Marc Bergevin

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.

Marc Bergevin was ’90 percent sure’ Canadiens were getting Sebastian Aho

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Despite what you may believe, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was fairly certain that he was going to land Carolina Hurricanes restricted free agent Sebastian Aho over the summer.

When the Canadiens dropped a five-year, $42.270 front-loaded contract on Aho’s lap, he signed it. At the time, many doubted that the Hurricanes wouldn’t match. Bergervin saw things differently.

“You’re never 100 percent sure of anything,” Bergervin told La Presse (quotes have been translated). “But I had conversations with his agent and he had some with the other general manager. We were 90 percent sure (we were going to get Aho). I didn’t just make an offer for the sake of making an offer. We looked at their organization and the way they manage their dollars, so we decided to front-load the first year of the contract. For us, it was a real possibility. We believed it was going to get done.”

We all know how the situation played out. The Hurricanes ended up matching the offer and the Canadiens didn’t end up making a significant move after that.

Could they opt to go after another one of the restricted free agents that still hasn’t signed with their respective teams?

“Anything is possible,” added Bergevin. “But there’s a reason why we haven’t seen another offer sheet this off-season. The contract (demands), the compensation, the salary cap. But in the league, anything’s possible.”

Landing a player like Aho would’ve changed the game for a team like Canadiens, who need some help offensively. The pressure is always “on” in Montreal, but the management staff have to feeling it a little more heading into this season. Last year, they were coming off a dismal season. This year, they’re coming off a year where they didn’t make the playoffs, but they still finished with 96 points and restored a positive feeling around the group.

You’d have to think that, internally, they’re feeling the heat this year. They can’t not make the playoffs, can they? They’ve missed the postseason in back-to-back years and in three of the last four. The last time they made the playoffs (2017), they were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers.

Since the Canadiens didn’t make a splash this summer, they’ll have to hope that some of their young players improve significantly if they’re going to make the playoffs. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had an impressive season as an 18-year-old, will have to take a big step forward offensively. The Canadiens could also use some added production from depth players like Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Jordan Weal. Jonathan Drouin will have to surpass the 53 points he scored last year, while Max Domi will need to build on his 72-point outburst from one year ago.

Oh, and Carey Price and Shea Weber absolutely need to stay healthy if this team is going to make a dent in the Eastern Conference standings.

It should be an interesting year in Montreal. If they fail to make the playoffs, again, is Bergevin’s job still safe? Would his job security depend on how the team misses the playoffs?

The Habs are never boring.

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Burning questions for Montreal Canadiens in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

Let’s explore three questions for the Habs as 2019-20 approaches …

1. Which Carey Price will show up, and how often?

With that $10.5 million cap hit, Carey Price remains a questionable investment in the eyes of many (myself included).

Still, the 2018-19 season restored some hope that Price could at least be an above-average, if not occasionally elite, goalie for the Canadiens. He managed a .918 save percentage last season, which matches his career average. Considering the heights of Price’s career, that’s a remarkable achievement.

But you must also consider the low points of Price’s career, simply because the Habs have traveled through those valleys quite a bit lately. Price played poorly in 2017-18, and was limited to just 12 games played as recently as 2015-16, so it’s not a given that Montreal will receive great play from Price.

As a side note: it’s his birthday. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one, especially since Price earned about a million cool points for the touching moment he was a part of during the 2019 NHL Awards, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline.

He’s certainly someone who’s become easy to root for.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

2. How many players already bumped against their ceilings?

The sheer number of Habs who enjoyed career years is remarkable, from Max Domi to Jeff Petry to Phillip Danault. Even traded-away forward Andrew Shaw often played over his head.

How many of those performances are repeatable?

The advice to tap the brakes is worthwhile with Domi, in particular. Contrast his brilliant 2018-19 season (28 goals, 72 points, 13.8 shooting percentage) with a rough final year in Arizona (nine goals [four empty-netters], 45 points, six shooting percentage in 2017-18) and you’ll realize that it’s dangerous to simply pencil in the same results from year to year.

It’s not all gloom and doom. While the “sophomore slump” is a threat, Jesperi Kotkaniemi could also take another big step forward. Shea Weber could be healthier, which may or may not lead to a healthier power play. And, if you’re hoping for anything to repeat, strong five-on-five play usually isn’t a fluke, at least when you keep most of the same players on a team, and most of them are pretty young.

Still, it’s possible that improved power play work might offset a slight drop-off, rather than supplementing a resounding team at even-strength … but we’ll see.

3. Will Marc Bergevin remain patient?

When it comes to judging the Habs’ GM’s work lately, it feels like people have been grading Bergevin on a curve: “Hey, this didn’t work out as badly as we thought.”

That friendly outlook might not last very long, and if Bergevin’s seat starts to heat up again — they’ve missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and three of four — then there’s the risk that he’ll make reckless moves to try to save his job.

As scrappy as this team is, forking over draft picks and/or prospects for quick fixes could really sting. Thankfully, Bergevin didn’t spend big during the past trade deadline or in free agency this summer (aside from a baffling Ben Chiarot signing), so he’s shown some discipline.

