Wait, could the Montreal Canadiens actually be good? Fans are excited to find out
After years of mediocrity optimism reigns among the fan base
Patience isn't a luxury many people in the high-pressure world of professional sports are afforded, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has become an unlikely exception to the rule.
After the 2017-18 ended with the Habs missing the playoffs, the verdict was in on Bergevin's five-year plan to build the club into a sustainable winner. Failure.
Team owner Geoff Molson made an unpopular decision: to allow Bergevin to embark on a new course to fix the issues he had, in large part, created.
At the time, Bergevin refused to call the new plan a 'rebuild', instead settling on the term 'reset'. Then he got down to work.
He cut ties with captain Max Pacioretty and other players who had become core pieces since he took charge in May of 2012.
Three years later, fans are clamouring to see results on the ice. There is even a ripple of optimism in the fan base, a feeling 2021 might just be the year the team breaks through and proves Molson right. Here's why it might well be justified.
Youth and skill at centre
Bergevin's first attempt to build the Habs into a winner failed because the team was never able to acquire or develop elite players at the centre position.
But today there is hope Jesperi Kotkaniemi, drafted third overall in 2018, and Nick Suzuki, acquired in the Pacioretty trade, may both be ready to fill that role.
Kotkaniemi, 20, and Suzuki, 21, showed flashes of brilliance under the bright lights of playoff hockey inside the NHL's bubble in Toronto this past summer. The pair combined for eight goals in 10 games and showed fans they were ready for prime time.
It is far from a sure bet it will carry into the 56-game season that opens on Jan. 13 in Toronto, however. Both players are still just starting out, both have had highs and lows in their development as professionals so far. Before the pause in March, Kotkaniemi had been demoted to the AHL's Laval Rocket and Suzuki's game appeared to have hit the rookie wall.
They shook off the doubters with their play in the bubble, which suggested these two young men have rounded out of the learning curve and are ready to carry the squad. All that's left is to actually do it for more than a month.
Bergevin's busy off season
Bergevin is well aware he's on the clock, and this past off-season he acquired a host of experienced players to bolster the roster.
The biggest addition was forward Josh Anderson, a player with a unique combination of size and skill. Montreal acquired Anderson through a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets and signed him to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract extension.
Anderson, 26, is in the prime of his career but the right wing is also coming off a shoulder injury that limited him to only one goal in 26 games in the 2019-20 season.
Bergevin also signed free agent forward Tyler Toffoli, 28, to a four-year, $17 million pact and beefed up the team's blue line by adding 27-year-old defenceman Joel Edmundson, who is six-foot-four, 230 pounds, in a trade with Carolina. He signed the Manitoban, who grew up in a Hab-crazy family, to a four-year contract worth $14 million.
For depth, Bergevin traded for veteran goaltender Jake Allen, 30, who will take some of the pressure off star goalie Carey Price, and signed veteran forwards Corey Perry, 35, and Michael Frolik, 32, to bargain one-year contracts worth $750,000 apiece.
Alex Romanov: a rookie to watch
Montreal raised eyebrows by selecting unheralded Russian rearguard Alex Romanov in the second round of the 2018 amateur draft, but he has since blossomed into a big-time prospect and fans have waited impatiently for his arrival in the NHL.
Romanov, 21, played the last two seasons in Russia's KHL with CSKA Moscow, briefly joined the bubble to practice with the Canadiens last summer and will make his NHL debut next week.
To say expectations are high is an understatement.
Because of the country on Romanov's birth certificate, the fact he can skate like the wind and his tantalizing offensive upside, he has already drawn comparisons to Habs great Andrei Markov.
Romanov likely won't reach Markovian levels in his first NHL season. But playing alongside bruising, established NHLers like Shea Weber (six-foot-four, 230 pounds), Jeff Petry (six-foot-three, 208 pounds), Ben Chiarot (six-foot-three, 227 pounds) and the aforementioned Edmundson should give the youngster every opportunity to succeed.
With that much muscle around him, Romanov won't have to worry about picking his teeth out of the glass after every shift. Having a superstar goalie behind him in Price should also give him the confidence to make an aggressive play, or mistake, without it necessarily turning into a goal against.
The Canadian Division knuckle puck
Bergevin's off-season roster makeover, coupled with the emergence of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, has Habs fans more excited and optimistic about their team than they've been in years.
However, how they'll fare in the new all-Canadian North Division is hard to predict. They will be playing all their games against the likes of Edmonton and Vancouver, instead of traditional Atlantic Division rivals Boston and Tampa Bay.
Those opponents are built differently and the coaching staff is going to have to adjust.
They will also be playing a compressed schedule so they won't be afforded the grace of an extended losing streak, which is easier to recover from in the traditional 82-game schedule.
The Habs open their season with the first of 10 match ups against the Maple Leafs. Their first home game will pit them against the Calgary Flames at the Bell Centre on Jan. 28.