There were a lot of positives for the Montreal Canadiens to take away from their 2018-19 season, in which they saw a 25-point improvement from their disastrous 2017-18 campaign.
Finishing with 96 points, they were unlucky not to make the playoffs. Had they been in the Western Conference, the Habs would have qualified for the postseason with more points than the Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars, and Colorado Avalanche.
- See also:
Unfortunately for the Canadiens, it wasn’t enough to even qualify for the tournament in what was a brutally tough Eastern Conference last year. Montreal missed the postseason for the second straight year, marking the first time the proud franchise had missed the playoffs in consecutive years since three straight postseason misses from 1999 to 2001.
Habs fans have reasons to be optimistic that this team can avoid that fate, though.
1. Shea Weber is healthy
After being without their top defenceman for nearly a full calendar year due to injuries, it had to be encouraging for the Canadiens to see Shea Weber return late last November and look a lot like his old self. The captain scored 14 goals and added 19 assists for 33 points in 58 games to go along with a plus-15 rating while averaging 23:29 of ice time.
Weber’s leadership is just as important to the team as his booming slap shots and thunderous hits. There’s no guarantee the 34-year-old will stay healthy, but if his injury woes are behind him and he can play a full season, it will be a huge boost for Montreal.
2. Competition could be weaker
Beating out one of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, or Toronto Maple Leafs for an Atlantic Division playoff spot may be a tall task for the Canadiens, but the Wild Card competition may not be as fierce. The Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Canadiens out by two points for the second Wild Card in the East last year, but then watched three top players in Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky depart as free agents.
The Carolina Hurricanes, who finished three points ahead of Montreal and claimed the first Wild Card, also lost a pair of significant players in Justin Williams and Justin Faulk. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost one of their top scorers in Phil Kessel. The New York Islanders lost goaltender Robin Lehner, whose tremendous performance in the Isles’ crease played a big role in their surprising success last year.
As for the Habs, really the only player of note gone from last season is Andrew Shaw, who they traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for salary cap relief and draft picks.
It’s true that some of the East’s other non-playoff teams from last year look to have improved, such as the Florida Panthers (86 points last year), New York Rangers (78), and New Jersey Devils (72), but those clubs had a lot more work to do to become playoff-calibre teams than Montreal did.
3. Injection of young talent
Ryan Poehling dazzled Habs fans in last year’s season finale by scoring a hat trick against the Maple Leafs in his NHL debut, but he’ll actually begin this season in the AHL after he was beaten out for a spot on Montreal’s opening night roster by another very exciting forward prospect in Nick Suzuki.
A 2017 first-round pick who dominated the OHL to the tune of 94 points in 59 games last year, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the 20-year-old Suzuki. Meanwhile, fellow 20-year-old Cale Fleury managed to crack the Canadiens’ blue line to start the year after an impressive preseason, and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t take long for Poehling to force his way back to the NHL.
4. Kotkaniemi should take a step forward
There was a lot to like about Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s rookie season last year, especially when you consider he was the youngest player in the NHL. However, Kotkaniemi hit a bit of a wall late in the season, and his offensive production was modest, with just 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points in 79 games.
Kotkaniemi spent the offseason bulking up, adding 14 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2 frame so his body can better handle the rigours of a full NHL season. The Habs will be looking for more from the third-overall pick of the 2018 draft this season.
5. The power play should be better
The Canadiens capitalized on just 13.2% of their opportunities with the man advantage last season. Only the Nashville Predators’ 12.9% mark saved Montreal from owning the league’s worst power play unit. Weber’s five power play goals were the lowest team-leading total of any club.
Hockey Reference tracks power play rates back to the 1963-64 season, and last year’s was the worst one Montreal’s had since then. The drop off was significant from their 21.2% success rate in 2017-18. A full season of Weber should help, as should Suzuki. The Habs may not have an elite power play this season, but it’s unlikely to be that terrible again.
The Canadiens start the season Thursday in Carolina, before visiting Toronto and Buffalo. Their home opener is on October 10 against the Detroit Red Wings.