New year, new season.
The 2021 NHL season is set to kick off on January 13th after a short training camp. For this season, the Oilers will compete in an all-Canadian North Division. I’ve asked our sibling SB Nation websites to give us a preview about their upcoming season. Today, we take a dive into Montréal with Justin Blades from Eyes On The Prize.
Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.
Copper and Blue: After a lengthy layoff, the Canadiens took care of the Penguins before bowing out to the Flyers in six games of the playoffs. What was lacking the most in Montréal’s game that kept them from advancing further in the playoffs? What have they done to address it?
Justin Blades: As has been the case for Montreal for a few seasons, the biggest issue was the lack of finishing skill — especially on the power play. The Habs have established themselves as one of the top possession teams in the league, even last year when they ended up 24th in the standings, but a lack of creativity followed them into their surprise post-season berth.
The playoffs were a coming out party for Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, who finished tied for the goal-scoring lead on the team. While that was a great development and proves the centre position is finally taken care of for the foreseeable future, a contending team probably shouldn’t be led by a rookie and sophomore. It was clear that Marc Bergevin needed to surround those future stars with scoring talent, and that’s what he attempted to do at the start of the off-season.
Copper and Blue: Montreal was active in free agency and did well by picking up Tyler Toffoli, but the big story is when Josh Anderson was acquired from the Blue Jackets in a trade for Max Domi. Once the deal was done, the Canadiens signed Anderson to a seven-year deal at 5.5MM a year. What would Anderson need to do for fans to call his first year a successful one?
Justin Blades: Right now, many fans are still staring at that one goal Anderson has on his stat line from last year and that’s colouring not only their opinion of him, but the team’s outlook as well. As soon as he scores one goal for the team, people will come around. The first time he uses his size to get to the front of the net for a scoring chance, seven years won’t look so long, and most of that apprehension will be gone.
For the full season, fans are expecting goals, and they also need him to prove that last year was an anomaly. If he can have somewhere between 15 to 20 goals in a shortened season while being a factor each night with high-danger chances, there should be few complaints.
Copper and Blue: Nick Suzuki burst onto the scene last year with 41 points in his freshman season. What can we expect from Suzuki in 56 games this year?
Justin Blades: Suzuki will likely be playing a very offensive role with Jonathan Drouin. The final few games of the playoffs showed us how well those two can play together. Add one of Toffoli and Anderson to the right side of that line, Suzuki could hit 45 to 50 points, and possibly more if those new additions can lift the power play to at least a league-average 20%.
We’ll also be watching closely to see how his defensive game progresses. He was very impressive in a long three-on-five shift in the playoffs in the biggest assignment of his rookie season, and he could get into the regular penalty-kill rotation that keeps opposing teams on their toes.
Copper and Blue: Who will be a breakout player for the Canadiens this year?
Justin Blades: If we say that Suzuki already had his breakout as a rookie, that would leave Kotkaniemi next in line. He had a respectable rookie season with 34 points, but had a rough 2019-20 season with just eight points in 36 games. The playoffs were the first true indication we got of his potential when he was perhaps the best player on the team before Suzuki staked his claim to that title at the end.
He’s going to get a more defensive deployment than Suzuki, but he will have quality wingers no matter where he plays, and should be well above the half-point-per-game mark while taking on the second tier of talent on opposing teams.
Copper and Blue: Carey Price led the league in minutes played in 2019-20 (3440), but he finished with a lacklustre .909 SV% (T-31st among qualified goaltenders). Will he turn it around in 2021?
Justin Blades: For whatever reason, Price has had slow starts to his past few seasons, though he has found his form eventually. Even last year despite struggles through the 2019 portion of the season, he held a 10-game average save percentage of .950 in February before he and everyone else gave up on a playoff spot. He was in top form for the post-season after a four-month layoff, ranking fourth among goalies to play at least four playoff games with a .936 save percentage.
He also knows he doesn’t have to play 90% of the games because the Canadiens added Jake Allen in the off-season. With one of the top tandems in the league, the goaltending position is at the bottom of the list of concerns.
Finally, where do the Canadiens end up in the 2021 North Division standings?
Justin Blades: Since they finished so close to the bottom of the standings last year, some people think the team has a long way to go to be competitive, but I don’t believe that is the case. The Canadiens have enough depth to cover for injuries at any position (we highlighted that depth in a recent article), which we’re bound to see in a protracted schedule with little warm-up. I’m going to project a second-place finish for Montreal, with the strength of the bottom six the main reason.
Thanks to Justin for taking time out to answer our questions.