The Canadiens are going to be huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins if the NHL is able to actually get to Stage 4 of its Return to Play Plan with a 24-team post-season.
The Canadiens’ odds of winning the best-of-five series would be better if they still had Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Marco Scandella on the team. But it was looking certain the Canadiens would miss the playoffs for the third straight season as the NHL trade deadline approached on Feb. 24, so GM Marc Bergevin decided to move those four players.
Nobody could have predicted back then that COVID-19 would shut down the NHL season on March 12 and that the Canadiens would now find themselves in a post-season spot despite finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference with a 31-31-9 record, 15 points behind the fifth-place Penguins (40-23-6) who played two fewer games. The NHL doesn’t consider the first round to actually be playoffs — calling it a qualifying round — so if the Canadiens lose to the Penguins they will officially miss the playoffs for the third straight season and the fourth time in five years.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have a crystal ball, but we let a lot of good players go just before the trade deadline that you wish you still had had you known that was going to happen,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said during a conference call Thursday morning that lasted more than 30 minutes. “But, again, everything has a purpose and a reason. What that’s going to do is it’s going to allow us to give some of our younger players some experience, which they probably wouldn’t get if we had kept those players. So you take what you have. I think we have a great opportunity here, honestly, to grow as a team. And the only way to grow is to go out there and go out there to try and win and move forward here.”
Kovalchuk had 6-7-13 totals in 22 games with the Canadiens and became a fan favourite before Bergevin traded him to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 23 for a third-round pick at this year’s NHL Draft. With the Capitals, Kovalchuk had 1-3-4 totals in seven games. The Canadiens could certainly use Kovalchuk’s offence against the Penguins. The Canadiens ranked 19th in the NHL in offence this season, scoring an average of 2.93 goals per game, while the Penguins ranked 10th with an average of 3.20.
Thompson had 4-10-14 totals in 63 games with the Canadiens and was winning 55.1 per cent of his faceoffs before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 24 for a fifth-round pick at the 2021 draft. In seven games with the Flyers, he had 0-1-1 totals and won 53.7 per cent of his faceoffs.
Cousins had 9-13-22 totals in 58 games with the Canadiens before being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 24 for a fourth-round pick at the 2021 draft. He had 1-2-3 totals in seven games with Vegas.
Scandella had 1-2-3 totals in 20 games with the Canadiens after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 2 for a fourth-round pick at this year’s draft. He was also plus-1 while averaging 17:38 of ice time per game. He was traded to the Blues on Feb. 18 in exchange for a second-round pick at this year’s draft and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2021. With the Blues, Scandella had 0-1-1 totals in 11 games and was plus-4 while averaging 20:18 of ice time on the second defence pairing beside Colton Parayko. Scandella has already signed a new four-year, US$13.1-million contract with the Blues.
“I think for us it’s really about taking advantage of this situation that’s been given to us,” Julien said. “A few months back, our minds were probably in an area where you’re saying: ‘Oh, boy, it’s another long summer here,’ and all of a sudden you get an opportunity to be in the playoffs. So there’s excitement there, there’s opportunity to grow. I think we need to take this situation and really run with it. I think we need to take advantage of what’s been given to us right now and make the best of it.”
A bright side to losing
If the Canadiens lose to the Penguins, they will have a 12.5 per cent chance of getting the No. 1 pick at this year’s NHL Draft and landing Alexis Lafrenière.
“I know there’s a lot of whatever comments going around that, hey, my guys we should lose in the first round so that we get a chance at a first-round overall pick and we’d have a chance at a local boy, Lafrenière,” Julien said. “Trust me, I’d love to have this player on my team. But there’s no guarantee even if we go out in the first round that we would have that player. So the only way to take a step forward is to go out there and play hard and play to win and try and do the best you can. And if we win, then we’re getting better as a team. If circumstances go the other way, then maybe we do get a shot at him. But at the end of the day, we’re all built to win. We’re professional athletes, we’re competitive. There’s no reason in the world to think otherwise. So that’s the direction we’re going.”
“Imagine if we didn’t win in the first round and we don’t get Lafrenière,” Julien added. “How are the fans going to react then? It’s one of those situations where as an organization and as a team, as a group of players, coaching staff, everybody, we go out there to win and we go out there to try and move forward here, and the best way to move forward is to do the best we can.”
Kotkaniemi could play
One of the young players who could get an unexpected opportunity with the Canadiens against the Penguins is Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who suffered what was supposed to be a season-ending spleen injury on March 6 while playing for the AHL’s Laval Rocket.
Kotkaniemi will be heading back from Finland to take part in training camp at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard.
“What I’m happy about is that he’s actually been deemed healthy,” Julien said about the 19-year-old centre. “He had an injury at the end of the year that really set him back. So the fact that there was a stop to the season has given a lot of the guys around the league with long-term injuries an opportunity to come back. So we look forward to seeing him back with us and at that time I think we’ll be able to assess and decide which direction we’re going with all our players.”
Julien added that he didn’t know yet whether 20-year-old defenceman Alexander Romanov will be eligible to play with the Canadiens after posting 0-7-7 totals in 43 games this season with CSKA Moscow in the KHL. Romanov signed a three-year NHL entry-level contract with the Canadiens on May 8. The Canadiens selected him in the second round (38th overall) at the 2018 NHL Draft.
Getting game plan ready
Julien and his coaching staff have plenty of time to put together a game plan before facing the Penguins. No date has been set yet for the start of the playoffs, but it likely won’t be until early August.
