The Montreal Canadiens were the team examined in the NHL 30-in-30 series Wednesday, August 26. The smart money focuses on the optimism of a young, elite team.
Montreal has had a few problems that have kept it from getting over the hump, but should be fine on the 2015-16 NHL season if half the steps taken are successful. That is why it was the team to beat in last month's examination of the Atlantic Division and should be for the entire Eastern Conference.
Many people are excited about Phil Kessel joining the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the reality is their forward-heavy structure is better for the regular season than the Stanley Cup playoffs. They have only four series wins and a 28-31 record in the six postseasons since winning the title, including just eight wins in the last 22 games.
Teams built from the back win after Memorial Day. The Chicago Blackhawks have won three titles since Pittsburgh's last with the likes of Michal Handzus, Antoine Vermette and Brad Richards in scoring-line roles because Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook control half the game. The Los Angeles Kings have two titles because Jonathan Quick and a Drew Doughty-led blue-line unit can suffocate the opposition. The Boston Bruins won with a Zdeno Chara-led unit in tandem with Tim Thomas.
That literally covers all six Stanley Cup champions since the Penguins last won. Before them was the elite Niklas Lidstrom-led unit, and before them the trio of Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
The Canadiens have that kind of team: Carey Price is as good a goalie as there is and just turned 28 on August 16, P.K. Subban as good as any on the back end and just turned 26 during the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs the two of them have ample blue-line support. They are one of the fastest teams in the NHL and have addressed some of their size and age issues.
The bigger question looms larger—can Montreal score more? Alexander Semin's arrival could provide some secondary scoring, but could be another Russian distraction for the iconic franchise. More likely, he is a smaller part of the solution than a team of improving young players find just enough additional support to motivate the talented forward.
Expect several players to make that jump and very few to decline. Alexander Markov is the only player that has even reached his 33rd birthday and only seven of the other 23 Canadiens currently listed on their roster are older than Price.
That growth should be just enough to earn home-ice advantage in the Atlantic Division during the 2015-16 NHL season over the Tampa Bay Lightning to help get by them to reach the Eastern Conference finals. It should also be enough to hold off Pittsburgh or the New York Islanders and make it to the Stanley Cup finals.
Montreal is at least as good as any other Eastern Conference team and should have at least a slight edge over more than a dozen in that field. From there, the Eastern Conference has an advantage with far fewer travel miles and a field nowhere near as deep. Could the 2015-16 NHL season be the one in which the 23-year drought of titles for the team to win the most Stanley Cups ends?