By: Constantine Maragos
This year, the Eastern Conference was stronger than ever, with powerhouses such as the Tampa Bay Lightning leading the league throughout the regular season, along with playoff mainstays in the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators both fell to the same fates at the end of this year, missing the post-season in back-to-back years. However, both franchises followed very different storylines throughout the year, yet both have promising futures going forward.
The Montreal Canadiens catapulted themselves back into the playoff conversation this season and finished off a respectable 2018-19 campaign with 44 wins and 96 points, placing them 4th in the Atlantic and 14th in the league. Despite falling two points short of the playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens showed signs of true growth, while also mending some of their biggest issues over the past few seasons. The Canadiens’ improvement this season can be attributed to a combination of the return to form of veterans such as Carey Price & Shea Weber, an injection of youth into the lineup, and a number of shrewd acquisitions by GM Marc Bergevin.
The key acquisition that Montreal made this summer was swapping former 2012 3rd overall pick Alex Galchenyuk for Arizona’s Max Domi. After struggling to find an effective top-six centre, Max Domi seemed to fit into that role well this season. Despite Domi’s rough start to his Canadiens’ tenure, receiving a preseason suspension for his sucker-punch on Florida’s Aaron Ekblad, Domi has settled in nicely with the Habs. Domi’s 28 goals and 72 points this season place him first in team scoring. In addition, his 0.88 all-situation xGoals/60 is good for fourth among Canadiens forwards. Also, his hard-hitting, pesty play style has led to an average of 3.14PIM/60, but while also drawing 3.25/60 penalties as well, leading Canadien’s skaters in both categories. Domi’s enigmatic playstyle has drawn mixed reviews, however, if he can turn this season’s 28 goal, 72-point performance into the standard of performance going forward, Habs fans will not be complaining too much in the future.
The return of captain Shea Weber gave the Canadiens an injection of veteran leadership and much-needed skill on the back end after the defenseman was sorely missed last year. Weber made his return known across the league after scoring 2 goals and 3 points in his first two games and has stabilized the Habs’ back end since. His 14 goals and 33 points this season are good for second in goals & points among Habs defensemen behind only Jeff Petry. Carey Price experienced a return to form this year, going 35-24-6 in 64 starts while posting a 2.49 GAA along with a 0.918 SV%, good for 12th in each category (among goalies with >25 GP). Price also finished 3rd in Quality starts with 37, as well as placing 8th in Goals Saved Above Average with 14.94. Additionally, Tomas Tatar was a pleasant surprise for the Canadiens. Having been shipped to Montreal in the summer in a package for former captain Max Pacioretty, Tatar carried with him the baggage of an underperforming contract. Tatar took his fresh start opportunity and ran with it, scoring 25 goals and 58 points on the season. Further, he finished the season with 0.84 xGoals/60 at 5v5, good for 5th amongst forwards. As a staple in the top six, Tomas Tatar has found himself a home in Montreal.
The Achilles heel in the Canadiens lineup was the struggles of the fourth line. The rotating carousel of Michael Chaput, Kenny Agostino, Nicolas Deslauriers, Charles Hudon, and Matthew Peca struggled immensely throughout the year. To note, the group’s possession metrics had been abysmal. In 5v5 relative Corsi, Deslauriers, Hudon, Chaput, and Peca round out the bottom for forwards, all sitting below -3.8%. To put things into perspective, the Ottawa Senators had only two forwards (with >20 games played) with a sub -4% relative Corsi. Additionally, apart from Kenny Agostino (51.6%), each player finished sub-50% in On-Ice xGoals/60. Only two other players on the roster finished in this category. With these struggles in mind, Marc Bergevin made two moves in an attempt to fix the problem. The Canadiens acquired Nate Thompson & a 2019 5th round pick from LA for a 2019 4th round pick, as well as Dale Weise & Christian Folin from Philadelphia for AHL forward Byron Froese and depth defenseman David Schlemko (both trades occurring in February). Along with these acquisitions, the Canadiens subsequently waived Michael Chaput and Kenny Agostino, who was claimed by the New Jersey Devils. However, Nate Thompson did not make much of an impact initially with the team, as he posted comparable advanced statistics as the players listed above, but did play well enough down the stretch to earn himself a one-year/$1 million extension. In addition, Dale Weise jumped between AHL Laval and the Canadiens’ press box since his acquisition. However, at the Trade Deadline, Bergevin flipped the recently waived Chaput to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for winger Jordan Weal. Jordan Weal fit nicely into the Habs’ bottom six after shuffling around the league this year. Since joining the team, Weal has scored 4 goals and 10 points in a fourth line role. Additionally, he logged 1.4 even strength points/60, a higher total than each of the above-listed names. Weal also allowed the least amount of shot attempts Against/60 on the roster at 50.62. Weal’s performance down the stretch earned himself a two-year/$2.8 million extension. Despite the small sample size, the Habs looked to have found a few upgrades in the bottom six going into next season.
