2011-12 season preview: Montreal Canadiens

2010-11 record: 44-30-8, 96 points; 2nd in Northeast, 6th in the East.

Playoffs: Lost to Boston 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

Sure, they didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference finals like they did in 2010, but the Habs still played over their heads at times last season. That included the guy who took over for one-time hero Jaroslav Halak, as Carey Price showed why Montreal’s front office made the brave decision to side with him and let Halak leave. The Canadiens took the eventual Stanley Cup champions to overtime in Game 7, but Nathan Horton’s goal ended their season in an instant.

Offense

The Canadiens scored the lowest amount of goals (216) of any team who made the playoffs. Ultimately, Jacques Martin’s teams don’t get to where they are by blowing their opponents out with staggering offense and there’s little reason to believe that will change this season.

Montreal parted ways with depth players such as Benoit Pouliot and decided to make one splashy move by signing former Hurricanes power forward Erik Cole to a risky contract. Cole brings a nice mix of scoring punch and flat-out punch to a team heavy in ‘finesse’ forwards, but the worry is that he’ll falter without an All-Star center like Eric Staal. (He certainly stumbled in his only experiences outside Carolina with Edmonton.)

That being said, it would be pretty cool to see an ‘All-American’ Canadiens line of Cole, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. Speaking of Gomez, the Habs hope that he will bounce back from a lousy season, even if the chances of Gomez justifying his oft-cited price tag are close to none. It wouldn’t hurt if the team could find a way to motivate Andrei Kostitsyn either – he was in full-on pout mode this offseason.

Max Pacioretty’s attempt to bounce back from that notorious Zdeno Chara hit ranks as one of the potential ‘feel-good’ stories of the season.

Defense

The bad news is that Andrei Markov’s knee is still a problem. The good news is that the Habs made the playoffs without him last season, as the underrated Russian defenseman missed all but seven games.

Still, that puts a lot of pressure on a Habs’ defense that lost valuable all-around guy Roman Hamrlik and suddenly expensive scoring blueliner James Wisniewski. That probably means P.K. Subban will shoulder an even greater burden as he increasingly works his way up to being the Canadiens’ ‘go-to-guy’ on the blue line. Such a situation smells a bit like Buffalo resting too much of their hopes on Tyler Myers last season, but we’ll wait and see. (Subban doesn’t lack confidence, for whatever that’s worth.)

On paper, this defense is somewhere between questionable and awful.

Goalies

Perhaps even more than last season, this campaign will be ‘The Carey Price Show’ in Montreal. He played a stunning 72 games last season, notching 38 wins and an outstanding .923 save percentage. Those numbers might go down a touch because of the declining defense in front of him, although a contract year should give him motivation to plug many of the leaks.

His backup is a slight downgrade. Alex Auld was a steady, if unspectacular backup, while his replacement, Peter Budaj, has had an up-and-mostly-down career with Colorado. Budaj has one benefit though: he’s carried the ball as a top or 1a/1b goalie plenty of times before. He has three seasons with a considerable workload: 57 games played in 2006-07, 56 in 08-09 and 45 last season. Of course, his results were mediocre, but at least Budaj is familiar with that role in case something happens to Price.

Coaching

Martin isn’t much of a ‘charmer’ – at least when he’s in head coach mode – but he might not get enough credit for yielding strong results with whatever roster is put in front of him. (He probably deserves at least a partial mulligan for failing in Florida, because everyone fails in Florida.)

This season will test Martin’s strategic skills. As mentioned before, that defense looks pretty lousy on paper. It should be interesting to see if he can make it all work.

Breakout candidate

OK, so Subban already ‘broke out’ in a way last season. Still, going from ‘obvious up-and-comer’ to ‘probable All-Star’ ranks as a breakthrough in its own right. With all the problems on Montreal’s blue line, the power play will likely go through Subban’s talented hands. Don’t be surprised if he flirts with 50-plus points and big minutes, as long as he doesn’t get in trouble for his occasional mischievous moments.

Best-case scenario

The Canadiens ride a cushy schedule to a Northeast title as Price earns serious Vezina (maybe even Hart?) Trophy buzz. Martin finds ways to minimize the team’s problems and maximize Subban’s output. Cole clicks with his linemates while Gomez gets his act together. Montreal makes a deep playoff run to shake off whatever Halakian monkey remains on Price’s back.

Reality

An easy schedule should help Montreal achieve the usual: squeaking into the playoffs as a seventh or eight seed. Gomez should improve merely based on how awful he was last season. Cole won’t live up to his contract, but might provide a rare physical element. Price will play just as well as last season, although a leakier defense will keep his numbers from completely showing it.

The Habs have a chance to be frisky in the playoffs, but a limited defense and mediocre (if opportunistic) offense will keep their ceiling low. Michael Cammalleri will probably still score a ton of postseason goals, though.

Blackhawks’ Anisimov suffered high-ankle sprain in mid-March

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Blackhawks center Artem Anisimov was not himself in the playoffs, and by the fourth game against the Predators his ice time was limited to just 14:18.

It turns out he had a pretty good excuse. Anisimov suffered a high-ankle sprain on March 14 against the Montreal Canadiens, and that’s a tough injury to overcome in less than a month.

Anisimov missed the rest of the regular season with the injury. He returned for the playoffs but failed to register a single point in four losses to Nashville.

“Being away for that time period and coming right back into the playoffs, obviously you’re not as sharp as you want to be,” Anisimov’s agent told the Daily Herald’s John Dietz.

PHT’s second-round playoff predictions, featuring the red-hot Random Thing Picker

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It was a tough first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for many of the so-called experts of the world.