The Canadiens had a 1-1-1 record this season against the Penguins. The Canadiens won 4-1 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 10 and lost both games in Montreal, 3-2 in overtime on Jan. 4 and 4-1 on Feb. 14.
“I think what we’ve done as a coaching staff for the last few months there, once a week we met in conference and watched some video for ourselves,” Julien said. “Because I’m a believer that as a coach you can never get too much information … as much as you can get is great. The important part is what you share with your players and that’s where you have to be careful. For us, we’re going to meet here very soon, we’re all going to be in Montreal, and we’re going to sit down and put stuff that we need to put together at that time for the players. I think four days or five days, whatever, is plenty of time.
“We feel well prepared,” Julien added. “Now it’s just a matter of minimizing the stuff and going after the important things that we think will make a difference in that series. That’s kind of the approach we’re taking right now.”
The danger of Phase 3
The danger of Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan is that players won’t be kept in a bubble during training camps, which are slated to start on July 10. As a result, it wouldn’t be a shock if there are a lot of positive tests for COVID-19 as players return to their team cities, where they will be staying at their own homes and travelling back and forth to practice rinks.
“I don’t know that they’re going to be in the community at large because I think at the end of the day it’s pretty simple,” Julien said. “They’re allowing players to come to the practice facility and they want them to go back to their home to kind of keep isolated from everything. As a team, as an organization, you’re going to do everything to facilitate that kind of stuff for the players, whether they need somebody to get them groceries or whatever it is. And I think from what I’m hearing, anyways, from the players, they’re taking this very seriously. They’re very diligent in keeping themselves safe. They know the danger of it for them, for their teammates, for their families and everything else.
“As a group, I think we all have to do our jobs as far as being diligent, being safe and respecting everybody around us,” the coach added. “When you hear the comments of a lot of players, the fear of this COVID has kind of hit everyone. But at the same time, the way the NHL has approached it and the way they want to make it safe and secure, I think the players want that. In order for them to want that they have to do their part. For us, once we finish our training camp and we get in the bubble, wherever the bubble will be, I think it’s going to be up to the players to remain that way.
“I have confidence in our group so far. Knock on wood in saying we’ve been pretty healthy. We haven’t had any (positive COVID-19) cases, so we want to keep it that way. I know our training staff, our medical staff and everybody will help in regards to that as well.”
Heading to the hub
The NHL hasn’t made it official yet, but it looks like Edmonton and Toronto will be the two hub cities for the post-season games.
The players are going to be kept in a bubble once they get there, so Julien said it will be important to keep them busy when they’re not on the ice.
“I think one important thing is once we find out where and the setup and everything else, I think it’s going to be important for us to prepare some stuff for the guys so that it doesn’t get boring, it doesn’t get monotonous,” the coach said. “We got to do some things here that will allow them to stay fresh and well rested. The main goal is about playing your game. I think there’s going to be a situation there where a lot of your focus will be on hockey itself. So between hockey, practising, playing, recovering and eating team meals together and that, the time on your own will probably be a lot shorter than what most people think.
“The biggest thing for everybody — and we’re all in the same boat — is you’re going to miss your families. The longer you go, whoever makes it to the final is probably looking at close to two months in a situation like that. Thank goodness for FaceTiming and all these things where you can see your family and chat. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that everybody’s willing to face right now.”
The masked coach?
Julien was asked about the possibility of him wearing a mask behind the bench once the games begin to protect himself from COVID-19.
“You know, the ironic part of that is a lot of times when we’re talking to players or we’re talking between coaches you’ve seen us many times put our cards in front of our mouths so that TV doesn’t read our lips,” Julien said. “So I said maybe the mask is a good solution to that … and I say that tongue in cheek. But at the end of the day, I mean you’re still able to talk with those masks on. Again, if that’s what’s required we’ll do it. This is all new to everybody and I think in order to make this successful we have to have an open mind and we have to be willing to adjust and make the adjustments necessary, and I know that wearing a mask behind the bench is not going to be happening for the next 10 years. We hope to find a cure for this COVID, or a vaccine or whatever, and we will get back to normal eventually. But in the meantime, I think it’s important for us to be flexible and do whatever it takes to stay safe.”
Julien added that he hasn’t hesitated to wear a mask during the pandemic while out shopping.
“I’ve gone out a few times where I am and I’ve gone into a store I have no shame of wearing a mask,” he said. “If anything, I think it’s a cautious way to do it. That’s what I do. I wear a mask, I wear some gloves and I’m just being careful. So I think everybody as individuals can take as much precaution as they want. So that’s my intention. For all intents and purposes, I think the NHL really wants to do this right and will try and cover as much as they can to keep it as safe as possible. Those things only work if the people that are involved cooperate with them and I think that’s what we’re going to see happen.”
Rocket sign two players
The Laval Rocket announced on Thursday that they have signed forward Samuel Vigneault and defenceman Corey Schueneman to one-year, one-way AHL contracts for the 2020-21 season.
The 24-year-old Vigneault, a 6-foot-5, 203-pound centre, posted 11-5-16 totals in 57 games this season with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters. Schueneman, a 24-year-old who is 6-foot and 203 pounds, had 5-19-24 totals in 48 games AHL games this season split between the Stockton Heat and Kansas City Mavericks.
Photo of the Day
This photo of 47-year-old Eric Lindros with his three children on Canada Day makes me feel very old:
Video of the Day — Part 1
Former Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, now with the New Jersey Devils, won’t be taking part in the NHL’s post-season but is already preparing for next season:
Video of the Day — Part 2
Alouettes quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. is training in hopes that there will be a CFL season this year:
Video of the Day — Part 3
A new way to work on your golf swing at the driving range:
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