Canadiens surprisingly exceeding expectations

Adam Gretz
NBC Sports

The Montreal Canadiens’ trade for Nate Thompson on Monday afternoon isn’t anything that is going to make the rest of the Eastern Conference sit up and take notice. It is not going to put the fear of God in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or change the course of the playoffs and impact where the Stanley Cup ends up. It is a likely playoff team adding a role player to its lineup for a small price and trying to find any small upgrade it can. Nothing more, nothing less.

What’s important is what it says about the Canadiens as a team this season.

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They are buyers and looking to add.

This is a surprising development because of where they were, or at least seemed to be, at the start of the season.

Consider the fact they had one of the worst records in the league a season ago that ended with a disastrous second-half collapse.

In the offseason, they traded two of the best offensive players (on what was a bad offensive team) in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for a package of players that, at the time, didn’t seem to make them better. In exchange for Galchenyuk, they received Max Domi‘s whose development had badly stalled with the Arizona Coyotes and had produced only a fraction of what Galchenyuk had with the Canadiens. It looked like a clear downgrade.

In return for Pacioretty, one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years, they received Tomas Tatar, a historically solid performer that was coming off of a terrible postseason run with the Vegas Golden Knights, and a lot of potential in the future. Again, it didn’t seem to make them any better in the short-term.

Then on top of all of that there was the fact that their top defender, Shea Weber, was going to be sidelined for most of the first half of the season.

There was little reason for optimism, and I will admit to being extremely critical of the moves and the direction the team seemed to be going in, especially with how much money they have tied up in Weber and Price, both of whom are on the wrong side of 30. That should still be a long-term concern, but sometimes you’re wrong in the short-term.

For them to exceed expectations it was almost as if they would need Carey Price to do what he did during the 2014-15 season and single handedly carry the team and sweep all of the major postseason awards.

[Related: Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive]

Now more than 50 games into the season, and with all of the factors above working against them, the Canadiens have more than exceeded all preseason expectations and barring another late season collapse look to be a solid lock to return to the playoffs. And they’ve done it without Carey Price being … well … Carey Price. He’s been good overall, and he’s been great lately, but he hasn’t been consistently great from the start, and he even had a really tough start to the season where he was playing significantly below his normal career level.

Despite that, the Canadiens kept winning, which is a positive development for the short-term outlook of the franchise. Why? Because everything about this team right now is legitimately good. They are playing with an aggressiveness and a level of speed that has been lacking in Montreal for years. Their possession and scoring chances numbers are among the best in the NHL. Their 5-on-5 shot attempt share is the third-best in the league, while they are in the top-five in scoring chance share and top-10 in High-Danger scoring chances.

Weber has been great since returning to the lineup, Domi has become the player Arizona always thought he would be, while Tatar has returned to the form he showed in his pre-Vegas career. Along with those developments, Philip Danault has taken a massive step forward this season both offensively and defensively, and the arrival and rapid development of rookie and No. 3 overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks like it could fill a long-term hole at center.

It’s not easy for the Canadiens to slide under the radar in the NHL just because of the history, the legacy of the franchise, where they are located, and the mystique around them. In most seasons Claude Julien would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award given how well the team has played and how much better it has been than originally expected. But given the surprising success stories with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames the Canadiens have managed to do the impossible  and have a really good team that has gone relatively unnoticed in the NHL.

It might be time to start taking notice because not only are they really good and playing really well, their best player and biggest game-changer — Price — is starting to play like they expect him to. Those two developments working together could make them a fierce matchup for somebody early in the playoffs.

More: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

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