Upsets included the Predators over the Blackhawks and the Blues over the Wild. The Rangers over the Canadiens was a quasi-upset, too.

Here at PHT, it was a mixed bag. Mike Halford and Cam Tucker each went an impressive 6-2. And so too did the Random Thing Picker, which as its name suggests, picks random things. (And picks them rather well, apparently.)

Of note, the Random Thing Picker and James O’Brien were the only ones to pick the Preds over the ‘Hawks. So congratulations to both robotic lifeforms on that bit of soothsaying.

Rounding out the rest of the first-round results, Adam Gretz and Joey Alfieri went 4-4, while at 3-5, O’Brien and yours truly couldn’t even crack .500. (Stupid Jake Allen.)

On to the second round!

Washington versus Pittsburgh (Stream Capitals-Penguins)

Brough: Capitals in 7
Halford: Penguins in 6
O’Brien: Capitals in 7
Gretz: Capitals in 7
Tucker: Capitals in 6
Alfieri: Capitals in 7
Random Thing Picker: Capitals

New York versus Ottawa (Stream Rangers-Senators)

Brough: Senators in 6
Halford: Senators in 7
O’Brien: Rangers in 7
Gretz: Rangers in 6
Tucker: Rangers in 6
Alfieri: Senators in 6
Random Thing Picker: Senators

St. Louis versus Nashville (Stream Blues-Predators)

Brough: Predators in 6
Halford: Blues in 7
O’Brien: Predators in 6
Gretz: Predators in 6
Tucker: Predators in 7
Alfieri: Predators in 6
Random Thing Picker: Blues

Anaheim versus Edmonton (Stream Ducks-Oilers)

Brough: Ducks in 7
Halford: Ducks in 6
O’Brien: Ducks in 6
Gretz: Oilers in 7
Tucker: Oilers in 6
Alfieri: Ducks in 6
Random Thing Picker: Ducks

Feel free to add your picks below…

Sharks say getting Jones, Vlasic signed before camp ‘a priority’

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Doug Wilson has a busy summer ahead.

Decisions need to be made on veteran leaders Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, both pending UFAs. Those figure to be crucial negotiations but, to hear the Sharks GM explain it, there are equally vital deals to be reached with goalie Martin Jones, and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

“Both of them are extremely important to get under contract,” Wilson said yesterday, per NBC Sports California. “We can start those discussions in the next little while.”

Both Jones and Vlasic have one year remaining on their current deals, and are eligible to sign extensions on July 1. Wilson said it’s a “priority” to get them done before September’s training camp.

Jones, 27, is heading into the last of a three-year, $9 million deal with a $3M average annual cap hit. It’s safe to assume he’s in for a lengthy extension with a significant raise, given how good he’s been since joining the Sharks. He backstopped them to the Cup Final last season and has been one of the league’s busiest workhorses, starting 65 games in each of the last two years.

Vlasic, 30, has spent his entire 10-year career in San Jose. He’s developed a reputation as one of the league’s better defensive defensemen, strengthened by his role on Canada’s gold medal-winning side at the 2014 Olympics, and 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Vlasic’s current deal — a five-year, $21.25 million pact — carries an average cap hit of $4.25M. Wilson didn’t mince words in describing how good he thinks Vlasic is.

“Vlasic [is] arguably one of the best defensemen in the league,” he said. “Marc-Edouard is still one of the most underrated players in the league in the outside world.”

At this point, it’s fair to speculate when all these deals will get done. Wilson has a full plate with the four aforementioned negotiations, and also has to hammer out contracts for a trio of RFA forwards — Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney.

Are the Leafs getting into ‘go for it’ territory?

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Two years ago, Mike Babcock came to Toronto and predicted there would be “pain.”

He was right for one year. The Maple Leafs finished dead last in 2015-16, then got Auston Matthews as a reward.

But the pain didn’t last long, in large part thanks to Matthews. The Leafs made the playoffs in Babcock’s second season as head coach, and they even gave the Washington Capitals a good scare in the first round.

Now the question has to be asked — should the Leafs start going for it?

Your first instinct may be to laugh. But it is not such a ridiculous question when you consider Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, and Drew Doughty were all in their early 20s when they won the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Mathews turns 20 in September, and he’s already one of the NHL’s best centers. Wingers William Nylander, 20, and Mitch Marner, 19, aren’t too bad either, and neither is 26-year-old center Nazem Kadri.

All four of those forwards are under club control for years to come. Also locked up long term is starting goalie Frederik Andersen.

If there’s a weakness, it’s the back end. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev can all move the puck well, but defensively they’re still suspect. What the Leafs could really use is a top-four defenseman who can match the Leafs’ pace while also killing penalties and shutting down the opposition’s top players. And if he can play the right side, even better.

Of course, you know who else could use a defenseman like that? The other 30 teams. Top-four defensemen are not cheap to get on the trade market. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers.

Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello met with the media Tuesday to reflect on the season, and also give his thoughts on the future. He said the Leafs have to be careful not to get complacent, that it only gets harder now. He was asked about the market for defensemen. He said it’s hard to gauge because of the expansion draft.

But Lamoriello also said, “There’s a five-year plan that changes every day.”

Which would suggest the Leafs are willing to accelerate their schedule — that they may, in fact, see an opportunity to compete for the Cup a lot sooner than they originally thought possible.

Consider:

The Penguins went from out of the playoffs in ’06, to losing in the first round in ’07, to the Stanley Cup Final in ’08, then won it all in ’09.

The Blackhawks went from out of the playoffs in ’08, to the conference finals in ’09, to a championship in ’10.

The Kings went from out of the playoffs in ’09 to winning the Cup in ’12.

So… if you were the Leafs, wouldn’t you see an opportunity, too?