With summer officially coming to an end and training camps set to open across the National Hockey League this week, TSN is getting ready for the preseason by looking at the three biggest questions facing each of the seven Canadian franchises.
The Canadiens finished fourth in the North Division last season with a 24-21-11 record before embarking on a memorable playoff run that took the team all the way to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
1. How will Canadiens fill the void left by Shea Weber’s absence?
Trying to replace Weber, the team captain and defensive anchor who plays in every situation, will be a tall order for the Habs this season.
Weber averaged 22:42 of ice time last season, finishing with six goals and 19 points in 48 games. His absence leaves a massive void, but the Habs return the rest of the defensive unit that played heavy minutes in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup final.
The left side is set with Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson, Alexander Romanov, and Brett Kulak.
On the right side, Jeff Petry, whose four-year, $25 million extension kicks in this season, is undoubtedly the team’s No. 1 defenceman. The 33-year-old led the Habs’ defence in ice time (22:44) and had 12 goals and 42 points in 55 games last season.
To help with Weber’s absence, the Habs signed free agent David Savard to a four-year, $14 million deal. Savard, fresh off a Stanley Cup championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning, will not be expected to replace Weber’s offence on the back end, but will be relied upon for heavy defensive assignments.
Chris Wideman also returns to the NHL on a one-year, $750,000 deal after a 41-point season in the KHL.
There will also be significant attention on the 21-year-old Romanov. The Russian averaged 17:15 of ice time as a rookie but appeared in only four games during Montreal’s postseason run. A physical defenceman, Romanov was second on the Habs in hits last season with 138.
2. How will Montreal’s depth down the middle measure up?
Montreal’s centre depth got a big shake up this summer. Phillip Danault left as a free agent to join the Los Angeles Kings, while Jesperi Kotkaniemi is now a member of the Hurricanes after the Habs declined to match Carolina’s offer sheet to the young Finn.
Hours after the Habs declined the offer sheet, gaining 2022 first- and third-round picks, they made a trade with the Arizona Coyotes, acquiring centre Christian Dvorak. Dvorak, 25, had 17 goals and 31 points in 56 games last season and averaged a career-high 18:24 in ice time last season.
Nick Suzuki enters his third NHL season as Montreal’s top centre after a regular season where he had 15 goals and 42 points in 56 games before following that up with seven goals and 16 points in 22 playoff games.
The third-line centre spot appears to be earmarked for Jake Evans, who made a strong impression in his first full NHL season in 2020-21, emerging as a key penalty killer and dependable player.
It is a toss-up who will open the season as Montreal’s fourth-line centre. Cedric Paquette was signed in the off-season but don’t be surprised if 2017 first-round pick Ryan Poehling, who broke through in his second professional season in AHL Laval, finds his way onto the NHL roster with a strong training camp.
The Habs are betting on their young centres going into the season and while the upside is promising, the lack of experience will continue to be a question.
3. Will left wingers Jonathan Drouin and Mike Hoffman deliver on talent?
Habs fans have been waiting for Drouin to deliver on the massive expectations placed on him when he was acquired in 2017 via trade from the Lightning in exchange for defenceman Mikhail Sergachev.
After he took a leave of absence for personal reasons in April 2021, there were questions if he would be even with the Habs come training camp.
However, Drouin returns with a clean slate. The Habs have improved depth on the wings, so the pressure for Drouin to carry the offence is not as high as it was in previous years.
For Hoffman, his value for the Habs will be in the goal column and on the power play.
Throughout his career, Hoffman has been a reliable 20-plus goal scorer and managed 17 in 52 games last season.
The Habs have struggled with the man advantage for several years, finishing 17th in 2020-21. Previously building their power play around Weber’s shot, the Habs would be wise to utilize Hoffman’s talents on the man advantage.
With the St. Louis Blues last season, he had 17 power-play points, two more than Tyler Toffoli’s 15 to lead the Habs. Hoffman’s best season came in 2018-19 with the Florida Panthers, where he had 17 goals and 35 points on the power play.