategies to the team in training camp and early adaptation during the preseason was slow. The last two games did lead to wins, but the full buy-in of the coach’s direction will also be a key to the team’s overall success.
David Woodward: Apart from the health of their superstar goaltender, the Canadiens’ success this season will depend on the ability of their younger players (or players with little NHL experience) to address the team’s weaknesses. Drouin must meet the considerable (and perhaps unreasonable) expectations that come with his status as the team’s first Francophone star in a generation. Lekhonen and/or Hudon must also provide reliable secondary scoring if the team’s chronic offensive woes are to be overcome.
Assuming he is promoted during the season, Jerabek or even Mete (although this writer views a return to the OHL’s London Knights as being in Mete’s long-term interest) must address the Habs’ lack of puck movers on the back end, particularly on the left side (Of course, Schlemko could become an important contributor on the back end as well.) In any given year, some veterans perform beyond expectations. However, the primary candidates to address the Canadiens’ glaring needs for scoring and puck movement on the back end are their young players.