Canadiens Mailbag: How would Montreal fare in an all-Canadian division?

Eric Engels talks about how expectations for the Montreal Canadiens have gone up with the moves Bergevin made this off season.

Eric Engels talks about how expectations for the Montreal Canadiens have gone up with the moves Bergevin made this off season.

   SportsSnot

We’ve hit the dead portion of the NHL’s off-season, but interest in the Montreal Canadiens never wanes.

With many Canadiens queries to get to for this latest edition of the #AskEE Mailbag, let’s not waste any time.

Let’s start here: It’s anything but a given that Cole Caufield will make his Canadiens debut at some point this season.

In fact, I’d wager he won’t. Mainly because the depth the Canadiens acquired this off-season in Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson afforded them the luxury of taking their time with Caufield, and more time to develop isn’t going to hurt him.

Not that I’d strike his Canadiens debut this season as a possibility. Caufield could emerge from a long layoff and light the NCAA on fire with Wisconsin this season. The kid could have a dominant world junior tournament and prove NHL ready, and we could be a little more than halfway through the NHL season by the time his wraps up.

But still, the Canadiens would have to be hurting up front to sign Caufield and integrate him where they’d like to have him, which brings me to your question. When the time comes for Caufield to play for this team, it’ll be when he’s reliable enough to play a top-nine role at worst. They’d be even better off waiting until he’s prepared to all but certainly make an impact as a top-sixer.

On Part 2: I think any other moves made prior to the coming season would be for some size and grit up front — depth on the fringe of the roster. And I’m not convinced anything else gets done.

I think the Canadiens are prepared to start the 2020-21 campaign with what they have, and with plenty of picks and prospects to use to improve their team prior to the trade deadline.

Hey Matt,

Interesting way of framing that question, because who Romanov should play with and who he likely lines up with could be two different things.

Purely from a development standpoint, it would be ideal for Romanov to play with either Shea Weber or Jeff Petry. And if we were looking at last year’s Canadiens, that’s probably where he’d be — and for that express purpose.

But we’ve reached a different phase of the reset. That Romanov has a spot to lose is pretty rare for a 20-year-old defenceman who hasn’t played a single NHL game, but he’s going to have to earn his way up the line up given the depth the Canadiens now have.

I’m not putting it past Romanov to do that straight out of training camp, but I believe he’ll start on the third pairing with either Victor Mete, Brett Kulak or Joel Edmundson.

No matter how it shakes out, the Canadiens have to be thrilled about the competition they’re creating on the back end. Much like up front, they can spread the minutes around easily and also shift things around based on who’s performing best. That dynamic is going to put more pressure on the guys at the top, and it should bring out something better in everyone.

Reasonable question to be asking given the Canadiens’ cap crunch — not only this season, but also for the two seasons that follow.

The 31-year-old Byron is under contract for all three, at a $3.4-million AAV, and he’s coming off an injury-plagued 2019-20 campaign that started with one of his longest slumps as a Canadien. The team’s improved depth up front is also threatening to push him down the lineup.

But the answer, Lori, is there’s nothing to do with Byron in the short term. First, there’s no urgency to move him for cap reasons (they’ll be able to make simple moves to be cap-compliant prior to the season). Second, the Canadiens have to be happy to have him as a depth option, playing behind some of the bigger guns for now but also capable of moving up and not being out of place if someone gets hurt. And third, he’s worth much more to them right now as a player than he is as a trade asset.

I’ll say this: I think Byron’s one of the most intriguing players heading into next training camp. He’s a player that always stands up to the doubters, and he’s facing more of them now than he has in a couple of years. I think a lot of people are penciling him into the team’s fourth line right now, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he’s starting on the third, and I wouldn’t put it past him to be one of the players keeping the heat on Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar to perform consistently.

One more thing: This player is an assistant captain on this team. He earned that distinction, and he’s a player that everyone wants to play with.

Now, down the line, I think it’s possible Bergevin could pitch Seattle on taking a draft pick from the Canadiens to take Byron in the 2021 expansion draft. It would help them protect a young defenceman like Cale Fleury, who will likely be left exposed, and it would clear up some much-needed space for contracts that have already been given and ones that will need to be signed by Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. I even see that as a probable outcome.

Ditch Byron for Corey Perry, Yves? Don’t see that happening.

