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Season Preview

Canadiens season preview: Healthy Weber could spark return to playoffs

Having defenseman in lineup boosts power play, confidence

by Sean Farrell / Independent Correspondent

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Oct. 2. With training camps open, is taking a look at the five keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Montreal Canadiens.


Coach: Claude Julien (third season)

Last season: 44-30-8; fourth place Atlantic Division




1. Weber's readiness

Defenseman Shea Weber missed the first 24 games last season. Named Canadiens captain Oct. 1, 2018, after forward Max Pacioretty was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights three weeks earlier, the 34-year-old had 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) and a plus-15 rating in 58 games after recovering from surgeries on his left foot and right knee.

Weber is fresh and healthy to start the season, and his physical presence (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) on the ice makes each of his teammates play as if he is an inch taller and several pounds heavier. That should help 21-year-old Victor Mete (5-foot-9, 187 pounds), who is expected to be Weber's partner on the top pair.


2. Power-play production

Despite ranking 30th in the NHL on the power play last season (13.2 percent), the Canadiens approached the offseason as if they believe the answers will come from within. They had better because none of their additions will boost their man-advantage production. Forward Andrew Shaw was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, and his net-front presence will be missed.

Weber, who has one of the hardest slap shots in the NHL, led the Canadiens with five power-play goals. More will be expected from him, as well as defenseman Jeff Petry and forwards Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar. Center Jesperi Kotkaniemi has the potential to increase his power-play time in his second season.

Video: TBL@MTL: Domi buries wrist shot on breakaway


3. Rejuvenated Price

Carey Price has demonstrated he can carry Montreal, and any team that qualifies for the Stanley Cup Playoffs would love to have him as its goalie. Price returned to top form last season, going 35-24-6 with a 2.49 goals-against-average, a .918 save percentage and four shutouts in 66 games (64 starts), bouncing back from a rough 2017-18 (16-26-7, 3.11 GAA, .900 save percentage). Still, the Canadiens failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second straight season, their longest such stretch since they missed three consecutive seasons from 1998-2001.

Video: Top 10 saves of 2018-19: Price


4. Speed game

Forward Paul Byron epitomizes Montreal's identity as a fast team. With speed becoming more of a factor throughout the NHL, the Canadiens also have strong and swift skaters such as Domi, Petry and Mete. Quick transitions help make them productive at even strength; they outscored their opponents 188-163 playing 5-on-5 last season.


5. Kotkaniemi's ascent

Kotkaniemi personifies Montreal's young talent on the rise. Selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, the 19-year-old added 10 pounds this offseason - he was listed as 6-foot-2, 198 pounds last season -- after having 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) in 79 games as a rookie. That growth should help him over the long haul after he wore down late in 2018-19. The Canadiens are being careful with his responsibilities, but when he is ready to take on more, it will open up lineup options for coach Claude Julien.

Video: PHI@MTL: Kotkaniemi buries feed from Byron




Making the cut

A concussion has delayed forward prospect Ryan Poehling's bid to start the season with the Canadiens. Even if healthy, the 20-year-old would have needed to stand out in the face of competition from veterans Nate Thompson, Jordan Weal and Nick Cousins. Thompson, 34, and Weal, 27, were re-signed after being acquired in trades last season to upgrade the fourth line. Cousins, 26, signed a one-year contract July 5 after playing last season with the Arizona Coyotes.

Newcomer Ben Chiarot, who signed a three-year contract with the Canadiens on July 4 after playing his first 305 NHL games with the Winnipeg Jets, has been playing with Petry on the second defense pair, and Brett Kulak has likely earned a spot, meaning the only battle at defenseman is for the right side on the third pair. Prospects Josh Brook and Cale Fleury will have to beat out Christian Folin for that spot. Noah Juulsen has been sidelined by headaches.


Most intriguing addition

The Canadiens signed goalie Keith Kinkaid to a one-year contract July 1 to back up Price. Kinkaid replaces Antti Niemi, who was not retained after going 8-6-2 with a 3.78 GAA and an .887 save percentage in 17 games last season. Kinkaid (15-18-6, 3.36 GAA, .891 save percentage in 41 games for the New Jersey Devils last season) should improve on those numbers and lighten Price's workload a bit.


Biggest potential surprise

Nick Suzuki could provide an offensive boost if the 20-year-old center is able to demonstrate enough defensive responsibility to win a spot in camp. Selected by the Vegas Golden Knights with the No. 13 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Suzuki came to the Canadiens in the Pacioretty trade. He had a sensational playoff run with 42 points (16 goals, 26 assists) in 24 games to help Guelph to the Ontarion Hockey League title, and then had seven points (three goals, four assists) in four Memorial Cup games. Suzuki's offensive talent would provide an instant boost to the power play.


Ready to break through

Artturi Lehkonen had 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 82 games last season but more is expected from the 24-year-old forward. He worked on his shot during the offseason, and an increase in his offense would be welcome with the departure of Shaw, who had NHL career-high 47 points (19 goals, 28 assists) in 63 games last season.

Video: NJD@MTL: Lehkonen deflects in Weber's point shot


Fantasy sleeper

Kotkaniemi (average draft position: N/A) could boost his numbers from last season, especially if Domi moves from center back to left wing. -- Pete Jensen



Jonathan Drouin -- Max Domi -- Artturi Lehkonen

Tomas Tatar -- Phillip Danault -- Brendan Gallagher

Paul Byron -- Jesperi Kotkaniemi -- Joel Armia

Nick Cousins -- Nate Thompson -- Jordan Weal

Victor Mete -- Shea Weber

Ben Chiarot -- Jeff Petry

Brett Kulak -- Christian Folin

Carey Price

Keith Kinkaid

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