Julien, Canadiens under pressure to make offseason risks pay off

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While we rarely know what Marc Bergevin has up his muscle-challenged sleeves, he flips the script like few others in running the Montreal Canadiens. After another significant offseason of changes, it’s fair to wonder how coach Claude Julien feels about all of this.

(It’s also great to hear that Claude Julien is “feeling really good” following the health scare that chased him from the playoff bubble.)

To little surprise, Julien praised Bergevin’s offseason changes for the Canadiens.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Julien said, via the Canadiens’ transcription of his press conference. “I feel like we have a really good, competitive team right now. A lot of these different things that we had looked at to improve our team have been taken care of.”

Of course, Julien is going to say all the right things about the Canadiens’ offseason moves. And being that GMs tend to tailor tweaks and changes to their coach’s style, it would make sense that Julien is on board.

But can Julien and the Canadiens make everything mesh together, and justify the risks? Let’s see.

A quick look at expectations for the Canadiens

For some NHL teams, the 24-team playoff format upended expectations. Consider this: many of us likely forgot that the more optimistic Canadiens (71 points in 71 games played) finished well behind the far gloomier Panthers (78 points, 69 GP) during the 2019-20 regular season.

That’s the power of earning playoff upsets here and there; you set the bar a little higher. In the case of the Canadiens, they likely felt a lot better about things than maybe they should after finishing the regular season ranked 12th in the East.

Bergevin continues to spend as if the Canadiens can contend, whether they’re capable or not.

While Cap Friendly estimates the Canadiens’ actual salary spending at a more manageable $66.3 million, they’re close to the cap ceiling in terms of AAV. This is not a cheap team, particularly with financial uncertainty looming for 2020-21.

If the 2020-21 NHL season sticks with the typical divisional format (not a guarantee amid rumors of an all-Canadian division, among other possible plans), where would Montreal rank in the Atlantic Division? Could they dislodge one of the Lightning, Bruins, or Maple Leafs to grab a top-three spot? Would Buffalo and/or Florida also be in the way?

With Carey Price at 33 and Shea Weber at 35, it feels like the clock is really ticking. Missing the playoffs would sting greatly, so the pressure is on.

Canadiens made several interesting risks during offseason

Moving on from Max

When it comes to trading Max Domi, you can look at two key risks.

Trading Domi for Anderson

Looking at this merely from a player-for-player standpoint, it’s already a gamble. As you may know, Anderson only played in 26 games this past season, and injuries even limited his effectiveness when available (just one goal and three assists). So, the first gamble is that Anderson will be healthy.

The second gamble is whether or not Anderson is really a more valuable player than Domi when both are at full-strength. Granted, you can diffuse some of that by noting how different a player Anderson is than Domi. You could argue that the Canadiens subtracted from a position of strength (speed, skill) to improve a weakness (size, maybe finish?).

On top of all that, the Canadiens made a bigger gamble, contract-wise. While the Blue Jackets only committed two years and a $5.3M cap hit to 25-year-old Domi, the Habs gave Anderson, 26, slightly more money ($5.5M) and far more term (seven years).

Really, the only plus side of that possibly blowing up in Montreal’s face right away is that it appears as though Anderson’s modified no-trade clause won’t kick in until 2021-22.

Could Anderson pay off for the Canadiens, especially short-term? Sure. But it’s a gamble on its own, especially if Domi boosts the Blue Jackets in a bigger way.

Putting a lot of pressure on young centers

During his press conference, Claude Julien explained that trading Max Domi wasn’t really about condemning Domi. Instead, it was about embracing the emergence of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

“It’s not so much that it didn’t work out [with Domi in Montreal],” Julien said, via Sportsnet. “Sometimes this is what hockey’s all about — you end up with a situation where now Max became I guess a little bit expendable, because we had those guys do so well, and at the same time, we’re able to get a big player that we really needed on the wing in Josh Anderson in exchange for him.”

No doubt, Suzuki looked impressive in scoring seven points in 10 playoff games (and enraging Carter Hart). And Jesperi Kotkaniemi seemed to shake off a horrendous sophomore regular season, even if his playoff work was more about his overall play than generating four goals and zero assists in 10 contests.

And beyond that, Domi didn’t seem happy.

But people might forget that if Suzuki, 21, and Kotkaniemi, 20, strain under increased pressure. In hindsight, people might ask: why not sign Domi to a bridge contract, thus giving them a safety net.

Now imagine if Anderson sputters and those two hit a wall, all while Domi soars in Columbus. Triple gulp.

Doing it their way

For better or worse, Bergevin targeted players, and immediately handed them term.

In some cases, that meant going off the beaten path.

If Joel Edmundson, 27, hit the free agent market, how many teams would have offered him a four-year, $14M deal with a no-trade clause? Bergevin ended that discussion before it could start, and paid a fifth-rounder to negotiate with Edmundson (and maybe against himself?).

By bringing in Edmundson, Bergevin puts some pressure on Julien to play the defenseman, which could also take shifts away from underrated blueliners Victor Mete and/or Brett Kulak.

Citing a possibly condensed schedule, Julien praised acquiring Jake Allen to spell Carey Price. On paper, getting Price more rested could increase the $10.5M goalie’s chances of actually performing like a $10.5M goalie.

But the Canadiens handed over a lot of paper to do that.

