0

Atlantic Review: Montreal’s off-season was highlighted by a moral victory

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s 2019 Atlantic Review in which we take a team-by-team look at the other seven teams in the Atlantic Division. Today, we have the predictably unpredictable Montreal Canadiens. 

The Montreal Canadiens have been all over the grid the past few years.

In 2014-15, they were one of the best teams in the league, putting up a 110-point season behind Carey Price’s legendary showing. In 2015-16, an injury to Price resulted in them cratering to an 82-point season. In 2016-17, the Habs bounced back for 103 points, though they lost in the first round. In 2017-18, they bottomed out again, finishing with just 71 points.

Here we are in 2018-19. The Habs were expected to be bad last season much like they were the season before that. But, thanks to a pretty solid rebound performance from Price and some very good play from a bunch of depth players, Montreal had a strong season. Had it not of been for where they stood in their division behind three elite teams, Montreal surely would have been a playoff team.

They might not have actually accomplished anything tangible, but it was a moral victory for the Habs in 2018-19.

In between all of that has been a whole bunch of random, unpredictable player movement. The Habs made a shocking swap after their disappointing Price-less 2015-16 season, sending P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber. The following off-season, puck-moving defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who was supposed to be Subban’s successor, was sent to Tampa Bay for Jonathan Drouin. In 2018, the Habs made another big swap, sending Alex Galchenyuk to Arizona for Max Domi. You never really know what Marc Bergevin is going to do.

Aaaaaaand that brings us to this summer.

What did they do this off-season?

Notable additions: Ben Chiarot, Keith Kinkaid

Notable subtractions: Jordie Benn, Antti Niemi

At a glance, the only actual things that happened for the Canadiens this summer was letting go of depth defenceman Jordie Benn and terrible backup goalie Antti Niemi and replacing them with depth defenceman Ben Chiarot and less-terrible backup goalie Keith Kinkaid.

But, as I said, this summer was all about a moral victory. It might not have actually led to anything tangible that makes the team better in the short- or long-term, but boy did this prove a point.

Marc Bergevin signed Sebastian Aho, who was coming off of an 83-point season, to a five-year offer sheet worth $8.454 million annually. Had Carolina opted not to match, the Habs would have given up a first-, second-, and third-round pick. But Carolina, unsurprisingly, did decide to match. Rather than going through a summer of difficult negotiations with a key RFA like half the league did this summer, the Canes front office got to take it easy as Bergevin got their stud locked up for them.

The thought from Montreal’s camp was that a front-loaded deal with a big signing bonus would be too much for the small market Canes to deal with and they would be forced to let go of Aho. As nice as that sounds in theory, Canes owner Tom Dundon is so wildly loaded that he threw $250 million into some professional football league that lasted for like three weeks. Fronting Aho some signing bonus cash was like giving his kids allowance money.

This, like missing the playoffs but playing better than everyone expected, is a nice moral victory for the Habs. They didn’t actually get Aho, but they get to tell themselves that he was interested in playing there.

How does this affect the Leafs?

The Habs are now rolling into 2019-20 with some actual expectations, unlike the year before. Unfortunately, since they didn’t actually add a big name this off-season like their fans pretend they did, it’ll be hard to jump over the hump and match those expectations.

Last season’s success came down largely to the team having a ridiculous amount of depth. While Montreal doesn’t really have a star player, they have a whole bunch of good players up and down the lineup. Last season, 12 different players scored at least 10 goals. With Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki pushing hard for spots on the roster, the Habs could have even more quality depth than they did last season.

But still, this is a team that’s relying on everyone playing as well as they did last season. Price and Weber, who are both on the wrong side of 30, need to be healthy and good and guys like Paul Byron, Brett Kulak, and Joel Armia need to replicate breakout seasons.

This is a solid roster that features a lot of things to like. Still, the issue for Montreal is geography. They play in a loaded division with three elite teams and they didn’t take a step the off-season to joining that group. Worse than that, a team behind them, the Florida Panthers, had a massive off-season and could end up jumping them in the standings.

If everything goes right for the Habs, we’ll see them replicate their 2019-20 season. Even if that does happen, it might not be enough to get them back into the playoffs. Fortunately, there are only five more years until Aho can join the team as a UFA.