Getty

Canadiens surprisingly exceeding expectations

3 Comments

The Montreal Canadiens’ trade for Nate Thompson on Monday afternoon isn’t anything that is going to make the rest of the Eastern Conference sit up and take notice. It is not going to put the fear of God in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or change the course of the playoffs and impact where the Stanley Cup ends up. It is a likely playoff team adding a role player to its lineup for a small price and trying to find any small upgrade it can. Nothing more, nothing less.

What’s important is what it says about the Canadiens as a team this season.

They are buyers and looking to add.

This is a surprising development because of where they were, or at least seemed to be, at the start of the season.

Consider the fact they had one of the worst records in the league a season ago that ended with a disastrous second-half collapse.

In the offseason, they traded two of the best offensive players (on what was a bad offensive team) in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for a package of players that, at the time, didn’t seem to make them better. In exchange for Galchenyuk, they received Max Domi‘s whose development had badly stalled with the Arizona Coyotes and had produced only a fraction of what Galchenyuk had with the Canadiens. It looked like a clear downgrade.

In return for Pacioretty, one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years, they received Tomas Tatar, a historically solid performer that was coming off of a terrible postseason run with the Vegas Golden Knights, and a lot of potential in the future. Again, it didn’t seem to make them any better in the short-term.

Then on top of all of that there was the fact that their top defender, Shea Weber, was going to be sidelined for most of the first half of the season.

There was little reason for optimism, and I will admit to being extremely critical of the moves and the direction the team seemed to be going in, especially with how much money they have tied up in Weber and Price, both of whom are on the wrong side of 30. That should still be a long-term concern, but sometimes you’re wrong in the short-term.

For them to exceed expectations it was almost as if they would need Carey Price to do what he did during the 2014-15 season and single handedly carry the team and sweep all of the major postseason awards.

[Related: Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive]

Now more than 50 games into the season, and with all of the factors above working against them, the Canadiens have more than exceeded all preseason expectations and barring another late season collapse look to be a solid lock to return to the playoffs. And they’ve done it without Carey Price being … well … Carey Price. He’s been good overall, and he’s been great lately, but he hasn’t been consistently great from the start, and he even had a really tough start to the season where he was playing significantly below his normal career level.

Despite that, the Canadiens kept winning, which is a positive development for the short-term outlook of the franchise. Why? Because everything about this team right now is legitimately good. They are playing with an aggressiveness and a level of speed that has been lacking in Montreal for years. Their possession and scoring chances numbers are among the best in the NHL. Their 5-on-5 shot attempt share is the third-best in the league, while they are in the top-five in scoring chance share and top-10 in High-Danger scoring chances.

Weber has been great since returning to the lineup, Domi has become the player Arizona always thought he would be, while Tatar has returned to the form he showed in his pre-Vegas career. Along with those developments, Philip Danault has taken a massive step forward this season both offensively and defensively, and the arrival and rapid development of rookie and No. 3 overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks like it could fill a long-term hole at center.

It’s not easy for the Canadiens to slide under the radar in the NHL just because of the history, the legacy of the franchise, where they are located, and the mystique around them. In most seasons Claude Julien would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award given how well the team has played and how much better it has been than originally expected. But given the surprising success stories with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames the Canadiens have managed to do the impossible  and have a really good team that has gone relatively unnoticed in the NHL.

It might be time to start taking notice because not only are they really good and playing really well, their best player and biggest game-changer — Price — is starting to play like they expect him to. Those two developments working together could make them a fierce matchup for somebody early in the playoffs.

More: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins host Canadiens on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This will be the 746th regular season game between the Canadiens and Bruins. Montreal has won 361 times to Boston’s 281, while there have been 103 ties. These two teams have played more than any other teams in the NHL.

Both teams enter Monday’s matchup playing well. The Bruins have won six of their last seven games, including a 3-2 win at Toronto on Saturday night. Trailing 2-1, Boston scored two straight goals near the end of the secnd period and held off the Maple Leafs in the third to secure the win. The Canadiens kicked off a run of three games in four days on Saturday night with a 3-0 win vs the Avalanche. Carey Price stopped 28 shots to earn his third shutout of the season. It was just the secnd time Colorado has been shut out all season (first time since Oct.).

One of the biggest reasons for the Bruins’ recent success has been the play of goalie Tuukka Rask, who has emerged as the clear top choice between the pipes. Rask is 5-0-0, with a 1.38 goals against average, .955 save percentage and a shutout in his last five starts. His next win will tie him with Tiny Thompson for most wins by a goalie in franchise history.

The Canadiens power play continued to struggle in the 3-0 win vs. the Avalanche. Montreal went 0-for-3 with the man advantage to bring their total to 1-for-20 in the last seven games. They rank last in the NHL in power play percentage, converting on just 12.5 percent of their chances. Head coach Claude Julien also switched up the power-play units hoping to find a solution for the team’s struggles.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Montreal Canadiens at Boston Bruins
Where: TD Garden
When: Monday, Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Canadiens-Bruins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS
Jonathan DrouinPhilip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiJoel Armia
Tomas TatarJesperi KotkaniemiPaul Byron
Kenny AgostinoMichael ChaputNicolas Deslauriers

Victor MeteShea Weber
Mike ReillyJeff Petry
Brett KulakJordie Benn

Starting goalie: Carey Price

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciDavid Backes
Sean KuralyNoel AcciariChris Wagner
Danton HeinenJakob Forsbacka KarlssonRyan Donato

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

John Forslund (play-by-play), AJ Mleczko (analyst) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

Habs ‘have holes in many positions,’ and Bergevin’s busy trying to fill them

Getty
5 Comments

Consider, for a moment, what’s currently on the plate of Montreal GM Marc Bergevin.

