All seven Canadian teams missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. Every single one of them. And if you need a reminder, just ask a Canadian hockey fan about it — they’re certain to give you a passionate response.
That said, the two clubs with the best record in hockey right now both hail from north of the border. The Edmonton Oilers lead the way in the Western Conference, while Montreal is the only NHL club without a regulation loss. Again, ask your Canadian friends about these two teams, and you’ll definitely get a strong opinion back.
Setting Edmonton aside for now, the Canadiens’ hot start raises a very valid question: is Montreal’s hockey team a legitimate contender this season?
Michel Therrien’s group is a polarizing bunch. There’s a large portion of the hockey community that believes you need a true No. 1 — borderline elite — center to truly have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. And a look at the list of winners from the last decade does little to dispel that notion. If that’s going to be the case again, well, the Canadiens probably aren’t there yet.
That said, history has also shown that a hot goaltender can do wonders in the postseason. And Carey Price is healthy now, giving Montreal a perpetually hot netminder. Two years ago, he won pretty much every award he could possibly have been eligible for. And he appeared on pace to do just about the exact same thing last season, before his season was cut short by injury.
In Price’s unreal 2014-15 campaign, he posted a 1.96 goals against average, a 0.933 save percentage, 44 wins and nine shutouts. Not hard to see why he took home the Vezina, the Hart and the Ted Lindsay Award. Last season, he was only able to start 12 games, but he won 10 of them, registering a 2.06 GAA, a 0.934 save percentage and two shutouts.
In other words, his impressive statline from that magical 2014-15 season wasn’t a fluke. He was the top overall pick in 2005 for a reason and he’s lived up to the hype. Even if he doesn’t put up historically great numbers again, he’s a good bet to finish among the league’s top goalies, year in and year out.
That’s no small feat, considering scoring is dramatically up early on this season, and even the best netminders tend to fluctuate from year to year. In short, if your plan is to lean heavily on the guy between the pipes, Price would be the guy to have back there.
So what does that mean for a Montreal club that had questions to answer heading into this season? At the very least, they should break their country’s playoff drought. With Price healthy — and Al Montoya looking capable as a No. 2 that can give him a rest every now and then — they’re set in net.
Beyond that, their defense is obviously different, with P.K. Subban now in Nashville. And while many believe the Predators probably got the better end of that deal, it’s possible the Canadiens may have gotten a better fit for their market. Subban is a fun-loving guy whose skill set and positive attitude would be a benefit to the vast majority of teams. But maybe that relentless positivity doesn’t play as well in a pressure-packed market like Montreal if the team happens to be struggling.
Either way, the Habs got a strong piece back in Shea Weber, and he has already seized the reins as the anchor on Montreal’s blue line. Up front, they’re far from elite — but they don’t necessarily need to be elite with Price holding the opposition to two goals every night.
A year ago, the Canadiens got off to a tremendous start because their offense was rolling. Then Price went down, the scoring dried up and things turned ugly. Nobody could have foreseen Price getting knocked out of the lineup for nearly 11 months, but the forwards were pretty clearly overachieving for the first few weeks of the season. And they came back to earth in a hurry.
At the moment, Montreal leads the entire NHL with 3.83 goals per game and, well, that’s not going to last. But, again, they don’t have to light the lamp at an amazing rate with Price slamming the door on the other end of the ice. They just need to be competitive. And the addition of a guy like Alexander Radulov — plus a full season of Brendan Gallagher, who also missed a huge chunk of time in 2015-16 — should make them more dangerous over 82 games than they were a year ago.
Gallagher, for one, was delivering a breakout effort last season, posting 40 points in 53 games. He just couldn’t stay on the ice. This season, he has four goals and six points in the club’s first six contests.
Meanwhile, Radulov is a true wild card. He’s been great in the KHL, and a major disappointment during his NHL appearances. But many believe he’s looking at this stint with the Canadiens as his last shot at making his mark in the greatest hockey league there is. If that’s the case, Montreal should at least get the best he has to offer, and that wasn’t always the case in Nashville.
Either way, it’s not like they had to give anything tangible up to get Radulov. If he struggles, that’s not great… but it also shouldn’t set them back. And if he excels at all, that’s just a bonus on top of the overall offensive production they were getting last season.
Which brings us back to the original question regarding the Canadiens’ status as a contender. True, they started hot a year ago, but they’re in a better position this time around. The offense isn’t great, but it should be better. And Price is good to go again. Plus — for whatever reason — they seem to be a slightly more cohesive unit now.
That may not all add up to a Cup run, but it should be more than enough to make them a playoff team again. And probably not one that potential opponents will be all that excited to meet up with in a best-of-seven series.