Montreal Canadiens stuck in neutral
The Canadiens took two steps forward last season, reaching the 100-point mark for just the second time in 20 years and knocking off the Lightning and the Bruins in the playoffs on the way to an unexpected appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.
Now it might be time to take a step back.
Montreal isn't appreciably worse than it was in 2013–14, but it's hard to argue that the Habs are much better based on their first few weeks of summer activity.
Flashy trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek was allowed to walk via free agency. It's easy to say that he won't be missed in Montreal after his indifferent showing in the postseason, but he did have 15 points in 16 regular season games after he joined the Habs. Also, captain Brian Gionta and alternate captain Josh Gorges are now in Buffalo via free agency and a trade, respectively. You can build a case for their limited skills making them replaceable on the ice, but their departure leaves a void in the team's leadership group and on the PK.
Daniel Briere was shipped to the Avalanche, for P.A. Parenteau and his one-way game. Getting him in exchange for Briere looks like a win for Montreal if only because Parenteau is six years younger than Briere and should play higher in the lineup. Parenteau will get a long look at second-line right wing, but it's best not to expect too much from a player who is three years removed from his last 20-goal season.
The Canadiens will be free-agent defenseman Tom Gilbert's third team in three seasons, but his signing might be better for Montreal than it looks on the surface. Gilbert's fancy stats numbers suggest he can help the Habs' miserable possession game (more on that later), and as a right-hand shot he can play on the second defense pair and allow Alexei Emelin to play on his natural left side. Gilbert also has the puck skills to work the second power play. But perhaps the most compelling upside to Gilbert's signing is that his two-year contract term is two years less than what Montreal had with Gorges. That will open the door two years sooner to one of the many young defensive prospects in the system, including Jarred Tinordi who, for now, will be left to ripen in Hamilton.
Free agent Manny Malhotra was a solid add up front, if only for his face-off skills (59.4% on the draw, second only to Vladimir Sobotka) and his ability to shore up a penalty kill that's already one of the league's best (85.1% last season). But with just 31 points to show for his last two full seasons, Malhotra will be no help on the attack.
Maybe Malhotra's offensive-zone weakness wouldn't be an issue on other teams, but it points out how little GM Marc Bergevin did to address his most pressing issue. The Canadiens were a bottom-10 offensive team last season, averaging just 2.55 goals per game, and their power play clicked at a dismal 17.2% rate, 19th in the league. Barring breakthrough seasons from Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, that doesn't look to change.
And while Montreal was a top-10 defensive club (allowing just 2.45 goals per game), the Habs were overly reliant on goalie Carey Price to cover for the fact that they were one of the NHL's worst possession teams. Part of that falls on the style preached by coach Michel Therrien, who just signed a four-year contract extension last month and isn't likely to change his system any time soon. But at the same time, outside of the sublime (and yet-to-be-signed) P.K. Subban, the Canadiens lack the personnel to drive and control play. And until they address that problem, it's unlikely that they'll get much more out of their offense.
That's not to suggest that Montreal will be hard pressed to keep the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs at bay next season, but this much is clear: By remaining essentially static, the Canadiens have lost ground to an aggressive Tampa Bay team that looks ready to challenge Boston for the Eastern Conference title.
Unless Bergevin has something else on tap, this was a C-level summer for Montreal.