The What Went Wrong series took a short break during the UFA Frenzy, but now that the market has calmed down, we’re wrapping up the series with a look at the Montreal Canadiens. As we have done with every other team that missed the playoffs, we’ll first discuss how their season went and then highlight the players that either significantly underperformed in 2018-19 or that they’ll need more from going forward.
You can check out our previous editions on the Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, and Arizona Coyotes.
When it comes to the Montreal Canadiens, you could certainly argue that the season didn’t go wrong at all. They posted a 29-40-13 record in 2017-18 and improved by 25 points in 2018-19 to only narrowly miss the playoffs. By that measure the campaign was a big success, but after coming so close to the postseason, it’s hard not to think about what might have been.
The season started off really well for Montreal. The Canadiens were 4-1-1 out of the gate and 11-6-3 through Nov. 17th. They were making GM Marc Bergevin look good in the process because the recent trades he had made, including some that were controversial at the time, were paying off handsomely.
Max Domi, who the Canadiens got in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk back in June 2018, had broken out and was leading the team with 10 goals and 24 points in 20 games. Tomas Tatar, who was part of the Max Pacioretty trade in September 2018, had found new life in Montreal with nine goals and 17 points in 20 contests. Meanwhile Jonathan Drouin, now in his second season with the Canadiens after being acquired in the summer of 2017 partially in exchange for a top defensive prospect in Mikhail Sergachev, seemed to be taking a step forward with seven goals and 17 points in 20 games. Goaltender Carey Price had been a mixed bag with a 2.92 GAA and .904 save percentage in 14 starts and backup goaltender Antti Niemi had struggled mightily, but it looked like the Canadiens’ offense might be good enough to carry them.
Then Montreal lost five straight games while scoring a combined 11 goals over that span. It wasn’t a disaster though. They bounced back, but it was a sign of weakness. Still, through Feb. 7 everything seemed to be going smoothly for Montreal and their record was a solid 31-18-6.
At this point it was clear that Tatar was an asset, but had overperformed out of the gate. He had 16 goals and 39 points through 54 games. Drouin and Domi were still doing great though with 46 and 47 in 55 games respectively. Phillip Danault, who was somewhat quiet out of the gate, was also helping the Canadiens’ offensive depth with 11 goals and 40 points in 55 games. In terms of goals, Brendan Gallagher led the charge with 21.
Their goaltending situation had solidified too. Niemi still wasn’t any good, but Price had a 23-13-4 record, 2.52 GAA, and .916 save percentage in 41 contests. All-in-all Montreal looked like it had successfully transitioned from rebuilding to being a playoff contender.
The rest of the way though, Montreal was a just okay 13-12-2 and being just okay wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs. Price held up his end of the bargain down the stretch with a 2.44 GAA and .919 save percentage in 25 contests, but the Canadiens’ offense was more of a mixed bag.
Domi closed out his breakout campaign with 11 goals and 25 points in 27 games so there was no problem there, but Drouin collapsed with a goal and seven points in his final 26 contests. In the end, Drouin had 53 points in 81 games last season, which marks only a mild improvement over what he did in 2017-18 and matches his point total from 2016-17. Danault slid too with a goal and 13 points in his last 26 contests.
It wasn’t all bad though as Andrew Shaw did step up down the stretch with eight goals and 23 points in 27 games en route to establishing a new career-high with 47 points.
Montreal missed the playoffs by a mere two points. When you look at their overtime loss to Carolina on March 24th and their 6-2 loss to Columbus on March 28th, it’s hard not to isolate those two games and wonder what might have been had they done better against the two squads that ultimately captured Wild Card spots.
After coming up short, the Canadiens were hoping to make a big splash in the UFA market this summer, but that didn’t materialize. When that failed, they tried to offer sheet Sebastian Aho instead, but unsurprisingly Carolina matched it. It’s still possible that Montreal will attempt another offer sheet or add via a trade, but if the season were to start today, Montreal would be going into the campaign with a very similar squad.
Antti Niemi – A similar squad, but not identical. As touched on above, one of the biggest problems the Canadiens had last season was an untrustworthy backup goaltender. Antti Niemi posted an 8-6-2 record, 3.78 GAA, and .877 save percentage in 17 starts last season. The good news for Montreal is that this is a problem they did successfully manage to address over the summer. Niemi has signed in the KHL while Keith Kinkaid agreed to a one-year, $1.75 million deal with Montreal. Kinkaid had a 15-18-6 record, 3.36 GAA, and .891 save percentage in 41 games with New Jersey last season, so certainly he struggled in 2018-19 too, but there is the potential here for him to be a solid backup.
Jonathan Drouin – Though did fine with 18 goals and 53 points in 81 games last season, his struggles down the stretch certainly hurt the Canadiens. But more importantly, he hasn’t really lived up to his potential. There’s still a chance that he can take another step forward and become a standout forward and if he makes that leap next season, then that would likely be enough to push Montreal into the playoffs.
Shea Weber – For the second season in a row, Shea Weber was limited due to injury. He underwent knee surgery during the 2018 offseason and didn’t make his season debut until Nov. 27th as a result. He still ended up doing great when he was healthy with 14 goals and 33 points in 58 contests while averaging 23:29 minutes, but Montreal really needs a full season or close to it out of their top defenseman.
Karl Alzner – Montreal signed Karl Alzner to a five-year, $23.125 million contract on July 1st, 2017 and that has been a disaster for the Canadiens. He only ended up playing in nine games with Montreal last season and instead ended up spending a good chunk of the campaign in the minors. It’s possible that he’ll be back with the Canadiens at the start of the 2019-20 campaign, but right now he’s looking like more of a liability than anything.