In today’s editions of our Canadian Division Preview, we go behind enemy lines with Matt Drake of Habs Eyes on the Prize. With a very odd season coming up, and with more games against Canadian teams than there ever has been (and likely ever will be) all packed into one season, it’s important we get to know teams like the Montreal Canadiens better. As the old saying goes, know thine enemy.
Today, we give you a quick preview on what we can expect when the Senators face off against their rivals across the Quebec border. From expectations on their young stars to living up to some media hype and everywhere in between. Big thanks to Matt for taking the time to get us prepared for the upcoming season.
1. This past season, Nick Suzuki made himself known with an impressive 41 point campaign followed by being an impact player in the NHL bubble. What are your expectations of Suzuki heading into his sophomore year?
Expectations were pretty high for Suzuki before he played his first NHL game, and they’re through the roof at this point. He didn’t just stake a claim to a roster spot last year, he proved that he’s ready for top-six minutes. The poise and intelligence with which he plays the game is incredible, and I personally can’t wait to see him back in action after his constant improvement last year.
Jonathan Drouin is a player the Habs need more from, and the chemistry he showed with Suzuki in the bubble is something I expect the team to explore in earnest this season. If they stick with that duo, I think Suzuki’s point pace will be even better, and I daresay he could draw a career year out of his linemate.
2. The Canadiens dealt Max Domi for Josh Anderson and promptly handed Anderson an extension. What can fans expect from Anderson’s first year in Montreal?
Anderson is a player that Marc Bergevin has been wanting to add for some time, but there is a lot of apprehension about the trade and subsequent extension given that he had just one goal last year. That being said, Montreal’s biggest weakness last year was a lack of finish around the net, so the expectation is that Anderson fills that void. He’s a bigger body that can skate and get to the net with ease, so it’s fair for Bergevin to have looked at last year as a blip on the radar and expect for him to be a major offensive contributor.
If the lines being used at camp so far stay intact - which Claude Julien has suggested will be the case - he’ll be slotting in on the other wing of the Drouin-Suzuki duo. This should give him plenty of opportunities to be the finisher this team was looking for, so there should be no excuses if he can’t. Suzuki is so skilled at making things happen, he might be able to draw a career year out of Anderson as well.
3. Many publications have the Montreal Canadiens sitting somewhere near the top of the North Division this year. What will be the keys factors if Montreal hopes to turn those predictions into reality?
If any of these predictions are to be true, the Habs need more goals. This might sound silly since you could say that any team would of course like to have more goals, but the Habs in particular struggled to convert on their scoring chances last year. They were one of the best possession teams in the league, but only 19th in goals for. If they’re to compete with some of the high-scoring teams in this North Division, they absolutely need to reverse that trend. The hope is that their offseason acquisitions of Anderson and Tyler Toffoli, coupled with some rising youngsters on the roster, will allow them to do exactly that.
Carey Price is still the most important player on the roster, but he needs more scoring support. The other thing he needed was proper rest, as evidenced by how well he played after the COVID-19 layoff in the bubble. The acquisition of Jake Allen should be massive to that end, as he is easily the most reliable backup Price has ever had. They should benefit from some of the best goaltending in the division, they just need to make sure they score enough to allow that to translate to wins.
4. The North Division’s opportunity to be entertaining and ignite rivalries has been well documented during this long offseason. What are you most excited for, and what are you most worried about when it comes to facing off solely against the other six Canadian franchises?
Playing the Toronto Maple Leafs as often as we’ll have to will be a double-edged sword. It will be great to see that rivalry take centre stage in a way that it hasn’t for many years, but they’re a very gifted offensive team that won’t be easy to beat in a long season series. But it should be quite fun, and I’d expect every game to feel like a playoff game when those two meet.
I am concerned about having to see the Western Canadian teams much more than we normally would. The Habs always seem to lose more than they win on Western road trips, and the concept of having to see those teams much more than normal isn’t too thrilling, particularly with the condensed schedule giving little time to rest.
I’ll say this for the Senators as well, I’m intrigued to see what Tim Stützle looks like. I have a strong feeling he’s going to be a problem for us for many years after watching him at the World Juniors. Congratulations, Sens fans, I think you guys have a real good one there.
5. Sens fans know plenty about Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi but who are some of the other rising stars within the Canadiens organization that we should keep an eye out for this year?
Alexander Romanov is expected to make his debut on the blue line after making the jump to North America, and there is quite a bit of hype from Habs fans surrounding his arrival. It’s justified, as he’s a great skater who also brings an intense physical edge to his game. He’s expected to jump right into the top-six on the back end, and likely get serious minutes, so he’s one to watch that should be pretty hard to miss out there.
Another one to keep an eye on is Jake Evans. After a standout season in Laval, he laid claim to the fourth-line centre role thanks largely to his performance in the bubble. Obviously you can’t have unrealistic expectations for a bottom-six centre, but he could turn some heads and end up being a very important player for the Habs as they’ll be rolling four lines more often than not in this condensed season.