Bergevin’s one of the league’s most entertaining GMs because he’s willing to be bold, though, so we’ll see how long he can be stoic and not make a splashy move, beyond the occasional facetious offer sheet.

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.

It’s Montreal Canadiens Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

2018-19
44-30-8, 96 points (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Ben Chiarot
Nick Cousins
Keith Kinkaid

OUT:
Jordie Benn
Andrew Shaw
Nicolas Deslauriers
Antti Niemi

RE-SIGNED:
Christian Folin
Artturi Lehkonen
Joel Armia
Charles Hudon
Jordan Weal
Mike Reilly
Brett Kulak
Nate Thompson

2018-19 Summary

Close but no cigar. Despite putting up 96 points in 2018-19, the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the playoffs. It was close, but they were eventually eliminated on the final Friday of the regular season when the Columbus Blue Jackets clinched the last Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Even though they didn’t make the playoffs, last season wasn’t a total failure for an organization that appeared to be in shambles the previous year. Habs general manager Marc Bergevin moved captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, top prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick and he also shipped Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi. Both trades couldn’t have worked out any better for Montreal. Tatar gave the Canadiens a 25-goal and 58-point season, Suzuki had a great year in junior and could make the club this year and Domi ended up leaving the team in scoring, while Galchenyuk has already been traded again.

The difference between last season and this season, is that the public’s expectations were in the toilet coming into 2018-19. Those expectations will be much, much higher this year. Missing the playoffs by a hair won’t be good enough.

“I knew we’d have a better team this season [with the changes that were made], but what I really like is the character. We’ve come from behind in a lot games. That didn’t happen last year. I’m proud of that,” Bergevin said last January, per the team’s website. “Hats off to the players and the coaches. We started at zero and I think we’re heading in the right direction.

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

The Canadiens got off to a good start last year, which was surprising considering the fact that Shea Weber missed the first two months of the season. Carey Price, who needs to be on top of his game for this team to have a chance to play meaningful games in the spring, had a rough month of November, but he was terrific when they needed him down the stretch. Those two veterans will obviously be key for the Habs. If they can stay healthy, Montreal will have a chance.

Brenden Gallagher ended up being their only 30-goal scorer last year (he had 33), but they got depth scoring from all over the lineup. Domi and Tatar were the only two Habs to surpass the 20-goal mark, but nine other players hit double figures in goals.

The downside to all that, is that a few of those players had great years by their standards and they still missed the playoffs. Can they do it all over again and then some?

One of the players who surprisingly stuck with the team all year, was 2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He finished with 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as an 18-year-old in the NHL. He has all the potential in the world and he may become that true number one center the organization has been looking for for years. If he can take a big step forward in his second year, the Habs will be much better for it.

In the end, Bergevin and his staff  got the benefit of the doubt because they seemingly turned this ship around in one year. That won’t be the case if they fail to make it back to the postseason this time around.

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hurricanes will match offer sheet for Sebastian Aho

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Sebastian Aho will not become a member of the Montreal Canadiens. At least for the next year.

On Tuesday, the Carolina Hurricanes announced that they would be matching the offer sheet that Aho signed with the Canadiens on the opening day of NHL free agency. The team had seven days to make a decision, and they only needed one.

“This was an easy decision,” said Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell in a statement. “Sebastian is one of the best players in the league and the centerpiece of what we’re building here. We’ve spoken to him throughout this process and he’s made it clear that he wants to be in Raleigh and be a part of this organization.

“It’s our job to manage our cap space as our players develop and hit free agency. There was no concern at any point that we would not be able to match this contract. Once again, the Carolina Hurricanes should not be underestimated. We have a plan and all the resources to win a Stanley Cup.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The five-year deal carrying an $8.454 million average annual value was designed creatively in hopes that the Hurricanes would not match. According to Pierre LeBrun, Aho, who will become an unrestricted free agent when the contract expires, is due $21.87 million in signing bonuses over the next year with a salary of $700,000 in the first two seasons and $750,000 in the final three. Per the terms of an offer sheet, he’s not eligible to be dealt for 12 months.

Had the Hurricanes not matched the offer, the Canadiens would have sent them a first-round pick, second-round pick and third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft as compensation.

“We’re surprised. We love the player and we’re happy to have this done. And surprised someone would have thought this would work,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon told the News and Observer. “We were never going to let him go. He didn’t want to go. This is just part of the business of getting the deal done. I said the day I bought the team and nothing has changed, he’s one of if not the most important part of our future and we’re lucky to have him.”

Waddell, who said on Monday he was surprised the offer sheet wasn’t larger, played coy a bit when asked how long he’d take to decide. While the Hurricanes’ release announced their “intention” to match, they could still take the full period to officially do so and hand over that signing bonus to Aho. This at least allows Bergevin and the Canadiens to know that the cap space they were saving for Aho is now free to be spent. They cannot, however, attempt another offer sheet until this matter is officially resolved.

By the way, the Canadiens visit the Hurricanes on Oct. 3 in Raleigh.

MORE: What should Habs do if they don’t get Aho?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.