Marc Denis played 11 NHL seasons from 1996-97 to 2008-09. Selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round (No. 25) of the 1995 NHL Draft, he began with the Avalanche then moved on to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tampa Bay Lightning and, in 2008-09, played one period for the Montreal Canadiens before retiring and finding his way into broadcasting.
He also represented Canada three times at the IIHF World Junior Championship, helping it win the tournament in 1996 and 1997.
“Patrick Roy was my idol growing up,” Denis said of the Hockey Hall of Fame goalie who won two Stanley Cup championships with Montreal (1986, 1993), then two more with Colorado (1996, 2001). “I had his poster on my bedroom wall.”
He recalls Roy coming into the NHL full time with the Canadiens in 1985-86, “a skinny young goalie doing the butterfly.” As an 18-year-old junior with Chicoutimi, Denis and his teammates were among the standees in the packed house at the Montreal Forum on Dec. 2, 1995, when Roy was left in the net by coach Mario Tremblay and surrendered nine goals against the Detroit Red Wings, a game that ultimately led to his stunning trade to the Avalanche four days later.
“I’d been drafted by Colorado five months earlier, the Nordiques (being relocated from Quebec to Denver for the 1995-96 season) weren’t yet even known as the Avalanche,” Denis said. “The day Patrick was traded, I’m coming out of school and there’s a reporter asking what I thought about him being my new teammate.
“I’d played my first-ever NHL game that fall, an exhibition at the Forum, against Patrick and the Canadiens (a 37-save 4-3 Avalanche loss Sept. 18). Then at my second training camp, I’d be sharing ice and some goalie drills with him. It was pretty amazing getting to play against and with my idol.”
As a journalist and former player, Denis has a sharp take on the Canadiens, having watched them for almost a decade from ice level, the broadcast booth and RDS studios. He watched them move briskly this offseason, trading for goalie Jake Allen, defenseman Joel Edmundson and forward Josh Anderson, and agreeing to a four-year contract with unrestricted free agent forward Tyler Toffoli. Then they gave Anderson (seven years) and Edmundson (four years) new contracts and signed Allen to a two-year extension.
Denis also has a good grasp on what’s been a goaltending roller coaster for the Canadiens. Allen is in line to be Carey Price‘s 14th stablemate or backup since the latter began his NHL career in 2007-08. Asked how many of the 13 he can name from memory, Denis mentioned 12 almost chronologically: Cristobal Huet, Jaroslav Halak, Alex Auld, Peter Budaj, Dustin Tokarski, Mike Condon, Ben Scrivens, Charlie Lindgren, Al Montoya, Antti Niemi, Keith Kinkaid and Cayden Primeau.
He laughed when the only one of the 13 he can’t name is Marc Denis but excuses himself since he played just 20 minutes with the Canadiens, relieving Halak in a road game against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 2, 2009.
Here are Five Questions with… Marc Denis:
How important to the team and to Carey Price is Jake Allen’s acquisition by trade and his contract extension for two years, and how much is there to be said for stability, since so many backups have come and gone?
The signing is really important. With what’s happened since the opening of the UFA market, the (Sept. 2) trade for Allen was probably key to land the candidate you want and to be able to sign him to an extension with a lower (average annual value) after the 2020-21 season, knowing how much money is tied up in Montreal with goaltending. (Allen’s AAV will be $4.35 million in 2020-21, then $2.875 million for 2021-22 and 2022-23; Price’s is $10.5 million annually through 2025-26). There’s been a recent failing of backups on this team, which is one of a plethora fighting for a playoff spot. Their goalies now might be closer to a 60-40 split. I’m not saying this will ever happen with Price in Montreal, but it seems that the optimal usage of your goaltenders takes you closer to 60-40. This was a need that had to be addressed, and it was. The signing gives (prospect) Cayden Primeau all the time in the world to develop, and it gives the Canadiens another candidate (to expose) in the expansion draft a year down the road. You go from a question mark to having Allen and Primeau, two very good candidates for the backup spot. Marc Bergevin took a positional need and turned it into a strength.
Team Canada goalies Marc Denis (right) and Jose Theodore celebrate their gold medals at the 1996 IIHF World Junior Championship in Boston.