Looking forward, the Canadiens’ future looks bright. Centre Ryan Poehling looks like he is going to be a staple in the centre of the Habs lineup for years to come. Poehling made quite the first impression in his first career game, scoring a hattrick and the shootout winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs no less. Jesperi Kotkaniemi experienced ups and downs this year as a first-year player but also looks to be a future mainstay in the Habs' lineup. If Marc Bergevin is able to find a solution to their fourth line issues, while their young core continues to produce next season, the Canadiens look set to enter the playoff conversation next year.
For the past two years, the Ottawa Senators organization has been mired in controversy, questionable moves, and subpar play. After trading away estranged captain Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks, the Senators we left without an identity going into the 2018-19 season. The Senators finished off a dismal campaign with 29 wins and 64 points, leaving them at the basement of the NHL standings. Along with their last-place finish, the Senators will be without their first-round selection, now the fourth overall pick in this year's draft. Despite finishing as the worst team in the NHL, the Senators are still able to take some positives from this year.
If the Senators were to take anything away from this season, it would have to be the emergence of Thomas Chabot. Chabot’s breakout 2018-19 campaign finished with 14 goals and 55 points, placing him 10th in NHL scoring among defensemen, while also missing 12 games due to two separate injuries. In addition, Chabot was selected as the Senators’ All-Star participant in San Jose. This year Chabot displayed the untapped potential that he possesses and looks poised to lead the Senators into their franchise’s next chapter. Chabot was an all-situations player for the Senators, logging around 20:45 even strength minutes per game, ranking 4th in the NHL behind only Seth Jones, Ryan Suter, and Drew Doughty. As a 22-year old defenseman, being mentioned among such prominent names is a great sign for things to come.
As the Senators began to fall out of playoff contention, the chatter of moving pending free agents Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Mark Stone ramped up tremendously. Against the preconceived notions of many, GM Pierre Dorion was able to get solid value for the three veteran forwards. In a flurry of trades with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Senators traded (in total) Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Julius Bergman for Anthony Duclair, Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson, a 2019 1st round pick, a 2020 conditional 1st (contingent on Duchene re-signing), a 2020 2nd round pick, and a 2021 2nd round pick. Given the position Dorion was in, he seemed to have yielded a solid return. With Columbus’ pending free agent situation taken into consideration, the draft picks Dorion received may significantly rise in value. In addition, Anthony Duclair has been a pleasant surprise for the Senators, having been considered a "throw-in" in the Dzingel trade, Duclair has scored 8 goals and 14 points in 21 games with the Sens, more than both Dzingel and Duchene in those categories. While Duclair’s xGoals/60 stayed relatively constant at ~0.8, since leaving Columbus, Duclair’s on Ice xGoals/60 rose from 2.4 to 9.99, which is again a big jump from the pair sent the other way. After jumping around the league for the past few years, Duclair may have been able to find some consistency and confidence on the Sens roster.
The Senators also traded star winger Mark Stone in a blockbuster to the Vegas Golden Knights for blue-chip prospect Erik Brannstrom, a 2020 2nd round pick, and forward Oscar Lindberg. The 15th overall selection in the 2017 Entry Draft is developing into a superb offensive defenseman. As an AHL rookie, Brannstrom scored 7 goals and 32 points in 50 games. Brannstrom was also named an all-star at the 2019 World Junior Championship, scoring 4 goals in 5 games at the tournament. Although Mark Stone is a tremendous talent, and one of the best defensive forwards in hockey, Ottawa Senators fans should be excited for what’s to come with the likes of Erik Brannstrom and Thomas Chabot leading the backline.
Looking forward, the Senators have a lot of talent up front in chippy forward Brady Tkachuk, and young centre Colin White, among others. Additionally, with Thomas Chabot continuing to grow into a superstar, and Erik Brannstrom converting his solid offensive game to the NHL level, the Senators are well prepared as they move forward in their rebuild. Although it remains to be seen whether their decision to pick forward Brady Tkachuk over whoever is available with Colorado's fourth-overall pick this year, the Senators have been able to recuperate draft picks to help mend the difference. The Senators will still have a full seven draft picks this season, including four in the first three rounds. Furthermore, the Sens have 12 draft picks in 2020, including 7 in the first three rounds, and 8 draft picks in 2021. Despite the external uncertainties surrounding the Senators for a multitude of reasons, the organization needs to move on. For the Senators organization to move on from the circus that has been the past two years of their franchise, the front office needs to concentrate on the future and draft smart. In doing so, the Senators may be able to regain the trust of the fanbase in the future.
Special thanks to Owen Kewell for this article.
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