Allen already carries a $4.35M cap hit for 2020-21, and Bergevin handed the 30-year-old a two-year extension with a $2.875M AAV before Allen made a single start for Montreal.

Now, if the Canadiens get 2019-20 Allen more often than not, it might be worth it — even if it’s a lot to pay for a backup. On the other hand, Allen struggled mightily during his previous two seasons. So, there’s a scary possibility that the Canadiens will sink almost $15M in cap space in Allen and Price and settle for subpar goaltending.

If that happens, Bergevin will take a lot of heat. Yet, so will Julien, who’s in charge of making a hearty meal out of these new groceries.

Will rewards justify the risks?

Again, when you stack it all up, there’s a lot of pressure on Julien and other Canadiens after this bold offseason.

None of this is to say it’s all bad. Amusingly, the most redundant signing might be the best. Tyler Toffoli is great at what many Canadiens already excelled at; Toffoli is a smart, skilled, strong five-on-five player. He also suffers from the team’s malady of sometimes struggling to take advantage of the volume of opportunities he creates.

It would be amusing if Toffoli — more of the same — ended up making the biggest difference for a Canadiens team that went through big changes.

Ultimately, it likely comes down to expectations. If Montreal would be satisfied with a playoff team, there’s probably a path. But to take that extra step and truly contend? That might cause them to buckle under the pressure.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    NHL top prospect Connor Bedard draws comparisons to Connor McDavid as draft approaches

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The NHL is going to have another Connor to contend with very shortly.

    For everything two-time NHL MVP Connor McDavid has accomplished in Edmonton since being selected No. 1 in the 2015 draft, Connor Bedard is on the same trajectory in being pegged as this year’s top eligible draft prospect, Central Scouting director Dan Marr said Friday.

    “He’s right up there with Connor McDavid, it’s just the next generation,” Marr said in touting Bedard’s quickness, shot and ability to read and adapt. “So Connor McDavid started that trend, and Connor Bedard is going to lead it into the next trend.”

    The annual NHL pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York, is resembling more of a coronation for the 17-year-old Bedard, who has spent the past two years putting up generational numbers with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League while also shining against his peers on the international stage.

    “I think you can use a lot of adjectives to describe it,” Regina coach John Paddock told The Associated Press recently in comparing Bedard’s production at the same age level to McDavid and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

    “That’s quite a high ceiling,” said Paddock, a former NHL coach and player. “But there’s no indication he’s not going to do that based on what he’s done to date.”

    The Chicago Blackhawks own the No. 1 pick, and are highly anticipated to use it on Bedard when the draft opens in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 28.

    Bedard held his latest meeting with the Blackhawks at the combine in a relationship that began at a top-prospects camp in Toronto last summer.

    Bedard’s arrival would coincide with the franchise in transition, with Chicago moving on from its aging core after trading 2007 No. 1 pick, Patrick Kane, and with captain Jonathan Toews’ future uncertain.

    “Yeah, it’d be awesome,” Bedard said of the possibility of being selected by the Blackhawks. “The history of that organization, that city with sports would be unbelievable. We’ll see what happens, but to be selected, that would be a huge honor.”

    Bedard said he’s following McDavid’s advice to stay in the moment and not peak too far ahead. He added, his dream to play in the NHL began no different than those of his colleagues: the moment he picked up a hockey stick growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

    What separates Bedard, however, is his exceptional skating ability and a hard shot, which is even more lethal given his quick release.

    With Bedard the likely top pick, the intrigue at the draft is likely to revolve around who rounds out the remainder of the top five selections.

    University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli is second among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final list, followed by top American prospect, William Smith, who played for USA Hockey’s developmental program. The top two European skaters are also considered in the mix with Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and Russia’s Matvei Michkov.

    Anaheim is scheduled to pick second followed by Columbus, San Jose and Montreal.

    Marr gives the edge to Bedard while also being impressed with Fantilli – just the third freshman to win the Hobey Baker Trophy awarded to college hockey’s top players – in a draft class considered very deep with offensive-minded forwards.

    “You’re going to win with both,” Marr said. “And whoever gets these two players they’re going to help define a franchise.”

    What distinguishes Bedard, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, has been his consistency.

    Last season, his 71 goals in just 57 games were the most in the WHL since Pavel Brendl scored 73 in 1998-99. Bedard’s 143 points were the most in the CHL since three players topped that mark in 1995-96. And it was a season in which he enjoyed 10 games with five or more points, and just five games in which he failed to register a point.

    In 2020-21, Bedard became just the third WHL 16-year-old to reach 100 points, and was the youngest to score 50 goals in finishing with 51.

    He’s also made a splash on the international stage. Bedard led Canada with nine goals and 23 points at the world juniors last winter, and his combined production of 17 goals and 36 points in just 16 games ranks fourth on the career tournament list.

    Bedard has honed his talent by spending countless hours practicing shots in his backyard, which he referred to as his “Happy Place.” He was so dedicated to work on his shot that he preferred practicing than joining his family for a vacation to Disneyland, and eventually vacationed in Hawaii but only after he was allowed to bring his inline skates and sticks to practice.

    Noted for being soft-spoken, Bedard said he’s not yet allowed himself to envision being drafted or making his NHL debut yet.

    “It’s hard kind of think of that. But of course, I’ll work as hard as I can to try to achieve that goal,” he said. “And hopefully I do.”

    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.