Coming into the season, the Habs weren’t one of the names that usually popped up when discussing legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Even though they had a 50 win season and finished first in the Atlantic Division, they were viewed more as a team who relied primarily on amazing goaltending to be successful rather than being a strong all-around team. Now, a month into the season, the Habs are one of the top teams in the league not only because they boast fantastic goaltending, but because they’re scoring at an elite pace.
In the short-term, the Habs look like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and thanks to the way they’ve managed their contracts, they’re also set up nicely for the long-term.
When you think of the Montreal Canadiens, you think of elite goaltending and Carey Price. You’ll probably also think of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov forming a dominant top pairing on defence, capable of producing offence. What you probably wouldn’t think of is them being the highest scoring team in the NHL. But here we are, a little over one month into the season and the Canadiens are the highest scoring team in the league with 62 goals, ahead of even the 1980s-esque Dallas Stars.
The Habs have deep scoring, as 10 players have 10 or more points and seven players have five or more goals. Like I said, you expect the Habs to be good because of their elite goaltending, but this year, they’re one of the best teams in the league because they’re also scoring at an elite pace. While they do have the fifth highest shooting percentage in the league at even strength, I wouldn’t say their output is completely unsustainable. Obviously Dale Weise isn’t going to continue scoring on every fourth shot, but Alex Galchenyuk and Alex Semin also probably aren’t going to hover at around 7.5 per cent shooting all year either. Their possession numbers are above average, as they boast a solid 50.9 Corsi For percentage at even strength, but one thing the Habs do well is getting their unblocked shot attempts on net, so there’s reason to believe their strong offensive output is sustainable to an extent.
One thing Montreal did really well this summer was adding productive forwards from the bargain bin. Torrey Mitchell, Tomas Fleischmann, Alex Semin, and Paul Byron have all been solid contributors, combining for 22 goals, and none of them cost more than $1.5 million. They’ll have to bargain bin hunt again over the summer, though, as Semin, Weise, Fleischmann, and Byron all become free agents, and if they continue to produce at a good pace, it’ll be hard to keep them all around as cheap players on discount deals because somebody will more than likely pay them like a top-six forward.
While their depth forwards have been excellent, the biggest reason this group is good is the core they have locked up. Max Pacioretty is locked up for three more years after this one, Brendan Gallagher for five, both on really team friendly deals that give them a lot of flexibility. They also signed Tomas Plekanec to a two year extension with a fairly pricey cap hit, but it’s worth it as Alex Galchenyuk is eased into the role as the team’s top centre. Galchenyuk’s bridge deal comes to an end in summer 2017, the same time Desharnais becomes a UFA, giving them the opportunity to roll with Galchenyuk in a top role and cut ties with Desharnais, or keep Desharnais if Galchenyuk works out. Or hell, keep both. There’s a lot of flexibility in Montreal’s cap situation.
DEFENCE AND GOALTENDING
It may seem like it’s a ways away, but Carey Price is set to become a free agent in 2018. That means he’s only under contract for two more years after this one. That said, the Habs have done a nice job setting themselves up to have a tremendous amount of flexibility when Price’s deal comes to an end. Tomas Plekanec, Lars Eller, Torrey Mitchell, and Alexei Emelin’s deals all come to an end in 2018, so the Habs will certainly have a lot of cap room to throw at Price, if necessary.
Obviously it’s impossible to say what Price will command on his next contract. As of right now, 14 goalies are signed into the 2018-19 season, with Henrik Lundqvist owning the biggest cap hit at $8.5 million, followed by Sergei Bobrovsky at $7.425. If Price was a free agent right now, there’s no doubt he could command the highest cap hit of any goalie in the NHL based off the MVP and Vezina winning season he had last year. Regardless, the Habs are clearly aware of when Price becomes a UFA and will most certainly structure their future contracts around ensuring that they have enough room to sign him to an obscene amount of money when the times comes, just in case.
In terms of defence, the Habs are going to need to either replace or re-sign Tom Gilbert this summer, as he’s set to become a UFA. He currently owns a cap hit of $2.8 million and will turn 33 in January. While he doesn’t provide much in terms of offence, he logs ugly minutes for the Habs and makes heavy defensive zone starts while maintaining reasonable possession numbers. If they can get him on another two year, $2.8 million deal, they should, but if he commands much more, they can probably find better value in the bargain bin.
After next season, Andrei Markov’s deal comes to an end. He’ll be 38, so it’s hard to say what level his game will be at, but he’s been phenomenal since returning from two and a half years missed due to injury. He’s been completely healthy since 2012, missing only two regular season games in that span while logging more than 24 minutes a night. Obviously that’s well down the road, but it’s something to start thinking about, because it’s always good to have an insurance plan for an aging defenceman.
Outside of those two, the Habs are pretty set on defence. P.K. Subban and Jeff Petry are locked up for the foreseeable future, and Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu are a ways away from hitting UFA status.
Like I said, the Habs look like legitimate contenders. Their possession numbers and underlying stats have improved since last season, and they’re scoring at an elite pace that probably isn’t completely sustainable, but it more than likely won’t fall off a cliff. I mean, you never want to bet on a team with a top five shooting percentage maintaining that luck all season, but it’s not like this is the 2014-15 third period 25 per cent shooting percentage Calgary Flames we’re talking here. This is a team in the top third of the league in shot attempts to manages to outshoot its opponents game in, game out.
Looking forward beyond this season, the Habs are going to have some restructuring to do. The reality of having a season like the one they’re having in which depth players perform at a high level is that after they hit free agency, they aren’t bargain bin players anymore. Guys like Thomas Fleischmann, if they continue to produce at the pace they’re producing at now, aren’t going to re-sign on another cheap, one year deal. The last thing the Habs want to do is overpay for players who had career resurgence seasons, especially when Carey Price is only a couple years away from hitting UFA status. They’ve done an excellent job in setting up their contract picture so that multiple deals come off the shelf the same summer that Price becomes a free agent, and they certainly don’t want to compromise it by investing the wrong places.
In order to be successful in a cap league, teams need to build around a good and controlled core, which the Habs have, and augment the team year after year with valuable, productive, depth players. At the end of this season, Alex Semin, Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann, and Tom Gilbert all become free agents, so the Habs will have to be careful in deciding which ones are legitimately a part of the core, and which ones are just a part of the revolving door.
Stats courtesy of Hockey Reference and War on Ice.