With training camp around the corner and questions looming for every team, there’s no better time than now to look at Montreal and identify three key aspects that will make or break their success in the 2014-2015 NHL season.
1) The transition game
Arguably the most important facet of the Montreal Canadiens gameplan, the re-structured defense will need to play a large role in the creation of offense that seems to be lacking. With the acquisition of Tom Gilbert who quietly had a good season with the Florida Panthers in 2014, the Canadiens now possess three very skilled puck moving defensemen, and that number could even be four should Beaulieu make the cut for the final roster.
With Emelin playing more comfortable on the left hand side, and Josh Gorges gone to Buffalo, the defense should have a much easier time clearing the zone (which has posed a significant problem for the club on more than one occasion this past season), which will most likely lead to a much faster transition game from all three defensive pairs. This will be crucial given the lack of gamebreaking offensive talent up front. The ability to clear the defensive zone in crisp, quick passes will lead to more offense, and ultimately more scoring.
2) Team toughness
Often reiterated to the point of being tiresome, the importance of team toughness is something that nevertheless is still relevant in today’s NHL. Ironically, the Canadiens might be doing it right by getting rid of their two tough guys; George Parros and Ryan White. Real toughness is not something that can be provided by the 5 minutes and one fight contributed by a goon each game, no matter how entertaining it may be to watch. Toughness is something that is achieved team wide through the willingness to play through adversity, take a hit to make a play, and be strong on the puck all over the rink.
The willingness to drive to the net and create chances is imperative, and is best exemplified by Brendan Gallagher who is relentless on the puck. All too often however, the burden falls on him and him alone, as bigger, stronger players like Max Pacioretty tend to take the game to the perimeter. While old habits die hard, more tools need to be added to the toolbox to make the team less predictable, and tougher to defend against.
What it all comes down to every season with Montreal, the play of Carey Price will be the ultimate determining factor in the success of the Canadiens. While teams survive with subpar goaltending year in and year out, the Habs on paper lack the firepower up front to compensate for below average starts from their netminder.
Since he debuted in the league in 2007-2008, his best statistical seasons were his aforementioned rookie season (.920 SV %/ 2.56 GAA), 2010-2011 (.923/2.35) and 2013-2014 (.927/2.32). Coincidentally, in all of these examples the Canadiens had great seasons (1st 6th, and 4th). Every other season, the team carried with them either severe question marks and bombed out of the playoffs (2009, 2013) or were carried by another goalie (Halak in 2010). Unfortunately with Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski as backups, it’s unlikely that the Canadiens will survive without a solid season from their star.
While training camp surprises and explosive breakout seasons could vault the Canadiens past these issues on their own, these three factors will be crucial to examine going forward as the team prepares through training camp for their preseason matches later this month.