A measly two points – a single victory or a pair of shootout losses – was all that separated the Montreal Canadiens from a postseason berth and a chance to pull off a stunning upset against a Tampa Bay team that by then was sleepwalking into the playoffs having clinched a spot a full month before the end of the campaign. But that was last year.
Surely, the players and the cognoscenti now hunkered down at the Bell Centre can dig deep and put an extra two points on the board, even four to make it a nice round 100. But that’s not the way it works in pro hockey or in life: you have to earn your brownie points and for bubble teams like the Habs, few of those points will come easy over the course of an 82-game season.
The Canadiens last year got career seasons from the likes of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, to name a few, and together with Brendan Gallagher and the ineffable Jonathan Drouin, they will again be counted on to supply the meat of the offence in 2019-2020. In all fairness to Drouin, he seems intent on playing a full season, as evidenced by his well-documented efforts to “simplify” his game under the guidance of Dominique Ducharme.
Barring an early trade – not an unlikely scenario with Ryan Poehling waiting in Laval for an opening – the Canadiens enter the campaign with much the same team as last year and a bottom-six logjam that was 10 players deep before last week’s round of cuts. There’s a similar congestion, give or take, on the third defence pairing, with Cale Fleury quietly playing himself into the conversation and now the lineup as he’s expected to suit up against Carolina. Both Fleury and Bergevin’s biggest free-agent acquisition, Ben Chiarot, are sure to bring some much-needed belligerence to the Habs’ blueline corps.
For now, at least, the Canadiens’ GM can afford to sit tight and see how the kids fare before he makes his move. And if the preseason is any indication – which it typically isn’t – the likes of Poehling and Nick Suzuki, to quote Claude Julien, are not just on the doorstep, they’re “knocking on the door”.
So, while the team’s biggest offseason needs – a left-shot defenceman and a top-six scoring winger – remain unfulfilled, Bergevin and his scouting department have stocked the cupboard with gilt-edged prospects primed to put their stamp on the team sooner rather than later. But patience is the watchword: the team’s brightest prospects – Poehling, Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi – will need a few years to reach their full maturity and potential, and the same is true, and then some, for Cole Caufield. That the Canadiens were not able to sign Jake Gardiner came as a surprise to no one. But it will prove to be a blessing down the line as it gives Bergevin has the flexibility to bide his time until the right deal comes skating along. By then, Victor Mete may have proven that it was never really necessary in the first place. Besides, with Alexander Romanov a year or so shy of suiting up in a Montreal jersey, a short-term fix – a trade-deadline rental – might prove the most sensible option, unless the wheels fall off early.
And now a word about weight management, a popular topic in today’s NHL, with so many players, depending on age, either gaining weight to stand up to the big boys or losing it to keep pace with the youth movement in full swing across the league. In Kotkaniemi’s case, the extra poundage thus far does not seem to be wearing well. If it turns out you can’t gain 14 pounds in less than a year and expect to get around an ice sheet at quite the same rate of speed, the Habs could have a problem with their third line.
The main takeaway out of training camp is that the Habs enter the 2019-2020 campaign with a pair of first-round picks and a 20-year-old defenceman ready to make the jump and contribute to the team’s success tout de suite. Around the Bell Centre, as you might expect, trade rumours have begun to swirl, with the enigmatic Jonathan Drouin front and centre. If his preseason ice time is any indication, Drouin’s stay in Montreal may be as fleeting as the tantalizing glimpses of exceptional talent he showed down the stretch last season.
Four points to make it an even 100, in that case. Failing that, fans can be chuffed about the team’s chances of contending for the Cup, but just not this year, and probably not the next. In the meantime, strap on your seatbelts, because the Canadiens, with their speed game and their youth, will be fun to watch, playoff spot or not.
They are a team on the rise.