Top News

Stu on Sports: It's playoffs or bust now for new-look Canadiens

"Marc (Bergevin) has done a good job of giving us a team that should make the playoffs, that will allow us to make the playoffs,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien says.
"Marc (Bergevin) has done a good job of giving us a team that should make the playoffs, that will allow us to make the playoffs,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien says.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin’s goal in recent seasons has been to simply make the playoffs and then, as he likes to say, “anything can happen.”

The Canadiens should have missed the playoffs for the third straight year last season — and the fourth time in five years — but got in because of COVID-19 and an expanded postseason with 24 teams instead of 16.

After knocking off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round and then losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, Bergevin has been busy this offseason improving his team with the addition of backup goalie Jake Allen, defenceman Joel Edmundson and forwards Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli.

During a video conference Thursday morning that lasted almost an hour, Canadiens coach Claude Julien was asked if the team’s goal is no longer just hoping to be in the playoffs, but that they should definitely make it.

“That’s always been our goal, even years before,” Julien said. “But that hasn’t changed. If anything, we’ve set ourselves up to give ourselves a much better chance and I’m not trying to downplay any of this stuff. I know people are going to say right now: ‘Well, what do you expect?’ Well, I expect us to make the playoffs, no doubt about it. I mean, I did every year and every year that we didn’t I was disappointed.

“You know, sometimes a lot of it is could you have done something better?” Julien added. “I know that two years ago we had an unbelievable year for the group that we had and we missed the playoffs by I think it was a point (it was actually two points). So I’m really disappointed then. But I think right now what we’ve done is we’ve made our team that much better that we should expect to make the playoffs. If people think it’s putting pressure on ourselves, well pressure is what you make of it. For me, I don’t look at it as pressure but as an opportunity and we should be good enough to make the playoffs and we should thrive on the opportunity to accomplish that. It’s as simple as that. Marc has done a good job of giving us a team that should make the playoffs, that will allow us to make the playoffs.

“Now, if by mid-season I’ve lost half my team to injuries, I guess those things change. But other than that, we should definitely be a competitive team that should be able to make the playoffs.”

A new-look team

Thursday’s video conference marked the first time Julien has spoken with the Montreal media since Bergevin rebuilt the team with his offseason moves.

“Like everybody else, it’s pretty exciting,” Julien said. “I really feel we’ve got a real good, competitive team right now and a lot of these different things that we had looked at to improve our team has been taken care of.”

How does the coach rate the additions?

“Having Jake Allen as our goaltender with Carey Price gives us a real one-two punch that will allow us to win some games and be competitive,” Julien said. “I like the fact that our D has gotten bigger, stronger, but also there’s still good versatility there. There’s some good puck movement from our group there, so that should definitely help our transition game.

“And then up front, what can you say? I mean, we got bigger, we also got some scoring punch. You hope that Josh Anderson and now with Toffoli coming in they’ll continue to score in a way that we’ve seen them score in the past. So all that will increase our production as well. I really like everything Marc has done. He’s given us an opportunity to be real competitive.

“I think as a coach and as a coaching staff, talking to our guys, we’re really excited to come back to work and work with this group.”

Sticking with the system

Julien said he’s not planning to change his system from last season.

“I don’t know if there’s really an issue with the system more than there was maybe an issue with the finish,” Julien said. “For example, if you want to look at analytics and those kind of stats, we created a lot five-on-five and, at the end of the day, we just couldn’t score enough.”

The Canadiens ranked second in the NHL last season with an average of 34.1 shots on goal per game, trailing only the Vegas Golden Knights with 34.5. However, the Canadiens only ranked 19th in offence, scoring an average of 2.93 goals per game.

The Canadiens also ranked 19th in defence, allowing an average of 3.10 goals per game.

“Defensively, I think we’ve solidified our back end where with size and strength and experience we’re going to be a tougher team to score against,” Julien said. “So those kind of things will take care of itself without having to change the system. But at the end of the day, like I said, we were one of the teams that had the most shots on net per game. We were one of the top teams there. There’s a lot of things offensively that we did well. I think defensively it was just a matter of, like I said, getting bigger, stronger and a little bit more refined in our D zone. There’s going to be some small adjustments, but no we’re not planning on changing our system.”

The Canadiens finished last season with 31-31-9 record and 13 of their regulation-time losses were by one goal, along with their nine overtime or shootout losses.

“When you look at wins and losses, teams are losing by a goal and it’s a break here, it’s a break there,” Julien said. “So it doesn’t take much. We don’t have to explode everything and then start from scratch. I think we just have to take advantage of the depth that we have and use it to our advantage. We talked about being a little bit bigger, so maybe now we get a little bit better along the walls.”