Last year’s second-leading scorer, Alex Radulov, is an unrestricted free agent that might go to market. Trade calls are coming in on Alex Galchenyuk, who also needs a new contract. The Habs would like to keep Andrei Markov, but he’s a UFA as well. There’s still no clear answer as to who the team’s No. 1 center will be next year, or what the defense will look like.

Needless to say, Bergevin has lots of balls in the air.

“We have holes at many positions,” he said Thursday. “I don’t think many teams could walk in and say, ‘We’re all set, we’re not taking calls.’

“We’ll try to address those needs. But it’s not easy. People who have good assets, they usually keep them. It has to be a match, put it this way.”

The center position, one that’s long been an issue in Montreal, remains in flux. Bergevin said he was unsure if Jonathan Drouin could play the middle, which has been an ongoing debate with Galchenyuk over the last few years. Tomas Plekanec and Philip Danault remain on the roster, but neither are No. 1 caliber.

Given that pressing need down the middle, Bergevin might need to allocate some cap space for a solution. And if that’s the case, it could hamper his ability to re-sign Radulov, who’s rumored to be angling for a big payday.

“We have limits, we have price,” Bergevin said of Radulov. “He’s got the right to test the market, if that’s what he decides.”

In addressing Radulov, Bergevin added he’d like to retain the services of Markov, who’s 38 and coming off a deal that paid $5.75 million annually. The Habs GM said there hasn’t been much in the way of negotiations with the veteran Russian rearguard, though.

On top of all this — oh yes, there’s more — is the looming contract extension for Carey Price. The star goalie is heading into the last year of his deal and eligible to sign an extension on July 1, which promises to be a monster contract. Price is currently the NHL’s fifth highest-paid netminder at $7 million per, but could join Sergei Bobrovsky and Henrik Lundqvist as the only goalies to earn more than $8M annually.

But before that happens, Bergevin needs to upgrade the players in front of Price.

“I need help everywhere,,” he said. “It’s not that easy.”

Injuries keep piling up in Detroit — Smith out four weeks (Update: Bertuzzi too)

Getty
5 Comments

It’s a veritable MASH unit in the Motor City right now.

On Monday, Wings GM Ken Holland announced that d-man Brendan Smith would miss the next four weeks with a knee injury, suffered in Saturday’s 2-1 OT loss to the Habs.

Smith got tangled up with Montreal’s Philip Danault with about eight minutes left in the second period, and didn’t return. He was one of two Detroit skaters to exit the game that frame — the other, forward Tyler Bertuzzi, limped off with 3:13 remaining after a hit from Alexei Emelin.

Holland didn’t have an update on Bertuzzi’s condition today.

On its own, the Smith injury is a problem. The 27-year-old was a lineup fixture this year, averaging over 18 minutes while appearing in 20 games, notching a pair of goals and four points.

And as mentioned above, his injury is just the latest to hit Detroit.

The club is already without Andreas Athanasiou and Darren Helm, who have been sidelined since mid-November. Jimmy Howard left Friday’s game against the Devils with a lower-body injury, and Alexey Marchenko is on injured reserve with an upper-body ailment.

Update: Head coach Jeff Blashill said Bertuzzi, who suffered an ankle injury on the Emelin play, will be out 3-5 weeks (per MLive).

 

Canadiens win again thanks to another thunderous Shea Weber goal

Getty
6 Comments

For the second year in a row the Montreal Canadiens are storming out of the gate to open the season.

Thanks to their 3-2 win over the New York Islanders on Wednesday night the Canadiens are off to a 6-0-1 start and have the best record in the league through their first seven games.

Even though Wednesday’s game was only decided by a single goal, it was a particularly strong effort and perhaps one of their best of the young season. The biggest reason the game remained so close for so long was because of the play of Thomas Greiss in the Islanders crease during the second and third periods where Montreal had a commanding edge on the shot chart. This game could have easily shifted heavily in Montreal’s favor, and the fact it did not is a testament to the way Griess played.

But the star of the night was — once again — Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber as he continued his incredible start with his new team.

With less than three minutes to play in regulation, Weber broke a 2-2 tie with his third goal of the season on a shot that seems like it was probably close to breaking the sound barrier.

OK … maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but just look at this thing.

How do you stop that? Why would you want to get in front of it?

Weber also assisted on Philip Danault‘s goal earlier in the period. He now has nine points in his first seven games with the Canadiens.

As we saw a year ago with the Canadiens won their first nine games (and then missed the playoffs) a fast start doesn’t guarantee anything over the course of an 82-game season. But this year’s Canadiens should have something last year’s Canadiens didn’t have over the final five months of the season — Carey Price. These guys might be pretty good.