Canadiens’ chances depend on development of Suzuki, Caufield

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The Montreal Canadiens stunned the NHL this postseason when they went on their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.

It was the perfect storm of the playoff format opening the door for them, a team that was probably a little better than its record indicated getting on a roll at the right time, and an incredible goaltending performance from Carey Price. As far as unexpected Stanley Cup Finalists go, the 2020-21 Canadiens were about as unexpected as you could get.

So now it creates a question for this upcoming season and what exactly should be expected of them.

There are a lot of red flags that should keep expectations within reason. Let’s start with the fact they are no longer playing in the all Canadian North Division and are going back to the Atlantic with Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, and a rapidly improving Florida team. Even though Montreal beat Toronto its best-of-seven First Round series the Canadiens did not finish the regular season within 14 points of any of those four teams, so there is clearly a pretty big gap between them, while they also have to play head-to-head games against all of them. Toronto was the only team out of that quartet that Montreal played a season ago.

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But there are also a lot of roster issues.

Replacing some significant players

Top defenseman Shea Weber is not going to be there this season and will be replaced by free agent addition David Savard.

Savard is a solid enough player defensively, but he does not have the offensive impact that Weber can still provide.

They also lost two significant forwards with the free agency departures of Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar.

While Tatar did not play much in the playoffs, that duo teamed up with Brendan Gallagher to form one of the NHL’s best and most effective lines the past couple of seasons. While Gallagher still remains — and to be fair, he may have been one of the biggest driving forces of that line — losing Danault’s defense and Tatar’s offense is going to be a lot to replace. That was a heck of a line that is now mostly gone.

Mike Hoffman is the big offseason addition to help replace some of that. Offensively speaking, he should be a fine addition because he can make a meaningful impact on the power play and he does have 30-goal ability. He is not going to provide much away from the puck, but offensively he is a contributor. And that counts for something.

They also have the potential (likely?) return of Jonathan Drouin after he missed a portion of the 2020-21 season and all of the postseason due to personal reasons. He may not have become the superstar that he was expected to be when he was drafted, but he is still a productive player. And if he rebounds from that 2.3 percent shooting percentage he had this season he should be able to make a meaningful impact once again.

Improvement from within will be key

But even with all of that there are still only two things that are going to determine the success or failure of the 2021-22 Canadiens: The goaltending of Price and Jake Allen is an obvious factor. We saw in the playoffs just how important Price can be when he is healthy and playing at his best, and if he and Allen are both healthy the Canadiens have the potential for a stellar goalie duo. Price may not be as consistently dominant as he was during his prime, but he is still capable of putting the team on his back and carrying it.

But beyond the goalies there is also the continued development of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The Canadiens do still have some very good veteran players on the roster. Tyler Toffoli is a wonderful player. Hoffman can score goals. Drouin is very good. Gallagher is one of the best two-way players in the league. Jeff Petry is magnificent on defense. But for as good as all of them are they are not players you build a championship caliber roster around. They are the players that help put you over the top.

You still need the core, All-Star level players to build on.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Potential breakout players for 2021-22 season]

That is where Suzuki, Caufield, and Kotkaniemi come in, and Canadiens fans should be excited about all of them. Especially Suzuki and Caufield.

Suzuki has looked like a potential top-line center in each of his first two seasons and showed significant improvement in his second year. He has also been one of their best postseason players in each of the past two years. Given his growth from year one to year two, as well as the fact he is still only 22 years old and just now entering what should be his prime years there is reason to believe he could be in line for an even bigger breakout season. He could be the biggest long-term building block on the team.

Caufield is the player that might be the most electrifying.

Including playoffs he only has 32 NHL games on his resume, but he has been the type of player that makes you take notice of him every time he is on the ice. And he is the type of player that only needs a little bit of room to really do some damage to an opposing defense.

If those two players emerge and develop the way the Canadiens hope they will have two important building blocks on the roster with some solid pieces around them. Their development could help make up for the departures of Tatar and Danault.

Making the playoffs is going to be a challenge in this division with that competition around them, and nobody should have any delusions about the Canadiens being expected to make another return trip to the Stanley Cup Final. But their roster does have a lot of talent with some intriguing potential.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canadiens’ chances depend on development of Suzuki, Caufield originally appeared on NBCSports.com