Every once in a while we like to ask our sister blog of the team we are playing five questions. We did that for the Montreal Canadiens and Habs Eyes on the Prize Managing Editor Justin Blades came through with the answers. There will be a formal preview later today.
1. The Habs have the youngest player in the NHL this season with Jesperi Kotkaniemi. How much of a surprise has he been this season?
In his first Rookie Tournament game back in September, it looked like Jesperi Kotkaniemi needed at least a few more years in Finland before becoming an NHL player. Steady improvement throughout the pre-season had him looking more likely to receive a nine-game AHL tryout before returning overseas, but he still didn’t look like an everyday NHLer. When the games started, he was able to show off his defensive game and offensive skill on a regular basis, and stuck in the lineup because he was performing too well to be taken out.
From a relatively unknown prospect, to a top-three draft pick, and a surprisingly early NHL debut (which he’s carried on for 76 games now), he’s been a very pleasant surprise, and represents one development that advances the Canadiens’ window of contention ahead a year or two from what we expected.
2. Carey Price had a rough start to the year which led to Claude Julien giving him a few games off. Was that one of the smartest thing Julien did this season?
It certainly appears as though a few games off were critical in getting Price back in form. Whether it was the brief period of rest or maybe some embarrassment from essentially being a healthy scratch, it did have the desired effect, and therefore it was a smart move. Giving Kotkaniemi his roster spot in his first year and Max Domi a role at centre ice after a career mostly played on the wing both look like genius moves from the coach, but Price playing at his best was the most critical to Montreal’s post-season push, so it’s probably fair to call that mandatory rest period Julien’s best move.
3. Speaking of Julien, he seems to have soured on Charles Hudon. Are there any clues as to what happened there or is Hudon just becoming a popcorn eating expert?
Hudon is one of those players on the line between elite AHLer and limited NHLer. His game is one more inclined to offence, and for a coach like Julien who wants defensive prowess and energy from his bottom six, Hudon doesn’t really fit into the coach’s plan. When the team is playing well and all lines are functioning as intended, the decision to leave Hudon in the press box makes sense. When the offence goes cold, watching a bottom trio made up of more grinding options is tougher to accept, and you feel that Julien should be more willing to get Hudon some time when the goal-scoring dries up.
4. Victor Mete has spent the better part of two seasons in the NHL as an offence-driving defence man. What will he have to do to score a goal?
Victor Mete is an excellent skater, and therefore able to stick with his man in the defensive zone, carry the puck in the neutral zone, and open up lanes on offence. But he doesn’t have an NHL-calibre shot. If a goaltender can see the puck, he’s going to stop any puck Mete launches from his regular position on the blue line. For Mete to score, he needs to jump up from the point and get closer to the net for one-timers or rebounds. We’ve seen him do that a few times, but the puck has yet to do what he wants it to. Playing with a less-mobile partner in Shea Weber, his focus is usually on making sure he’s in position to shut down a break going back to his zone, so the opportunity to jump up to a position 180 feet from his own net doesn’t often present itself. An odd-man rush in overtime may be his best shot at getting that elusive first goal.
5. The Habs are in a playoff race right now. Thinking back to last off-season, how shocked are you that the Habs are even in this position?
I expected Montreal to be more entertaining this year with the addition of Domi in the off-season and the injection of talent Kotkaniemi brought. I still believed goal-scoring would remain an issue, and therefore felt there would be a lot of one-goal decisions going against the Habs on their way to a decent lottery position. No one could have predicted the offensive explosion of Domi after how he performed in his first three NHL seasons, and his sudden emergence as a top-six centre quickly gave the team a different look. The centre position had been a weak point of the team for several years, and having that addressed (Kotkaniemi as the third-line pivot was also an unexpected outcome at the beginning of pre-season) boosted their season projection rather quickly.
Add in Tomas Tatar being on pace for about a 60-point season, Brett Kulak joining the team in exchange for two AHL defencemen, and former Jet Joel Armia providing a quality option on the right wing to fill out the top nine, and Montreal had a lot of roster holes fillled quickly and effectively since the final game of a disappointing 2017-18 season.
Playoffs were always seen as a bonus for this year as most of the Canadiens’ top prospects were still a year or two away from helping out. While it may now be a bit frustrating to see the playoffs so close but maybe slipping just out of reach, it’s easier to take knowing this is just the beginning for a significant portion of the current roster. It’s a group that will only grow in talent over the next several years, and that’s an exciting thing to look forward to.
Thank you, Justin for answering these questions. If you want more insight into why Victor Mete is still mint even though he does not have a NHL goal, you can follow Justin on Twitter at @JustinBlades and Eyes on the Prize at @HabsEOTP.