Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens

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Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-18, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Montreal Canadiens.

Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens

Last Season

Coming into the 2016-17 season, all the focus was on the health of goaltender Carey Price. Having missed most of the 2015-16 season, the Habs limped to 38-38-6 record. Price put most concerns to rest by participating in the World Cup of Hockey in September 2016. Price was dominant, posting a 5-0-0 record with a 1.40 GAA and a .957 SA%.

The Canadiens came out flying to start the season. Through 15 games, the Habs had a 13-1-1 record, including an 8-0-1 record through their first nine games. The Canadiens continued their strong play through Christmas, posting a 22-9-6 record through December.

Unfortunately, the Habs stumbled in the new year. Between January and February, the Canadiens posted a 13-12-2 record. Between January 9th to February 14th, the Canadiens went 6-10-2. On February 14th, Habs General Manager Marc Bergevin fired coach Michel Therrien. Replacing Therrien was former Canadiens coach Claude Julien (recently fired by the Boston Bruins). With Julien behind the bench, the Habs play improved. In the final 23 games of the season, the Canadiens posted a 15-7-1 record and won the Atlantic Division with 103 points.

Despite the Habs solid season, the team had major flaws. The Canadiens lacked a true number one center. Compounding the issue was the team’s issue generating offense. In what has become an all-to-familiar recipe, the Canadiens needed to rely on solid goaltending to cover up their scoring issues.

In the playoffs, the Canadiens drew the New York Rangers. Despite taking a 2-1 series lead, the Habs found it difficult to score goals. They would drop the next three games, to be eliminated in six games. In the series, the Habs could only score 11 goals. While the Canadiens controlled much of the play, their inability to finish cost them.

 

The Off-Season

With the Canadiens premature playoff exit, General Manager Marc Bergevin had (another) busy off-season. Not wasting any time, Bergevin signed KHL defensemen Jakub Jerabek to a contract on May 1st. Bergevin followed up the Jerabek signing by making a trade on June 15th. In a move to help address the Habs scoring issues, he traded prospect Mikhail Sergachev, and a conditional second round draft pick in 2018 to Tampa Bay for Jonathan Drouin and a conditional sixth round pick in 2018. Drouin was then signed to a six-year $33M contract extension.

Two days later, the Canadiens traded young but inconsistent defensemen Nathan Beaulieu to Buffalo for a 2017 third round pick.

Other notable signings by the Canadiens: Charles Hudon (two-years $1.3M), Jacob de La Rose (one-year, $725K) and Andreas Martinsen (one-year, $750K).

Expansion Draft

Adding a wrinkle to the normal NHL offseason, the Las Vegas Golden Knights held their expansion draft. On June 21st, the Golden Knights announced their inaugural roster. In the expansion draft, the Canadiens lost longtime defensemen Alexei Emelin.

Looking to fill the void left by Emelin, Bergevin acquired defensemen David Schlemko from Las Vegas for a 2019 fifth round pick.

Entry Draft

The Canadiens held five picks through the first three rounds of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The Habs selected American center Ryan Poehling with the 25th pick overall. The 6’3′” Lakeville Minnesota native is committed to St. Cloud State (NCAA) for the upcoming year.

It was a promising summer for Poehling and Habs second round pick, center Joni Ikonen. Both had standout performances at the World Junior Summer Showcase.

Complete draft:

1-25: Ryan Poehling C St. Cloud State (NCAA)

2-56: Ryan Brook D Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

2-58: Joni Iknoen C Frolunda HC (Finland)

3-68: Scott Walford D Victoria Royals (WHL)

3-78: Cale Fleury D Kootenay Ice (WHL)

5-149: Jarret Tyszka D Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)

7-199: Cayden Primeau G: Lincoln Stars (USHL)

 Free Agency

Marc Bergevin was very busy on July 1st. He signed five free agents. The most notable being defensemen Karl Alzner. Alzner agreed to a five-year, $23.125M contract. The other four signings, Joe Morrow, Peter Holland, Matt Taormina, and Byron Froese, are all depth moves.

Bergevin’s biggest move was announcing an eight-year contract extension with goaltender Carey Price on July 2nd. Not to be outdone, Bergevin came to terms with restricted free agent Alex Galchenyuk on a three-year contract. Galchenyuk’s name had been involved in several trade rumors prior to his re-signing.

