Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Previewing the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Maybe slightly worse, but largely the same.

Montreal brought in Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid while letting Antti Niemi and Jordie Benn walk. They also traded away Andrew Shaw.

Aside from a Sebastian Aho offer sheet that had little chance of succeeding, it was a very quiet offseason for Marc Bergevin.

Strengths: Depth, five-on-five play, and possibly strong starting goaltending if Carey Price continues getting back on track.

Claude Julien really had this group firing on all cylinders last season, which had to make missing the playoffs extra-painful. Still, it’s generally easier to reproduce even-strength success than it is to shoot or stop pucks at a high level, so that’s nice. This team can send wave after wave of forwards at you, and their top four of Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, and Jeff Petry is better than a lot of people realize.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Canadiens had to be dominant at even-strength last season because their power play was so putrid.

You might be able to chalk it up to the larger feeling that the Canadiens have some very nice forwards, especially Brendan Gallagher, but seem to lack that super-duper-star. The power play might be better in 2019-20 by sheer luck, but personnel-wise, they didn’t really address the problem during the offseason.

It sure looks like Montreal will need to lean heavily on Price, as Kinkaid doesn’t strike me as that much of an upgrade over Niemi, if he even is an upgrade.

(Nice use of emojis, though.)

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Canadiens front office members (especially Bergevin, but also Julien) have weathered some of the bigger storms, as while Montreal missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they generally exceeded expectations in 2018-19. Even so Montreal’s missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and hasn’t won a series since 2014-15. Julien is an excellent coach, but professional sports aren’t always fair to coaches, and things could really heat up if a lot of Canadiens follow career years by plummeting back to their lesser, past selves. A rating of 7 feels about right.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, and Carey Price.

If Kotkaniemi ends up not being worthy of the third overall pick of 2018, it looks like that will only come down to people merely having a preference, for say, fourth pick Brady Tkachuk — and so on. The point is that Kotkaniemi was brilliant as a rookie, and considering limited usage, could be capable of even more than an already-solid 34 points in 79 games. Honestly, Julien owes it to this team to experiment with just how quickly Kotkaniemi can grow. He aced his first test in the NHL.

Entering 2019-20, a big question is: will the Max Domi we see look more like the 2018-19 sensation, or the 2017-18 Coyotes forward who needed four empty-netters to reach nine goals? Domi’s entering a contract year, so if he can show last season wasn’t a fluke, he can go from a healthy raise from his $3.15M AAV to a huge jump.

Price is basically always fascinating in Montreal: the franchise, $10.5M goalie in a city that’s watched some of the best netminders to ever play the game. Can Price be dominant at 32? The Habs are counting on it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Montreal was unlucky that the East was pretty stout at the playoff-level in 2018-19, and figure to face big obstacles again this coming season. Not only will the Atlantic’s top three figure to be tough (Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs), but the Panthers made investments to be hugely improved, too. For all we know, it may all come down to the Panthers vs. the Canadiens, especially if the Metropolitan Division isn’t a total flop in providing wild-card competition.

There’s quite a bit to like with this team, so playoffs seem more likely than the lottery — although we also know that this tough market can also turn the volume up on any slump.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Breakout candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 potential breakout candidates for the 2019-20 NHL season.

We are looking for young players who have already made their NHL debut (so no Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko) and could be on the verge of taking a big step toward stardom.

Who makes the cut? Let’s find out. To the rankings!

1. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. He is one of just eight players since the start of the 2000-01 season to score at least 20 goals as an 18-year-old in the NHL. The previous seven (Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jordan Staal, Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, and Patrik Laine) scored an average of 31 goals in year two. With his talent and rocket shot don’t be surprised if Svechnikov tops the 30-goal mark and becomes a top-line player for the Hurricanes.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are loaded with young talent and with the offseason trade of Tyson Barrie are going to be relying on a lot of youth on defense. Makar made his NHL debut in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and never really looked out of place, showing the type of skill and potential that could make him a Calder Trophy favorite entering the 2019-20 season.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers. Flyers fans have reason to believe their long-time goaltending headache could finally be going away. Hart finished with a .917 save percentage as a 20-year-old and is going to enter the season as the team’s starter. He could be a franchise-changing player.

4. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. Not every No. 1 pick is going to enter the NHL and immediately become a superstar. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. Hischier has been really good his first two years in the league and probably still has another level he can reach, and with the Devils adding some impact talent to their roster this offseason he should have a little more help in getting there.

5. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks. There is an argument to be made that Labanc already had his “breakout” season this past year (17 goals, 56 assists) but it might still yet be ahead of him. He not only should get a bigger role this season for the Sharks but he also kind of bet on himself to have a big year with a one-year, $1 million contract. He has talent, he is already productive, and he has a lot to play for.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning. Ton of talent, potential and already productive at a young age. He just turned 21 and has already played 150 games and has averaged 0.36 points per game. Only six other active defenders have had a similar start to their careers: Drew Doughty, Zach Werenski, Morgan Rielly, Aaron Ekblad, Tyler Myers and Cam Fowler. Hopefully for the Lightning’s sake he follows the path of the first four.

7. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens. There was a lot to like about Kotkaniemi’s rookie season. Not only did he produce at a respectable level for a teenager, but he also posted dominant possession numbers (57 percent Corsi) that were among the league’s best. Was it a sheltered role? Sure it was, he was an 18-year-old rookie. But there is still something to be said for a player that age stepping right into the NHL and holding his own the way he did.

8. Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues. A first-round pick by the Blues in 2017, Thomas has been a highly anticipated prospect in the Blues organization and, in making the jump from the OHL straight to the NHL, made a strong first impression for the Stanley Cup champions. Great talent and likely to be a core building block for the Blues in the coming seasons.

9. Henri Jokiharju, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have added a lot of talent to their blue line over the past two years, drafting Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall in 2018 and then acquiring Colin Miller and Jokiharju. Jokiharju is definitely the more intriguing out of the latter two because he is still only 20 years old, was a first-round pick just a couple of years ago, and looked really good at times in the first half of the 2018-19 season for the Chicago Blackhawks. He never seemed to get the trust of new coach Jeremy Colliton and was eventually traded this summer for Alex Nylander. If he reaches his potential in Buffalo the Sabres might finally have the start of a playoff caliber defense.

10. Devon Toews, New York Islanders. Toews is an interesting one because he is the oldest player on this list (25) and only has 56 games of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs combined) on his resume. It took him a few years to get his first look with the Islanders, but he absolutely made the most of it and looked more impressive with each game.

Honorable mentionsRyan Donato, Minnesota Wild; Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes; Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars; Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers; Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche; David Rittich, Calgary Flames; Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers; Filip Zadina, Detroit Red Wings.

MORE: Top regression candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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.