The Canadiens’ 2020 postseason experience, winning the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Pittsburgh Penguins and a six-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference First Round, gave management a chance to get a good look at the team, specifically centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Montreal seemingly forever has been looking for strength down the middle. Can it build, in a way, around these young centers?
Definitely. This isn’t about tempering or lowering expectations, but let’s remember the playoffs were a small sample size. Young players need to figure things out. We’ve seen it with Kotkaniemi a little bit. You enter the League, go once around, you think you’ve maybe figured some things out. Then it comes back to bite you and you have to change your approach, whether it’s off-ice training, showing up at the rink every day, losing that little naive part of yourself, finally feeling the expectations. The Return to Play gave management an unexpected chance to see what some of these players were made of and hopefully to be able to change the team in the right way, which I think we’ve seen throughout this offseason, and also to listen to some of the veteran players. We’ve all seen what a rested Carey Price can do, what a healthy Shea Weber can do. I think Jeff Petry‘s voice was really loud and quite clear, as was Brendan Gallagher’s, both part of the leadership group. Take these four veterans and look at what moves have been made and you realize that a lot of that came from what happened in the bubble. I like what they’ve done. I think Marc Bergevin was great filling his grocery list quickly in the offseason and doing it the smart way, making sure he wasn’t in the battle for players and contracts. He secured the rights to negotiate with these players to have them on his team before the UFA market opened.
The newcomers: Allen, Edmundson and Anderson by trade, Toffoli as a free agent. In your view, who’s the impact player in the group? Is there one here who has the potential to truly make a difference?
They’re all really important acquisitions. My goalie background would like to say that Allen will be of the utmost importance because of the domino effect. If Carey Price stays healthy and fresher, that could translate to better performances by him throughout the regular season, better performances by Allen and better play as a team. But singlehandedly, I believe that Josh Anderson is the player who has the most potential to change the face of this team because of what he brings. There aren’t a lot of players with that identity in the NHL. He’s a big body, he skates, defenders are aware when he’s on the ice, especially when he’s on the forecheck. He can score goals, play special teams. … I’m not here to heighten expectations and I don’t want to lower them but if you look at one individual, Anderson is the one who can be a difference-maker. He has the special element that not a lot have.
Broader afield for a moment: There have been a handful of cornerstone goalies who have changed addresses this offseason, including Henrik Lundqvist to the Washington Capitals, Corey Crawford to the Devils, Braden Holtby to the Vancouver Canucks and Matt Murray to the Ottawa Senators. Were you expecting to see so much goaltender movement this offseason, even given a flat cap and the unknowns now for the 2020-21 season?
I was a little surprised to see Stanley Cup winners, potentially Hall of Famers, moving… and yet, there are a few teams that baffle me how they’ve adopted the status quo for now, even with the offseason far from over. Edmonton, Carolina and Buffalo have stayed the course, so that’s kind of surprising. We’ll see what happens. As of now, some teams have done it better than others, but nobody’s played a game yet. The jury is still out.
And back to Montreal: the Canadiens extended Brendan Gallagher for six seasons beyond 2020-21. He’s been a thorn in the side of opposing goalies pretty much since he was playing house-league hockey. If you’re still in the net, how much patience would you have with him or others like him who live in the blue paint?
(Laughing) Hey, I had to deal with a few power forwards in my day … Tomas Holmstrom of Detroit for eight games a season when I was with Columbus. Needless to say, they had the upper hand on us most seasons. I had the Canucks’ Todd Bertuzzi when we were playing in Vancouver. I liked the way referees would manage the game. Veteran refs would say to me, ‘Listen, you’ve had two whacks at his ankles. That’s it. No more.’ Or they’d tell Holmstrom, ‘OK, you’ve backed into Marc a couple times, next time you’re getting called.’ There’s a lot going on in front of the net. Goalies were different when I played. We were led by guys like Patrick Roy and “Cujo” (Curtis Joseph) and Eddie Belfour — fiery personalities, very intense goalies. Today, Lundqvist looks like the most competitive guy out there some nights. You have a lot of guys out there like Carey Price, unfazed icemen in front of their net. The game has evolved, and good on them. Technically, today’s goalies are close to perfect every night.