After a promising start to free agency for the Canadiens, quickly turned ugly, with Marc Bergevin in tough negotiations with standout forward Alexander Radulov and long-time Hab Andrei Markov. At the press conference announcing the Carey Price extension, Bergevin made the team’s position clear regarding the two free agents. First, Radulov signed with the Dallas Stars on July 3rd. Then, after almost a month, Markov signed in Russia. Bergevin signed Ales Hemsky (one-year, $1M) and Mark Streit (one-year, $700K) in response to losing the pair.

The Habs still have around $8,500,000 in cap space remaining. They have the space to add a significant player or two. Unfortunately, being September that means it will need to be done through trade as all the best free agents are no longer available.

 

2017-18 Line Combinations

The Forwards

Max PaciorettyPhillip DanaultJonathan Drouin

Artturi LehkonenAlex GalchenyukBrendan Gallagher

Andrew ShawTomas PlekanecAles Hemsky

Paul ByronTorrey Mitchell –  Michael McCarron

The Habs top 10 (the top nine and Paul Byron) forward positions seem set heading into the season. The lineup is filled with NHL veterans. Unfortunately for some of the younger players in the organization, that means there is little chance for them to make the team.

On the top line, Jonathan Drouin joins Max Pacioretty and Phillip Danault. Pacioretty and Drouin should drive the Canadiens offense in 2017-18. Still, if the Canadiens want to take the next step with this roster, Phillip Danault needs to improve on his breakout season a year ago.

The Canadiens need Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher to return to form after a down 2016-17 season. Both players dealt with injuries that hampered their play. Coming back healthy and fresh the duo, pairing with Arthur Lehkonen will form a solid number two line.

Tomas Plekanec is on the downturn of his career, but the Canadiens need more than he provided last year. He still excels as a defensive forward, however. A line with the gritty Andrew Shaw and newcomer Ales Hemsky gives the Habs a decent shutdown line.

Paul Byron and Torrey Mitchell work well on the fourth line. Adding the size of McCarron rounds out the line pretty well. McCarron’s spot on the line will be hotly contested this year. Charles Hudon and Jacob de La Rose will compete with McCarron in training camp for the spot. The versatility McCarron brings (plays both center and wing) along with his size should win the spot, but don’t be surprised if Hudon and McCarron end up rotating to start the year.

 

The Defense

Karl AlznerShea Weber

Jordie BennJeff Petry

David SchlemkoBrandon Davidson

The Canadiens biggest question heading into the season is on defense In the off season, the Habs lost three defensive starters and their top prospect. The departure of Andrei Markov, Nathan Beaulieu, and Mikhail Sergachev from the Canadiens leaves the team desperately short on puck moving defensemen. Free agent signing Karl Alzner joins Shea Weber on the top pairing. Newly acquired David Schlemko slots into the bottom pair for the departed Alexei Emelin.

The wild card in this situation is Jakub Jerabek. Signed from the KHL in May, Jerabek is a puck moving defensemen that the Habs need in their top six. Unfortunately, Jerabek is somewhat of an unknown. Having only played on the larger European ice surface, it is unknown how Jerabek’s game will translate to the smaller North American rinks. If Jerabek can adjust quickly, there is a place for him in the Canadiens defense. If he can’t make the adjustment, however, Jerabek is going to the AHL.

The Goalies

Carey Price

Al Montoya

The easiest roster spot to fill for the Habs is at goaltender. The Canadiens are Carey Price‘s team. Arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, there is no question that Price is the Habs starting goalie.

Al Montoya returns to back Price up this season. While Montoya’s roster spot is secure, Charlie Lindgren has been impressive since joining the Habs in 2016. The backup spot could be up for grabs if Lindgren can impress in training camp.

Players To Watch

Alex Galchenyuk

Alex Galchenyuk had a very difficult 2016-17 season. Galchenyuk entered the year with high expectations, after a strong 2015-16 campaign. He developed instant chemistry with Alexander Radulov and started the season strong. He was top 10 in scoring through 24 games, with 23 points. Unfortunately, a knee injury in December and a subsequent re-aggravation of that injury caused him to miss 21 games. The injury seemed to scuttle Galchenyuk’s year.

