What's next for the Montreal Canadiens?

There's a lot to unpack here

Reminder: Don’t forget to join Pregame Skate’s roster by becoming a full-time subscriber. Last weekend, editor-in-chief Parker Milner gave his final thoughts on the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals.

Looking Ahead at the Habs

What’s Happening: From exuberation one day to bitter disappointment the next. We turn the page pretty quickly in sports, don’t we? From a cinderella-feel-good run to an overripe pumpkin in short order, the Montreal Canadiens now face pointed questions about the future of their team. 

Was this just the beginning of their process? Was this a team overachieving and taking advantage of a unique set of circumstances?

These are the questions GM Marc Bergevin needs to assess — and in a hurry. That unique set of circumstances includes the expansion draft protection list deadline this week (July 17), entry draft and free agency all happening within the next two. Given the unpredictability of this Canadiens’ season, if you were to place bets, which possibility would have the greater odds: this team getting back to the finals next season or missing the playoffs?

Glass Half Full

The Stanley Cup finals or bust might be a bit extreme, but there’s good reason to believe this team will be contending again next season. 

Rising Core

This season was Exhibit A of what the next decade of Montreal hockey should bring. Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki are stars in the making and Alexander Romanov and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are right behind them. 

Prospects in the Pipeline:

The Athletic ranked Montreal 6th best in the NHL for prospects this past February. In addition to those we saw in these playoffs, there’s much more where that came from. 

They’ve figured out their system:

There’s no question this group is built for the playoffs and knows how to win when they get there. Their big, bruising defensive style played well in the bubble last year and carried them to victories this year where the on-paper matchup gave them no chance. It’s also clear that Carey Price has an on-off switch and can dial it up at any time. 

Some regression in their division:

Returning to the traditional divisional alignment might not seem enticing for Montreal, but upon closer inspection, perhaps there’s some opportunity. Tampa Bay will be diluted to cap casualties; Toronto seems to be in an identity crisis; Boston’s core continues to age; and Florida needs to prove this season wasn’t a fluke. 

This glass is admittedly a little more than half full. But if Montreal can make the playoffs next year, the last two round robins have proven this group can get it done when the chips are down.

Glass Half Empty

With all that said, there’s equal reason to believe they may struggle to make the playoffs. While they had postseason success the past two seasons, there’s also an argument that was not on merit but on season alterations due to the pandemic. 

Return to division:

The unicorn pandemic season is over. As stated above, the Habs return to a division with traditional juggernauts and upstart Ottawa (sorry Buffalo and Detroit). Even if you think some cap-related regression is coming for the Lightning and Bruins, it’s a tad naive to think it’ll be significant. 

Free agents:

Montreal has a laundry list of quality pending UFAs. These include: Philip Danault, Corey Perry, Joel Armia, Eric Staal and Tomas Tatar. According to Cap Friendly, they have just shy of $15 million in cap space heading into the summer with as many as 9 roster spots to fill (including RFAs Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi).

Aging core:

While Suzuki and Caufield lead the charge of the process, the present is still very much about Carey Price (33) and Shea Weber (36). Add in Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry, Paul Byron, Brenden Gallagher, and Tyler Toffoli who will all be on the wrong side of 30 next season, and the Canadiens age progression is trending the wrong direction. 

Return to an 82-game season: 

Can this team perform over an 82-game season? They finished an underwhelming 18th overall this season and 24th last season. Being built for the playoffs is meaningless if you don’t get there. 

Needless to say, there are many questions here.

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