With 39 points in the standings through 33 games (a 97-point pace), the Montreal Canadiens are one of the happiest surprises of 2018-19. What has been the secret for their strong performance thus far?
What has been the biggest factor for the Canadiens’ success this season?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Y’all forgot about Claude Julien, didn’t you? Granted, leading the Canadiens to their 10th-lowest points percentage (.433) since 1918 doesn’t exactly crystallize one in the Jack Adams conversation, but last season was only the second time in the Stanley Cup winner’s 16 years as an NHL coach with a points percentage of under .537. Translation: Claude Julien is a formidable bench boss, and his efforts this season with the resurgent Canadiens are evidence of that.
After last season’s smoldering tire fire, Julien adapted his system to focus more on playing quickly. “You’ve got guys that can skate 100 miles an hour, but have no clue where they’re going, right? So we wanted quickness in our game. Transition, forecheck, all that stuff. So we tried to build it around that,” he told the Montreal Gazette. He brought on assistant coaches Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson — a huge asset to the team’s defense corps — after getting reassurances about their commitment to that philosophy.
There are a few reasons why the Canadiens are having more fun this season, including an infusion of new blood on the roster, but Julien’s approach has encouraged that buy-in. So did his early declaration that this team would be a meritocracy through his opening-night scratches of veterans Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner; shuffling off vets in favor of kids wasn’t always something he’s done. He’s managed his lines well, has them playing really well at even-strength and kept the team on the right track until Shea Weber returned. There’s a lot of credit to go around this season for Montreal, but much of it tracks back to that old dog Claude Julien learning new tricks.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Canadiens’ blue line is playing above expectations. The Habs have allowed 30.6 shots per game, 11th-best mark in the league, while Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, Jeff Petry and David Schlemko are all above 55 in Corsi for percentage at five-on-five. Montreal still has an all-world goaltender in Carey Price who can steal games.
But the most noticeable way the Canadiens have leveled up? Players on whom the Canadiens bought low this offseason are paying off big time. Most specifically: Max Domi (14 goals, 19 assists for 33 points in 33 games) and Tomas Tatar (12 goals, 12 assists in 24 games). Domi is a top-line talent who stalled in Arizona. He was traded for the also-slumping Alex Galchenyuk. Domi’s renaissance (and emergence as a legit No. 1 center) already feels like it’s being used as a blueprint in the league, which has seen quite a few change-of-scenery trades (see: Arizona and Chicago’s Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome-for-Nick Schmaltz swap, or the Penguins sending Carl Hagelin to Los Angeles for Tanner Pearson).
Tatar, meanwhile, was underutilized in Vegas as a trade-deadline acquisition last season. He was an awkward fit for an already jelled team, and needed a fresh start. He’s been such a revelation in Montreal, his $5.3 million cap hit literally morphed from “overpaid” to “reasonable” in the span of six months.
Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: The Habs getting 34.5 shots per game certainly helps. Domi and Tatar are both adapting well to a new uniform after uninspiring stints out in the Pacific Division. Brendan Gallagher can litter the stat sheet when he’s healthy, as evidenced by a 31-goal campaign last season when he played all 82 games, and he’s off to a good start this season as well (14 goals). Weber is making an immediate impact following his return, rattling off nearly a point-per-game pace from the blue line. And sure, Price is struggling a good deal less than he did a season ago, although he’s still posting just a .906 even-strength save percentage.
In short, there’s a lot of things currently going the right way for Montreal. Whether or not all of those things keep ticking positively is a whole other discussion. The Canadiens might hang in the mix for a wild-card playoff spot, but odds are some more playoff-ready teams — like their Monday night opponent, the Boston Bruins — hop them in the standings sooner rather than later. Working in their playoff-picture favor is an extremely top-heavy Eastern Conference. There aren’t too many scary teams lurking behind them in the standings. Regardless, the hot start for a team most had written off bodes well for the future, especially considering a particularly good 2018 draft class that landed Montreal Jesperi Kotkaniemi, as well as a nice chunk of cap space to play with next summer in free agency.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: At first glance, the Canadiens look like an average team in a league where average gets you in the playoffs, but their play has noticeably picked up since captain Shea Weber returned from a knee injury. Since Weber’s return on Nov. 27, they’ve have gone 6-3-0 while leading the league with an otherworldly 60.0 five-on-five Corsi for percentage, compared to 53 percent before. Weber’s return moved Petry to the second pair, where he has thrived with five goals, tops among defensemen in that span.
The Canadiens offense has been peppering opposing goaltenders during the span with Weber back on the ice, with Gallagher shooting 40 times, fourth most in the league, and the team as a whole leading the Eastern Conference with 360 shots and 31 even-strength goals. Now, some of these numbers are inflated due to playing the Ottawa Senators three times in the past two weeks, but they show the real infusion of skill that Weber has brought back to the team.