After the injury, Galchenyuk struggled to find consistency. In an effort to help him find his games, the coaching staff moved him throughout the lineup. Unfortunately for Galchenyuk, he never found his game. He struggled to produce offensively and had prolonged dry spells, including scoring only three points in the Canadiens final 10 games. His poor play landed him on the fourth line to start the playoffs. Galchenyuk finished the season with 44 points in 61 games.

Galchenyuk was one of the more popular names in the NHL rumor mill during the off season. Despite these rumors, he was signed to a three-year $14.7M contract with the Canadiens.

Galchenyuk is an important piece to the Canadiens puzzle. The team needs him to recapture his strong play. While only 23 years old, this is Galchenyuk’s fourth NHL season. The Habs and Galchenyuk can ill afford another down season. If Galcnenyuk can return to form, the Canadiens issues at center ice will not be so dire.

Jonathan Drouin

Acquired in a June 15th trade, Jonathan Drouin is coming to Montreal with a lot of expectations. The former third overall pick is expected to help carry the Habs offense. He produced well in Tampa Bay last season, scoring 21-goals and 53-points. Being only 22, the expectation is for Drouin to improve these totals going forward.

The added offense Drouin will provide is going to help the Canadiens, but it is on the Power Play where Drouin can have the biggest impact. In Tampa Drouin scored nine-goals and 26-points on the power-play. Drouin was second in power play goals and assists and was third in points. Over half of his point production was amassed on the power play. For a team that struggles to score goals, improving the power play makes the team much more difficult to beat.

Finally, Drouin has the added expectations of being a Quebec born player playing for the Canadiens. In the media fish bowl that is Montreal, “un gars chez-nous” brings extra focus. Fans and media can put unrealistic expectations of the player, which adds to the pressure. How Drouin handles these expectations will have an impact on how well the Habs do this season.

Players On The Rise

Artturi Lehkonen

Coming into his rookie season, Artturi Lehkonen was a bit of a mystery. Because he chose to develop in Europe rather than come to North America, there were questions about his ability to adapt to the NHL style. By the end of the pre-season, Lehkonen had earned a spot with the Canadiens.

Often deployed with Tomas Plekanec in a shutdown role and very limited power play time, Lehkonen had a great year, scoring 18-goals and 28-points. In the playoffs, Lehkonen took his game to another level. He scored two-goals and four-points in the Canadiens first round loss to the Rangers. He was one of the Habs most consistent and best players in the series.

Based on his play last year, Lehkonen should see an increased role on the team. His defensive game is sound, but increasing his offensive role in the team will lead to increased production. Claude Julien would be wise to deploy him in a top six role and increase his power play usage. A 20-25 goal and 40-45 point season is a realistic goal for Lehkonen in his sophomore season.

Players On The Decline

Tomas Plekanec

Tomas Plekanec had a terrible 2016-17 season. Saying he is a player on the decline is a bit too easy. Still, his offensive ability seems to have all but dried up. While he is still a valuable defensive forward for the team, Plekanec is in the twilight of his career. He set a career low in points, with 28, last year. While his game seemed to improve in the playoffs, Plekanec is no longer a player the Canadiens can to rely on anymore.

Despite his offensive struggles, Plekanec still excels as a defensive specialist. He is well suited to play on a shutdown line, drawing difficult defensive assignments. For the Canadiens, however, Plekanec is paid like a top six player. He is entering the final year of a two-year, $12M contract. It will be impossible for Plekanec to live up to his contract at this stage in his career.

2017-18 Season Prediction

The Canadiens are in a difficult spot this season. It is not far fetched to suggest this team is not a real Stanley Cup contender. They are good enough, however, to make the playoffs. This team wants to be all in, but they are still missing too many pieces. They need a top center and a top defenseman. The Canadiens have around $8.5M in salary cap space, so there is the potential for a major trade to address one or both of these issues.

The defending Atlantic Division champions are in tough to repeat this year. Boston, Toronto, and Ottawa are looking to improve on their playoff campaigns from last season. Tampa Bay should bounce back after a disappointing 2016-17 season. Talented teams in Buffalo and Florida are looking to take the next step as well. With all these teams on the rise, the Habs are unlikely to repeat as Division champions.

As with most years, it seems the Canadiens will go as far as Carey Price will take them. For a team that struggles to score, they will be in many close games. Price is good enough to get this team to the playoffs. If the Habs can provide Price with decent goal support, they have a chance to be dangerous. Still, as the team is constructed right now they are a playoff team, but not a serious contender for the Cup.

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