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North Division Preview: Getting To Know The Montreal Canadiens

Calgary Flames v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

In our latest “get to know” column, we sent some questions over to the folks at Habs Eyes On The Prize to get an idea of what they are thinking as the 2020-21 season starts to amp up. Thanks to Nathan Ni for taking the time to fill us in!

M&G: The Flames and Canadiens usually only play twice a season, but this year is going to be clearly different. What is one key thing about the team Flames fans should know heading into the season?

HEOTP: This is a tricky question, because in a way, we had two seasons last year with the pre-pandemic and then the bubble. If you use the start of the regular season as the benchmark, the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is what I like to call redundancy. Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, for example, bring a lot more defensive acumen than Max Domi, which makes Claude Julien more comfortable in moving Phillip Danault away from the top line if the team needs a dedicated shadow line for a matchup or if the team is trailing in the 3rd period – and we saw Julien do just this in the bubble. The offseason moves followed in the same vein: Joel Edmundson gives the Habs a second physical LD option to complement Ben Chiarot. Josh Anderson has more offensive upside than Joel Armia in that “big winger” role, and so on. The team is just much more flexible this year, which lets Julien move players around if they’re slumping, need to be sheltered, or are stuck in an unfavourable matchup.

M&G: Like the Flames, Montreal went to the second round of the playoffs last season only to be eliminated. What do they have to do to advance even further this year?

HEOTP: Score goals. I mean, it’s a bit trite, but the Canadiens’ biggest problem for years now has been translating chances to goals. They’ve been excellent when it comes to possession, they’ve been excellent when it comes to scoring chance generation, but conversion has always been under what models project and expect because the team doesn’t have that elite superstar who can score on non-scoring chances. Here again, the new additions were made with that in mind. It’s probably reasonable to expect that Toffoli, Anderson, Suzuki, and maybe even Kotkaniemi can hit 13-14 goals this year (a 20 goal pace over 82 games), especially if the power play can get to even league-average level.

M&G: Outside of a few hiccups along the way Carey Price has been more than a dependable goalie for the organization. Last year, I’m guessing, was an average to below average season, what do you expect out of him in 2021?

HEOTP: Truth be told, Carey Price hasn’t been elite over the last two years relative to his peak back in the Michel Therrien days, but it’s not a breakdown in technique or anything like that. Price has a tendency to overplay – to try and carry the team singlehandedly – when his squad isn’t playing up to par. Given his NHL career so far, that’s not that surprising. What that means is that he’ll start thinking about second and third shots before facing the first one because he doesn’t trust his defenders to clear the puck or cover the man, and as a result, he’ll lose concentration and the initial shot will go in. This is a self-defeating spiral. Price allows more goals, the team has to take more chances offensively, Price has to deal with more difficult chances against, the team loses games, Price has to play back-to-backs, and so forth. A tired Price is not an effective Price, and I think Bergevin finally realized that after watching Price play in the bubble. I think with Jake Allen in the fold, I expect Price to play above-average to good. He doesn’t have to be .935, but .915 should be good enough with the team in front of him.

M&G: Looking at the roster and current salaries, it looks like there’s a solid window for Montreal with their core group as it’s currently assembled. How much pressure is on the team to win now? And is winning now a viable option for the club?

HEOTP: Bergevin doesn’t believe in windows, so the team won’t have tank seasons or “must-win” seasons, and it won’t have pressure associated with that. That said, Bergevin is clearly aware that Price and Shea Weber (and even Jeff Petry) aren’t getting any younger. The emergence of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, the pleasant surprises in Tomas Tatar and Chiarot, and prospects like Alexander Romanov have all allowed Bergevin to push in free agency in the way that he has.

Now, can the Habs actually win? I don’t think this is the year that they should be considered part of the elite. Much of the roster is new, Suzuki is still a sophomore (and Kotkaniemi just entering his third year), Romanov hasn’t played a second of NHL time, Edmundson could be the flop that we thought Chiarot would have been, and Price’s bubble play could have been a mirage. Yet at the same time, even if most of those things happened, this team would still not be so different than the one that accrued 96 points in 2018-19. The potential is definitely there, and in this completely unprecedented season… who knows?

M&G: The Flames and Canadiens have met twice in the Stanley Cup Finals, splitting. Do you think the North Division will “rekindle” any sort of rivalry or is it so far in the past that it doesn’t really seem that important?

HEOTP: I don’t think 1986 or 1989 will factor in when the Habs and Flames face off this year, not only because they were in the past, but because there wasn’t a whole lot of enmity built up in those two series. The Canadian west hasn’t been overly kind to the Habs over the last few years either, but because there was only one road trip per year, fans kind of looked at it with a mentality of “nice if we pick up a few points, more of the same if we don’t.” Of course, it’ll be important for the Canadiens to buck that trend this year if they’re going to contend. As the games start meaning more and more, the intensity will naturally ramp up. Couple that with the fact that any game between two Canadian teams has more weight than your average NHL game, and I think something will develop by the time we get to March or April. Might be interesting too if fans are able to return – and we’re able to see the usual 30-40% Habs sweaters in the Saddledome.