The Montreal Canadiens took a dramatic step forward in 2013, finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference one year after finishing with the worst record in the conference, and that success raises expectations for the future.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Canadiens team that has been re-energized by young talent and should have a lot of continuity going into next season.
One of the most remarkable facets of Montreal's success last season is that they finished with such a strong record despite subpar goaltending. ranking 18th in team save percentage. It's not that a team can't win without good goaltending, but Montreal has been built, to some degree, on the premise that Carey Price would provide above-average puck stopping and that's not what made the difference.
Rather, it was dramatically improved puck possession (from 27th to sixth in Fenwick Close) that indicated the Canadiens were driving play in the right direction and, as such, their improvement shouldn't be dismissed as the result of luck or good fortune in the land of shooting and save percentages.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson is understandably positive about the turn in the Canadiens' results, telling the Montreal Gazette, "We went a long way toward building for the future. We're headed in the right direction." Molson also praised GM Marc Bergevin, giving him full credit for the Canadiens' improvement.
There is definitely a different feeling with the Canadiens under Bergevin's regime. That may be due to a successful team, but there appears to be progress and now the Canadiens get to deal with the challenge any successful enterprise and that is meeting raised expectations in the future.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Marc Bergevin/Michel Therrien
Canadiens Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
He may not be known widely as a star, but Max Pacioretty has been playing at that level over the past two seasons. He's eighth in shots on goal (449) and shots per game (3.65), while he's tied for 16th with 48 goals. Additonally, Pacioretty has sensational puck possession stats over the last three seasons, so he's not arriving at these scoring results by accident. He's a big body who can skate and takes the puck to the net, making him a vital part of Montreal's attack.
Starting the season as a healthy scratch when he wasn't on the fourth line, Brendan Gallagher quickly ascended in the lineup, forcing his way into a more prominent role by scoring goals (he ultimately tied Pacioretty for the team lead with 15). Though he's only 5-foot-8, Gallagher is sturdy, goes to the hard areas necessary to score and had strong possession numbers as a rookie. He's a fifth-round steal already, but can he build on his strong rookie campaign?
Over the last four seasons, Tomas Plekanec ranks fifth among all centres in ice time, playing in all situations, with a decidedly defensive focus, based on zone starts and matchups, compared to some of the other big-minute centres in the league. At the same time, over the last four years, his 212 points ranks 18th among centres, so he's a very effective two-way performer.
2013 was a breakout season for Lars Eller, who scored a career-high 30 points, in only 46 games, though it ended with a bang when he was knocked out by Senators defenceman Eric Gryba in the playoffs. Presuming that he's recovered and fully healthy for next season, Eller is a valuable piece to have, a big body with enough skill to provide secondary scoring down the middle.
In Brian Gionta's first season with the Habs, 2009-2010, he had 46 points in 61 games (0.75 ppg), scoring at a rate similar to his previous four years in New Jersey (0.80 ppg). Since then, Gionta has 87 points in 161 games (0.54 ppg) and, now that he's 34, it's looking less likely that he will reverse that trend. The drop in scoring rate comes primarily in assists, however, as Gionta does have a team-leading 79 goals over the course of four seasons with the Canadiens.
Since he was acquired from Calgary, in exchange for Michael Cammalleri, Rene Bourque has managed 21 points in 65 games for the Canadiens, calling into question the wisdom of committing to paying him for three more seasons. With unlimited compiance buyouts, Bourque might be a candidate to be cut loose, but Montreal has already used one on Scott Gomez and figures to use another on Tomas Kaberle and that will take care of the two that teams have at their disposal. So, if Bourque is going to stick around, he needs to provide some offence go along with his big body. Over the last five seasons, Bourque has scored 100 goals, so something like his 20-goal average over that span would be most helpful.
The NHL lockout probably worked in favour of last summer's third overall pick, Alex Galchenyuk. After his 2011-2012 season was limited to just two regular season and six playoff games, Galchenyuk returned to Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League and shredded the league, scoring 61 points in 33 games, before the NHL lockout ended, at which point Galchenyuk was in fine form and he earned a spot on the team a month before his 19th birthday.
Montreal kept Galchenyuk under wraps, for the most part, playing a modest 12:19 per game, but he was put in position to have success in those minutes and he showed both puck skills and a shot that indicate he will be a first-line scorer before long.
Following his breakthrough 2011-2012 season, David Desharnais saw his production and ice time dip last season. The challenge going forward will be finding enough ice time down the middle for Plekanec, Eller, Galchenyuk and Desharnais. At the moment, time on the wing for some is about the only workable way to go about it.
