Canadiens season preview: Development of Kotkaniemi, Suzuki key to growth

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The 2020-21 season is scheduled to begin on Jan. 13. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Montreal Canadiens, who will play in the North Division.

 

Coach: Claude Julien (fifth season)

Last season: 31-31-9 (.500 points percentage); 12th in Eastern Conference, lost to Philadelphia Flyers in Eastern Conference First Round

 

3 KEYS

1. Down the middle

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki hope to build on their strong postseason play and give the Canadiens a foundation at center they’ve lacked for many seasons. Kotkaniemi scored four goals in 10 postseason games after the 20-year-old scored six in 36 regular-season games and finished the season with Laval in the American Hockey League. Suzuki scored two goals in Game 6 against the Flyers and the 21-year-old tied Jonathan Drouin for the Montreal lead with seven postseason points (four goals, three assists). Their development should boost the Canadiens, who added forwards Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, defenseman Joel Edmundson and goalie Jake Allen during the offseason.

 

2. Puzzle on defense

Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber are expected to return as the first defense pair and Edmundson could play on the second pair with Jeff Petry. The Canadiens are bullish about Alexander Romanov, a 20-year-old who will play his first season in North America and was named the best defenseman at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he scored eight points (one goal, seven assists) in seven games to help Russia finish third. It’s possible that Romanov starts the season with Victor Mete or Brett Kulak on the third pair with the potential to earn more ice time.

 

3. Improve the power play

The Canadiens were 22nd in the NHL on the power play last season (17.7 percent), and last on home ice (12.4 percent). Associate coach Kirk Muller said Nov. 26 that Anderson and Toffoli will add a needed edge to the man-advantage with a goal-line presence and ability to play on the half-wall.

Video: 31 in 31: Montreal Canadiens 2020-21 season preview

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Making the cut

The Canadiens likely will start the season with Phillip Danault, Suzuki and Kotkaniemi at center, leaving Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling to compete for a spot on the fourth line. Poehling scored two points (one goal, one assist) in 27 games last season but the 21-year-old missed time because of a torn labrum in his shoulder and a concussion, and did not play in the postseason. Evans played 13 regular-season games and the 24-year-old had one assist in six playoff games.

 

Most intriguing addition

Anderson was acquired by the Canadiens in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 6 for forward Max Domi and a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, and agreed to a seven-year contract two days later. It’s a big investment in a 26-year-old who had surgery for a posterior labral tear of his left shoulder March 2. The injury limited Anderson to 26 games last season, but in 2018-19 he set NHL career highs in goals (27), assists (20) and points (47) in 82 games. Anderson should be motivated to show he’s healthy and validate his contract.

 

Biggest potential surprise

Poehling and Evans have built their games to compete in the NHL full-time. Poehling scored 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in 36 AHL games last season; Evans scored 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 51 games in his second season with Laval and signed a two-year contract Sept. 23. One or both could take advantage of the opportunity.

 

Ready to break through

Drouin was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft and is entering his fourth season with the Canadiens after they acquired him in a trade with the Lightning for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev on June 15, 2017. The 25-year-old showed signs of a breakthrough last season by scoring 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in his first 19 games before wrist surgery kept him out three months. Playing on the wing with Suzuki or Kotkaniemi could help Drouin become the player the Canadiens still have high hopes for.

Video: DAL@TBL, Gm5: Sergachev takes lead with one-timer

 

Fantasy sleeper

Anderson (average draft position: 177.6) was limited to 26 games last season because of a shoulder injury, but the right wing brings rare category coverage of goals (NHL career-high 27 in 2018-19) and hits (2.2 per game in six NHL seasons) when healthy. In 2018-19, Anderson and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin were the only NHL players with at least 25 goals and 200 hits. Anderson has renewed fantasy appeal after being traded to and signing with the Canadiens, and has a high fantasy ceiling (finished 35th overall in 2018-19) playing among Montreal’s deep forward group. — Pete Jensen

 

Projected lineup

Tomas Tatar — Phillip Danault — Brendan Gallagher

Tyler Toffoli — Nick Suzuki — Josh Anderson

Jonathan Drouin — Jesperi Kotkaniemi — Joel Armia

Paul Byron — Ryan Poehling — Artturi Lehkonen

Ben Chiarot — Shea Weber

Joel Edmundson — Jeff Petry

Victor Mete — Alexander Romanov

Carey Price

Jake Allen

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