But I do think Perry is the type of player the Canadiens could look to add between now and the start of the season. Considering where he’s at in his career (and the fact that Anaheim is still paying him a couple million to not play for them), they could probably get away with paying him no more than a million to be a fringe player during the regular season — give him spot duty and preserve him for the playoffs, when they’d need him most.

Hey Tommy,

Reasonable expectations for the Canadiens – whether they play in the Atlantic Division or an all-Canadian one – is for them to make the playoffs.

I’ll save my predictions for the eve of the season, when Sportsnet asks for them. A lot can happen between now and then.

Hey Ryan,

This might be the hardest question of the bunch to answer, because I think the ice-time and opportunity is going to be more balanced this season than it has been over the last few.

That said, I’d still put my money on Tomas Tatar.

But I think it very well could be Nick Suzuki.

And I think it would be great for the Canadiens if it was Jonathan Drouin. And I mean Drouin leading them with a big number.

That could be a sign that both the player and the team have reached another level.

I know Kovalchuk left Montreal at the trade deadline with the door wide open for his return, and that’s not just from him telling reporters on his way out that this was more “see you later” than goodbye.

But last February feels like decades ago, and none of the things that have happened since make a Kovlachuk-back-to-Montreal scenario realistic anymore.

I still believe he can help a less deep team for the league minimum. It would have to be a team that makes him feel important, but he can still provide something of value.

And I would say that if the Canadiens got to camp and suddenly suffered a couple of injuries up front, perhaps they’d look Kovalchuk’s way.

But barring that scenario, I’d be shocked if Kovalchuk returned to Montreal.

Good questions!

I don’t know how everyone else views it, but I think the all-Canadian Division could be tougher than the Atlantic Division. So, on the con side, there’s that.

On the pro side, playing exclusively against one set of teams — and in a condensed and shortened schedule — has more of a playoff feel to it, and I might be alone in thinking this but I believe the Canadiens are more built for playoff-style hockey than at least three of the seven Canadian teams.

Steve, I’ve been asked to rank the Canadian teams several times, and I’m really struggling to do it.

I think the Leafs’ superstar talent and depth should put them at the head of the pack, but I don’t believe there’s much that separates them from five other teams in the division.

I think the Flames and Canadiens have improved the most over the off-season, and the Oilers have made a few depth moves that can help them build on the positive momentum of last season.

I think the Canucks got worse, but they still made a couple of additions that could pay dividends, and they had a great playoff experience to propel them. And even if I’m concerned about Winnipeg’s defence, they still have enough scoring — and one of the best goaltenders in the world — to mitigate that problem.

I guess what I’m saying is, I see it as Leafs, followed by the Canadiens, Flames, Oilers, Canucks and Jets in a dogfight. And it wouldn’t surprise me if any one of those five teams finished ahead of the Leafs, either.

Then there’s Ottawa. I think the Senators have improved just enough to be a pain to play against, but I don’t see them competing for a playoff spot in this division.

Hey Brendan,

I’d go with Ryan Poehling.

He’s got a lot riding against him to make it out of camp — with the depth of the roster bolstered, with the Canadiens likely carrying only 19-21 players instead of 23 to be cap-compliant, and with him being able to go down to the Laval Rocket without needing waivers — but I wouldn’t put it past him.

Based on where we left off, there’s ample reason to believe Poehling would benefit from more development time in Laval.

But, as Canadiens development coach Rob Ramage said last week, this player didn’t enjoy being cast aside in the bubble and that experience has made him “hungry.”

It’s going to be very intriguing to see what Poehling looks like when training camp opens. He could do what Kotkaniemi did back in May — take an unexpected leap in his development.

I would think that’s exactly what Poehling intends on doing, and if he succeeds it will force the Canadiens to make some very difficult decisions.

Hey Dylan,

Here’s how I’d build the lines to start, but I believe Claude Julien is going to mix this picture around a lot — even with the team at full health.

Tatar-Danault-Gallagher

Drouin-Suzuki-Anderson

Byron-Kotkaniemi-Toffoli

Lehkonen-Evans-Armia

Whoever’s playing best is going to get the opportunities, and I think that’s going to change frequently. And I think the top three lines are interchangeable on any given night, so my line structure is three balanced lines and a checking line.

I think you have to give the Drouin-Suzuki chemistry we saw in the bubble a chance to develop further, but Drouin is going to have to bring the consistency he did at the beginning of last season to stay where he’s penciled in to start.

Good problem to have…

Hey Marko,

That’s a tough one, because there’s no way of knowing right now how Jake Evans and Poehling will develop between now and next season.

