With the obvious caveat that it’s early and there is a lot of hockey to be played, general manager Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens are looking like the big winners from the NHL offseason.
The additions of Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson are just two of the many reasons the Canadiens are the hottest team in the league to open the 2020-21 season.
Even though the team struggled through most the 2019-20 campaign and finished with the 24th best record in the league, it was not a roster completely devoid of talent or hope. Their underlying numbers were sensational all season as they controlled possession and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play. They had a couple of emerging young impact players with potential that looked to be building blocks and were armed with salary cap space that could have been utilized to address the biggest shortcomings on the roster.
Those shortcomings mostly revolved around finishing ability and finding a capable backup goalie for Carey Price.
And those were the exact areas that Bergevin addressed with the additions of Toffoli, Anderson, and Jake Allen among others.
The Toffoli and Anderson impact
Let’s look at these two first because they were by far the most notable additions.
Anderson was viewed as a massive gamble given the size of his contract and the season he was coming off of in Columbus. The Canadiens were betting that he was healthy and could regain the finishing touch he previously showed when he looked like a potential 30-goal scorer. It has taken him just six games to already triple his goal total from a year ago. It is impossible to know how this contract plays out over the next six years, but the early returns are at least promising. The talent and ability is there. They just needed him to be healthy and regain his scoring touch.
Toffoli on the other hand looked like a shrewd move and potential steal from the beginning.
His back-of-the-hockey-card numbers have never been anything sensational throughout his career (usually around 20 goals, 45 points) but he always seemed like a player that could thrive in the right setting with with the right players around him. His underlying numbers have always been great from a shots and possession standpoint, while he was always stuck on a Kings team that played a suffocating style and had seen the talent level rapidly deteriorate in recent years. Not exactly a great environment for creating offense.
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He was great after the trade to Vancouver a year ago, and the Canadiens could not have asked for a better to this season (five goals, eight points in six games).
Will he keep scoring on 25% of his shots? Of course not. But even when that shooting luck does cool off he is a good enough player to continue making an impact. He is a perfect fit for the way the rest of the Canadiens forwards play.
With Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, Jeff Petry, Jonathan Drouin, and Paul Byron the Canadiens already had several players that could drive possession. They just needed to complement them with a few more finishers. They may have found a couple.
Why Canadiens fans should believe
It is not just that the Canadiens are 4-0-2 through the first six games that is important.
It is how they reached that 4-0-2 record.
Not only have they done it while playing entirely on the road, but they have been absolutely dominant during 5-on-5 play. They are outscoring teams 18-9 at even-strength, they are dictating the pace of play and controlling shot attempts and scoring chances at an elite level, and the important players at the top are making an impact.
If you wanted to be skeptical you could argue that a 12.5% team shooting percentage is driving a lot of their success. And that would be fair. But the territorial edge they have is significant, and there is one other factor at play here: They have 10 out of a possible 12 points and the goaltending hasn’t always been great yet. That could — and should — change.
The Carey Price-Allen duo was always one of the most intriguing parts of this team. The hope was that Allen could give them a competent backup to reduce Price’s workload, keep him fresh, and hopefully produce a better result. Through the first six games they have been a little up and down. They have combined for three games with a save percentage of .920 and three games below .860 (where they have four out of a possible six points).
They control the pace of games, they have what should be a good goalie duo, they seem to have found a couple of much-needed finishers, Suzuki looks like an emerging star, and they play in a division where every team around them has some sort of significant flaw.
There is every reason to believe this team can do something significant this season.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.