Canadiens’ chances depend on development of Suzuki, Caufield

cole caufield
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The Montreal Canadiens stunned the NHL this postseason when they went on their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.

It was the perfect storm of the playoff format opening the door for them, a team that was probably a little better than its record indicated getting on a roll at the right time, and an incredible goaltending performance from Carey Price. As far as unexpected Stanley Cup Finalists go, the 2020-21 Canadiens were about as unexpected as you could get.

So now it creates a question for this upcoming season and what exactly should be expected of them.

There are a lot of red flags that should keep expectations within reason. Let’s start with the fact they are no longer playing in the all Canadian North Division and are going back to the Atlantic with Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, and a rapidly improving Florida team. Even though Montreal beat Toronto its best-of-seven First Round series the Canadiens did not finish the regular season within 14 points of any of those four teams, so there is clearly a pretty big gap between them, while they also have to play head-to-head games against all  of them. Toronto was the only team out of that quartet that Montreal played a season ago.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

But there are also a lot of roster issues.

Replacing some significant players

Top defenseman Shea Weber is not going to be there this season and will be replaced by free agent addition David Savard.

Savard is a solid enough player defensively, but he does not have the offensive impact that Weber can still provide.

They also lost two significant forwards with the free agency departures of Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar.

While Tatar did not play much in the playoffs, that duo teamed up with Brendan Gallagher to form one of the NHL’s best and most effective lines the past couple of seasons. While Gallagher still remains — and to be fair, he may have been one of the biggest driving forces of that line — losing Danault’s defense and Tatar’s offense is going to be a lot to replace. That was a heck of a line that is now mostly gone.

Mike Hoffman is the big offseason addition to help replace some of that. Offensively speaking, he should be a fine addition because he can make a meaningful impact on the power play and he does have 30-goal ability. He is not going to provide much away from the puck, but offensively he is a contributor. And that counts for something.

They also have the potential (likely?) return of Jonathan Drouin after he missed a portion of the 2020-21 season and all of the postseason due to personal reasons. He may not have become the superstar that he was expected to be when he was drafted, but he is still a productive player. And if he rebounds from that 2.3 percent shooting percentage he had this season he should be able to make a meaningful impact once again.

Improvement from within will be key

But even with all of that there are still only two things that are going to determine the success or failure of the 2021-22 Canadiens: The goaltending of Price and Jake Allen is an obvious factor. We saw in the playoffs just how important Price can be when he is healthy and playing at his best, and if he and Allen are both healthy the Canadiens have the potential for a stellar goalie duo. Price may not be as consistently dominant as he was during his prime, but he is still capable of putting the team on his back and carrying it.

But beyond the goalies there is also the continued development of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The Canadiens do still have some very good veteran players on the roster. Tyler Toffoli is a wonderful player. Hoffman can score goals. Drouin is very good. Gallagher is one of the best two-way players in the league. Jeff Petry is magnificent on defense. But for as good as all of them are they are not players you build a championship caliber roster around. They are the players that help put you over the top.

You still need the core, All-Star level players to build on.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Potential breakout players for 2021-22 season]

That is where Suzuki, Caufield, and Kotkaniemi come in, and Canadiens fans should be excited about all of them. Especially Suzuki and Caufield.

Suzuki has looked like a potential top-line center in each of his first two seasons and showed significant improvement in his second year. He has also been one of their best postseason players in each of the past two years. Given his growth from year one to year two, as well as the fact he is still only 22 years old and just now entering what should be his prime years there is reason to believe he could be in line for an even bigger breakout season. He could be the biggest long-term building block on the team.

Caufield is the player that might be the most electrifying.

Including playoffs he only has 32 NHL games on his resume, but he has been the type of player that makes you take notice of him every time he is on the ice. And he is the type of player that only needs a little bit of room to really do some damage to an opposing defense.

If those two players emerge and develop the way the Canadiens hope they will have two important building blocks on the roster with some solid pieces around them. Their development could help make up for the departures of Tatar and Danault.

Making the playoffs is going to be a challenge in this division with that competition around them, and nobody should have any delusions about the Canadiens being expected to make another return trip to the Stanley Cup Final. But their roster does have a lot of talent with some intriguing potential.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.