October 27, 2018 | 6:42pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period
HABS TURNING HEADS EARLY IN SEASON
Max Domi, centre
MONTREAL, QC -- It was just a few months ago that the Montreal Canadiens were one of the hottest topics in the NHL, but for all the wrong reasons. On the heels of a season that saw them miss the playoffs for the second time in three years, the Habs’ team character was called out by General Manager Marc Bergevin.
To the dismay of many Montreal fans, Bergevin shipped off former third-overall pick Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in mid-June. Following suit with the apparent “culture change,’ Bergevin let the Max Pacioretty saga drag on all through the summer, eventually dealing him to the Vegas Golden Knights just days before the start of training camp. For a team that has been notorious for a lack of goal scoring, trading two former 30-goal scorers did not exactly seem like a recipe for success. Fans in Montreal were upset, many of which calling for the head of Bergevin.
It’s crazy how fast things change.
Fast forward nine games into the regular-season, the Habs (and their rabid fanbase) are riding high. Sporting an anything but expected 5-2-2 record, the Canadiens have taken the NHL by storm in the young 2018-19 season. Given all the changes the Habs went through over the off-season, not much was expected of the club.
The Habs were going in a new direction this off-season. Amidst all of the changes, the team was heading towards a “reset,” as Bergevin called it. The club was going younger, as evident by the additions of Nick Suzuki via the Pacioretty trade and 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi making the team out of training camp.
Veterans would no longer have their spots guaranteed based on past accomplishments, accolades and contract status. Tomas Plekanec was scratched early in the season after being re-signed by the Canadiens, and Karl Alzner has played in just two games to date. Alzner is in just the second year of a five-year, $23.125 million deal, but has struggled to adapt to the new up-tempo NHL, resulting in poor play and watching from the press box.
Speaking of up-tempo play, Head Coach Claude Julien has had his team playing that type of style this season. Notorious for being a defensive minded bench boss, Julien has had the Canadiens playing an attacking style and at a high speed. The Habs do not have an especially strong defense, especially with the absence of Captain Shea Weber, nor do they feature any high-powered forwards. The club’s strongest asset is its speed; and Julien has done an excellent job of using that during the team’s early season success.
The many new faces in Montreal have exceeded expectations, and have arguably been the biggest cause for the Canadiens’ torrid start. After struggling with Vegas in last year’s playoffs, Tomas Tatar has seemed to have found his niche alongside Phil Danault and Brendan Gallagher on the club’s top line. The 27-year-old has three goals and five assists thus far, and has (for the time being at least) regained his form from his days in Detroit.
Defensemen Mike Reilly, Xavier Ouellet and Noah Juulsen are all entering their first full seasons in Montreal, and have been exactly what the doctor ordered for the club’s back end. Last season, the Habs’ lack of speed on defense doomed the club. Reilly, Ouellet and Juulsen have brought much increased mobility to Montreal’s defense, and all three have been locks inside the starting six.
Reilly, in particular, has stood out, having tallied three points and a +4 rating thus far. Although it may be premature, many Montreal experts see him as a potential long-term defensive partner for Weber when the latter returns from injury.
But of all the additions, nobody has had more of an impact than Max Domi. The 23-year-old was traded for Galchenyuk, who at one time was considered as the Messiah in Montreal. After being viewed as a bottom feeder in terms of the centre ice position for a decade, Galchenyuk was supposed to be the savior for the Canadiens. Galchenyuk never found his apparent potential as an elite centre man in Montreal, and as a result was shipped out for Domi.
Domi arrived in Montreal with mega expectations due to who he was traded for; and he has since exceeded those. Domi, a natural left wing, has not only performed well at centre, but he has breathed new life into Montreal’s locker room. He has been the driving force on the ice every game for the Habs and has brought a significant character boost to the club. Domi has already scored four goals and added six assists this season.
The Habs have displayed a new side of the club early this season, and appears to be something that they’ll be able to sustain. The Habs have been able to accomplish this impressive record despite the absence of Weber; so his addition in a month or so will only add a boost.
In addition, superstar goaltender Carey Price has yet to find his top level of play. Price is currently sporting a 2.48 Goals Against Average and a modest .906 save percentage. There is no question that Price has a mega level he has yet to reach in the early season, and will make the Canadiens that much better once he gets there. There is no telling how far the Canadiens can go once their Captain returns from injury and their $84 million goaltender regains his Hart Trophy caliber of play.
The Habs entered the season with a lot of scrutiny and criticism from their own fans and around the league. But to the surprise of many, Bergevin’s apparent “culture change” on his roster has had an immense impact. In a world fueled by analytics, it wasn’t expected that an intangible would have such a positive impact.
It is no secret that Montreal didn’t have a high level of expectations heading into this season, but it could prove to be a perfect motivation for a club with a new attitude.