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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