Questions Heading Into The Season: Montreal Canadiens Edition

With the season just under two months away and training camp even closer, the Montreal Canadiens will ice a different roster from the one that brought them to the Stanley up Final in 2021. There were changes throughout the organization and the on-ice product as well. Here are some questions heading into the new season.

How will Jonathan Drouin look after a lengthy absence?

During the team’s annual end of year press conference, Marc Bergevin spoke about ongoing communication between the Canadiens and Jonathan Drouin. He announced that Drouin was ready to return after having been sidelined on April 28th, citing personal reasons for his leave of absence. He will be present in September at training camp.

What should we be expecting from him?

Drouin has had a very up and down tenure in Montreal, and for the most part of the last few seasons, many wondered if a change of scenery would benefit both parties. What would benefit both sides is Drouin finding his game and succeeding with the Canadiens. He’ll be among a deep group of wingers with various abilities and could see himself in various line combinations throughout the season.

It’s now or never for Jonathan Drouin in Montreal.

Will any prospects crack the starting lineup?

Marc Bergevin has always said that the players will decide for him. The best 23 will make the team.

Over the last few years, the Habs have promoted and kept Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Jake Evans, and most recently, Alexander Romanov. Though Cole Caufield made the roster after his two-game stint with the Laval Rocket, he hasn’t officially played his rookie season and is still under “prospect” status. That should change soon.

The 2021 pro camp will be another opportunity for Canadiens prospects to try and crack the starting lineup.

The four names that come to mind are forwards Lukas Vejdemo, Ryan Poehling, Jesse Ylonen and defenseman Mattias Norlinder. All four have played pro games in recent seasons, whether in Europe or in North America. They’ve shown qualities that translate well to the NHL and would bring a much-needed skill to the team.

With how crowded the forward group is, Mattias Norlinder might have the best opportunity of the four to make it. He possesses skills the defence group is severely lacking and might do enough during camp to receive an extended look during the season’s opening weeks. The other three will have to do something special to surpass some of the vets, but they are the most ready.

Can the Cole Caufield-Nick Suzuki duo continue to build chemistry?

One of the best things that happened in 2021 for the Canadiens was the chemistry Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki built, shown in full effect during the playoffs.

They compliment each other well. Nick possess a strong visual read of the game, as well as being a superb passer to Cole, who is among the best young shooters in the league and has the ability to separate himself from defenders.

Both can work in limited space, evade checkers well and can make something happen from nothing. If they can solidify the connection they had playing together, then they’ll work off of each others abilities and could produce above 50 each.

The Canadiens offence would greatly benefit by this working out. Both play well at five-on-five and on the power play, which could also use some more consistency. They’re both young, in full development and do things extremely well, especially this early in their respective careers.

How will the Habs replace Phillip Danault’s shutdown role?

Losing Phillip Danault may prove to be the biggest challenge for the Canadiens this season.

They’ve relied heavily on him and his line since 2018-19 and proved to be among the best two-way centers in the NHL. His strong possession ability in addition to his defensive awareness were hard to break by the opposition. He formed one of the top five-on-five lines with Tomas Tatar, who signed with New Jersey, and Brendan Gallagher, who still remains.

Now that Danault is in Los Angeles, the uncertainty around the center group grows larger. The team is confident that Nick Suzuki will take the next step both on and off the ice and that Jake Evans has more to show and should succeed with stronger line-mates and more experience. Are they as optimistic with Jesperi Kotkaniemi as they are with the other two?

Every center will be depended upon quite a bit if Marc Bergevin does not acquire a middle-six center, but Kotkaniemi will have to find some consistency during a full 82-game season, which he has not done yet. He proved to be good in short spurts such as the last two postseasons, but needs to do so in the regular season. He’s still young and developing, but he’s going to have to take a bigger step this year. This is the best group of wingers that this team has assembled this century and two of them will flank Kotkaniemi. The production on the scoresheet needs to come this year, but most importantly is finding consistent play away from the puck. He’ll have to help out defensively, which we’ve seen him do.

All four centers will have to take a larger portion of defensive responsibilities now that Danault is gone. They won’t have the Selke candidate to bail them out consistently.

Can the defence replace the loss of Shea Weber by committee?

Losing Shea Weber for any period of time is hard to replace, but losing him long term may prove to be too tall of a task to try.

This statement would be true if Montreal lacked options on defence, but they’re in better shape to replace Weber than they are to replace Danault.

Jeff Petry proved that he could fill in as the top defender every time Shea Weber was sidelined with an injury. His defensive partner Joel Edmundson was a major revelation this year, as he formed a great pairing with Petry. Ben Chiarot, who played the majority of his minutes with Weber, will be the one impacted the most this year. He’s expected to play with newly signed free agent David Savard, who’s playing style resembles that of Weber’s. Though he’s not a one for one carbon copy, his emphasis on defence and physicality with fill in on the right side. The Canadiens will benefit from a positive progression year from defenseman Alexander Romanov, who will be lacing them up as a sophomore. He showed he could keep up in the NHL on both sides of the ice and will likely see more ice time in year two. Brett Kulak currently occupies a role among the top-six and has proved to be a viable option higher up. He could see more minutes if one of Chiarot or Savard has a stretch of games.

Other names included newly signed free agent out of the KHL, Chris Wideman, who had a productive year overseas, as well as highly touted prospect Mattias Norlinder, who wowed fans with Frolunda with his smooth puck handling ability and his offensive creativity. Though he’s played in the pro leagues in Europe, he’s still a young kid who could use some seasoning in the American Hockey League. He does, however, possess offensive abilities that only Jeff Petry can show on this current Habs defence. He may prove to be worthy of an extended look during the season.

David Kirouac/Getty Images North America

Final Thoughts

The departures and injuries may prove to be bigger problems than the acquisitions can solve. We won’t know until the players hit the ice. Marc Bergevin built this team and added to it. He’s given the freedom to his coaching staff to put together the best available lineup.

With that being said, there is some growing optimism around the young players and the potential of them taking a large step in their respective development, as well as the return of veterans who had career years and the influx of new blood. There will be serious competition at camp, and in the end, the 20 best players will hit the ice on opening night.

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