Julien said the Canadiens’ two biggest strengths will remain their skating and transition game, but added they should be able to win more board battles now with the addition of Anderson (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) and Toffoli (6-foot, 197 pounds), along with Joel Armia (6-foot-4, 213 pounds) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) as he continues to get bigger and stronger. The coach is hoping that will allow the Canadiens to get inside more in the offensive zone.

“I think overall, no matter what we’ve had in our lineup, we’ve been a decent five-on-five team in generating things but hadn’t always been easy as far as finishing, scoring goals,” Julien said. “Well, we’ve got Toffoli now that adds to that goal-scoring. You hope again that Anderson can help us and I’m talking about just guys that we’ve added to our group that was already producing. So those are all areas that I think excites us as a coaching staff. I think it’s exciting our fans right now and, hopefully, what we have left now is get a season going and be able to showcase what we have.”

Line juggling?

It will be interesting to see how Julien sets up his forward lines once the season eventually begins.

It’s a good bet that Phillip Danault will remain at centre between Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, while centre Nick Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin stay together after showing good chemistry during the postseason, likely with Anderson joining them. The third line could be Jesperi Kotkaniemi between Armia and Toffoli, with Jake Evans at centre with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen on the fourth line.

“We may be moving players around let’s say in the top nine,” Julien said. “Gally on the first or Gally on the third and whatever. Anderson or Toffoli on the first or second. I mean, they’re all capable of playing on any of those lines and that’s why I say it’s going to be hard, honestly, even for us as a coaching staff to say: ‘This is line No. 1, this is line No. 2, this is Line No. 3,’ because I think at the end of the day it’ll be whoever’s producing, whoever’s playing the best will be your best line on that specific night.

“That’s the beauty of it,” the coach added. “I like the fact that I can move guys around and it’s not like one line’s going to get better and the other one’s going to get weaker. It’s like if I make a change, probably all lines would have an opportunity to get better and that’s what I like about the depth of this group right now.”

Drouin could be key

There has been pressure on Drouin to produce offensively for the Canadiens since Bergevin acquired him from Tampa Bay three years ago in exchange for defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup last season.

Drouin got off to a good start last season with 7-8-15 totals in his first 19 games before suffering a torn tendon in his left wrist during a 5-2 win over the Capitals in Washington on Nov. 15. Drouin required surgery and in the eight games he played after returning to the lineup in early February he was pointless and minus-10.

Drouin was much better in the postseason, posting 1-6-7 totals in 10 games.

“He had a good start to the season and then he got hurt,” Julien said. “And then when he came back, teams are battling for playoffs, he came back at a time of the year where everybody’s playing some of their best hockey. He had been out for whatever, 2-3 months, it’s hard to catch up to these guys. So I think he really struggled.

“But when everything stopped (because of COVID-19) that meant everybody stopped,” Julien added. “And when everybody came back, we all came back basically at the same level and he was able to finish strong. So we’re banking on the fact that hopefully he can stay healthy and he can give us that consistency that he had from the start of the year, the end of the year, and right through a whole season. And hopefully, knock on wood, stay healthy throughout that season.”

The Romanov watch

Julien said he’d be surprised if Russian defenceman Alexander Romanov doesn’t start next season with the team.

“You kind of have to see where he’s going to be in training camp, how he’s going to handle those preseason games and how he’s going to do that way,” Julien said about the team’s second-round pick (38th overall) at the 2018 NHL Draft. “I think that’s where you’ll have an idea of how much you want to help him out or shelter him a little bit or how much you want to let him loose. It could be the other way around, because I think everybody’s different. And this is where as a coach you have to be ready to adapt.

“This guy could come in at training camp and then just kind of wow us all and say: ‘Well, there’s no intimidation in his eyes at all.’ He’s just ready to go and he’s doing well so you continue to utilize him to help him get better in a way that’s going to help him get some experience and get better as a player. Or he may be at one point a little reckless and say: ‘OK, I got to shelter him a little bit. I got to work with him a little bit closer and just kind of slow it down over here a little bit.’ And I think that’s something that we have to do with every young player that comes in. As you’ve seen in the past, some guys just explode and some guys it takes them a little longer. So if you ask me right now, he looks like a pretty confident individual from what I know of him and I anticipate he’ll come in with a lot of confidence.

“He spent the last two years playing pro hockey in Russia in the KHL, so it’s not like he’s not used to playing with this kind of calibre.”

Romanov was with the Canadiens in the Toronto postseason bubble and practised with the team, although he was ineligible to play after finishing the KHL season with 0-7-7 totals in 43 games with CSKA Moscow.

[email protected]

twitter.com/StuCowan1

Related

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories