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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    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.