Brought in to add toughness to the Canadiens' lineup, Brandon Prust came as advertised. He's had 89 fights over the last five seasons, answering the bell against the league's toughest customers, but he's also capable of playing a regular shift. In the last four seasons, Prust has 74 points, is plus-21 and has accrued 589 penalty minutes, making Prust one of five players to have 70 points and 500 penalty minutes over the last four seasons.
Montreal invested in Travis Moen for another four years (at $1.85-million per) prior to last sason and then he ended up playing his fewest minutes per game (11:39) since 2005-2006. Since the price tag isn't changing, Moen needs to re-establish his physical game to provide better bang for the buck.
An agitator with 182 penalty minutes in 89 career games, Ryan White crosses the line on occasion and gets time in the press box to smarten up, but he's 25-years-old and should be able to provide fourth-line energy without going overboard.
The Canadiens don't have a lot of holes up front, and they can fill out depth spots with restricted free agents like Ryan White and Gabriel Dumont if they choose not to dip into the unrestricted free agent market for that need, but there is enough room to spend on a high-quality scoring forward, effectively to replace Michael Ryder.
Patrik Elias and Jaromir Jagr are nearing the end, but both have remained productive in recent seasons, so might fit alongside Tomas Plekanec. Otherwise, power forwards like Ryane Clowe or Nathan Horton could also be appealing options for a Canadiens team that could always use more size up front.
Free Agent Defence
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Canadiens Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Montreal took a hard line in their negotiations with P.K. Subban, eventually agreeing to a new contract after the season had started, under the premise that if he played well, his next contract would provide the opportunity for a big long-term deal. Having just wrapped up a Norris-Trophy-winning season, it's safe to say that Subban is doing his part, playing at a very high level, to earn the accolades and pay cheque that come with being a star.
One expectation, going forward, for Subban is that he handle tougher assignments, because he was protected in the manner in which he was used last season. Nevertheless, that usage also allowed Subban to dominate. Since 2000, there have been 10 seasons (two for Nicklas Lidstrom, two for Mike Green, single seasons for Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Sergei Zubov and Erik Karlsson) in which a defenceman scored 0.90 points per game or more and finished plus-10 or better, a list that added Subban and Pittsburgh's Kris Letang in 2013.
A concussion robbed Raphael Diaz of half the season and he struggled after coming back late in the season (and into the playoff) but, with 30 points in 82 career games, the 27-year-old is making his mark as a puck-moving defenceman. He'll need to improve his puck possession stats if he's going to have long-term viability playing 22 minutes a night like he did from the beginning of February through the playoffs last season.
Since he was traded out of Toronto, Tomas Kaberle's career descent has been rapid, reaching the point last season when he essentially wasn't trusted in the lineup. He played 13:33 per game in 10 of 48 games. While Kaberle had good shot differentials in those 10 games, his usage depicted a player that the team wouldn't trust with anything but easy matchups starting in the offensive zone. For that reason, it's hard to imagine any resolution but using a compliance buyout on the final year of Kaberle's deal in order to free up additional salary cap room.
A much-needed physical presence on the Canadiens' blueline, Alexei Emelin made nice progress in his second NHL season, handling more difficult matchups and playing an extra couple minutes per game more than in his rookie season. However, Emelin's season ended when he tore his ACL trying to hit Bruins winger Milan Lucic, so now it's going to be a matter of when Emelin is ready to return to game action. The initial prognosis was a six-month recovery time, which would peg Emelin's return next season sometime around late November.
Picked up from Los Angeles, Davis Drewiske inked a two-year contract extension, which will suit him in a role as a seventh defenceman. He's a no-frills defensive defenceman who is limited, but safe.
Andrei Markov finally stayed healthy, playing more than 24 minutes in all 48 games last season, and his 30 points tied for fourth among defencemen, but that's not the whole picture of Markov's game. 23 of those 30 points came on the power play, so he's still stellar with the man advantage, but seven even-strength points in 48 games matched the production of such luminaries as Anton Stralman, Chris Butler and Keith Aulie.
At 34-years-old and coming off a series of injuries, Markov has lost a step, but that doesn't mean he can't be a quality part of the Montreal defence; it could be judicious to manage his minutes to allow him to be more effective at even strength.
A fire hydrant on skates, Francis Bouillon returned to Montreal and provided reliable third-unit work on the blueline at a reasonable price.