I do believe the Canadiens and Danault will eventually find middle ground on a new contract. The team needs him and, unlike some people, I don’t believe his role is going to diminish that much over the next two-to-three seasons.

It’s a tough negotiation. The Canadiens know how important a player like Danault is. They know you don’t win without one. And, as of right now, they don’t have a secure replacement if they lose him.

But the Canadiens have invested a lot of money already and they still have to sign Kotkaniemi and Suzuki — among other core pieces — moving forward.

On Danault’s end, he can’t sell himself short. This is his opportunity to sign the best contract of his career and he’s earned whatever he’s going to get.

Both parties are going to have to make concessions to get to a deal they can each live with.

Anthony, get a nice hotel room in the downtown core. Sleep in, grab brunch at Arthurs, then take a walk down to old Montreal, if you’re up for it. Head back for a nap, and at 5:15 you can head to Mister Steer Burger for a burger and some pre-game brews.

For a 7-o’clock start, warm up starts just after 6:25. Watch that, enjoy the game, then go to Hurley’s Irish Pub.

If you’re up for a late-night snack, but not your average fast-food one, go to L’Express, where they serve amazing bistro food until 2 a.m.

On your way out of town the next day, hit up Snowdon Deli for a smoked meat sandwich and a poutine.

That’s an authentic Montreal game-day experience, and you’ll get to see some different parts of the city.

Hey Chris, I get the feeling this question is going to come up a lot before the puck drops on this coming season.

And I get it; Kulak is coming off playing the best hockey of his career, he’s on a great-value deal, there’s teams that would love to have him on that value deal, and some people might suggest the Canadiens have enough defencemen to deal one away.

And that’s where this falls apart for me. The general manager is a big proponent of having as much NHL-capable depth as possible on defence, and I think that’s a smart approach in any season — but especially in one featuring a shorter, more condensed schedule.

The Canadiens could make an aggressive move and ship Kulak out as part of a package to acquire some more scoring punch. But the minute they suffer an injury to a key player on defence, they’ll be looking for someone reliable enough to fill in.

Understanding that Victor Mete is there, and that Noah Juulsen and Fleury are capable, they’re all lower than Kulak is on the current depth chart.

Beyond that, Xavier Ouellet, Gustav Olofsson and Otto Leskinen are decent spot-duty options, but nothing more. So I’m not sensing any urgency to trade Kulak.

I’d suggest they’d have considered doing it had they struck out on a deal for Anderson or on signing Toffoli, but they’re probably quite content about the fact that they didn’t have to.

Hey Daniel,

To start with, the best case scenario for all three is that they remain healthy for the whole season.

I’m assuming that answer won’t satisfy you, so: ideally, Suzuki emerges as a near point-per-game player, Kotkaniemi scores between 45-50 points, and Danault plays as well as he has over the last two seasons.

As for worst cases, I don’t view Suzuki as a traditional candidate for a sophomore slump, but it’s possible. I just think he’s been brought along gradually enough and has had enough time between seasons to take yet another step in his development. I’d be truly surprised if he was stagnant or worse than he was when we last saw him. And he was really good when we last saw him.

Worst case for Danault is that his contract situation isn’t resolved prior to the season and it becomes a distraction that takes him off his reliable game.

To me, Kotkaniemi is the one to worry about. The Canadiens have to hope he’s picking up where he left off, which is on a very high note.

But I see a lot of people crowning Kotkaniemi the second-line centre and taking it for granted that he’s prepared to be that on a consistent basis, and it’s going to take more than the 10 impressive games he had in the bubble to convince me that’s the case.

I’d love nothing more than to play at Pebble Beach, but I’m taking Ryan Whitney, Brendan Gallagher and Ryan Poehling to my home course, Hillsdale Golf and Country Club.

If I’m playing with these guys, I need every advantage I can get, and playing at home is a big one.

Now, I know you’re thinking I could choose anyone — and certainly some more legendary hockey players than these three — but we aren’t going for dinner. This is golf, it’s serious business, and I’m picking them for various reasons.

1. All three of them are great golfers. If I’m not mistaken, Gallagher’s got the highest cap of the three of them, and he’s a five. Whitney’s a stick, and Poehling might be the best of the bunch.

2. They’re all characters, so I know we’ll have a lot of laughs.

3. They’re all extremely competitive and I’m assuming that, like me, they don’t play golf unless something is on the line.