Knee injuries and a deep blueline depth chart limited Yannick Weber to six games last season. The 24-year-old has played 115 NHL games in his career, and while he's skilled and mobile, he has yet to establish himself as a regular in the top six on the Montreal a blueline, a job that only gets harder to achieve as younger options become available.
In Montreal's case, they have both a shutdown defenceman, Jarred Tinordi, and puck-mover, Nathan Beaulieu, on the verge of making the club.
Through the end of February, Carey Price was playing to a typical high level, with a .925 save percentage in 16 games, before the roof caved in on his season, starting with allowing seven goals against Pittsburgh on March 2. From that point on, Price had an .891 save percentage and then was up and down in the playoffs against Ottawa.
While he has the pedigree to be an elite puck-stopper, 25-year-old Price still has to put it together. Since he arrived in the league, in 2007, Price has a .915 save percentage, which isn't bad, but it ranks 15th among goalies with at least 200 games played.
Used sparingly in a backup role seems to fit with Peter Budaj, who has been decent when his playing time is limited. In two years with the Canadiens, he has a .912 save percentage in 30 games. Yet, in any single season in which he's played more than 30 games, his best save percentage has been .905. Essentially, it appears that less is more when it comes to Budaj, limiting his exposure.
||7-24-31, -8, 67 GP
||2-11-13, -14, 67 GP
||6-3-9, even, 35 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||26-26-52, +17, 40 GP
||30-41-71, +15, 56 GP
||10-20-30, -3, 69 GP
||24-34-58, +9, 72 GP
||13-19-32, +11, 51 GP
||16-15-31, -2, 55 GP
||36-55-91, +37, 69 GP
The 17th overall pick in 2011, Nathan Beaulieu finished well in his first pro season, with 15 points and a plus-6 rating in his last 16 games and it's his offensive potential that will give him a chance to be an impact player in the NHL. Beaulieu got into six games with the Canadiens last season and didn't look out of place, so he could be ready for a longer look next season.
6-foot-6 Jarred Tinordi may be closer to the NHL than Beaulieu, having played eight regular season and five playoff games last season, and generally playing well in limited ice time. His physical game is what will, in time, make him a shutdown presence.
Drafted in the second round last summer, 19-year-old Sebastian Collberg is a skilled forward who could use more ice time than he's been getting in the Swedish Elite League and joined Hamilton for a couple of games late in the season.
A smallish but very productive winger, Danny Kristo scored 97 points in 82 games over his last two seasons at North Dakota. He'll likely need some time in the American Hockey League (where he had three assists in nine games at the end of the season), but if his speed and playmaking translate to the pro game, he'll be a scoring option.
Taken in the fifth-round in the 2012 draft, Charles Hudon is a talented but undersized player who has elevated his production in each of his junior seasons, and got a taste of AHL action (three points, minus-5 in nine games) at season's end.
A solid two-way forward, Michael Bournival has speed, blue-collar approach and, perhaps offensive limitations, to be a checker at the next level. Nothing wrong with a reliable top-nine forward.
Not only does right-shooting Darren Dietz make a good first pass and offer a big shot from the blueline, but he plays an aggressive physical game. The Habs blueline isn't in urgent need right now, so the 2011 fifth-rounder should have a few years to develop further.
23-year-old Magnus Nygren is coming off a strong season in the Swedish Elite League that helped the offensive rearguard earn a free agent contract. Again, Montreal's defence isn't desperate for a puck-moving addition, but Nygren does add depth and could force a decision if he has a smooth transition to North American next season.
A small and scrappy forward, Gabriel Dumont was useful in his 10 games played with the Canadiens last season, getting into three more in the playoffs. If he could use his speed to create at least a little offensively, he could add value on the lower half of the forward depth chart.
Tim Bozon is a skilled forward who has 72 goals in his first two WHL seasons. The 2012 third-round pick plays a well-rounded game and, with time, may be a candidate for a place on a scoring line.
Montreal has several other AHL prospects to keep on the radar, including forwards Patrick Holland, Louis LeBlanc and Joonas Nattinen as well as goalie Dustin Tokarski, who finished the year impressively (.927 SV% in 15 GP) for Hamilton.
25th - Frederik Gauthier, Nicolas Petan, Kerby Rychel.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canadiens have approximately $60.7M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 21 players.
Check out my possible Canadiens lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards.
What I said the Canadiens needed last year: One top six forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman.
They added: Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, Francis Bouillon.
Rene Bourque, David Desharnais, Travis Moen, Ryan White, Yannick Weber.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.