- The Canadiens have signed Sam Vigneault and Corey Schuenemann to minor league deals, per a team release from their affiliate in Laval. Vigneault inked an entry-level deal with Columbus back in 2017 and while the center was non-tendered last summer, he stayed with their farm team in Cleveland where he had 11 goals and five assists in 57 games. Schuenemann, meanwhile, played his first full professional season in 2019-20 and posted respectable numbers for a blueliner, collecting three goals and 18 helpers in just 44 games with AHL Stockton, Calgary’s affiliate.
- The Canadiens have not yet recalled forward Lukas Vejdemo for their upcoming play-in round against Pittsburgh, notes Mattias Ek of HockeyNews.se. The 24-year-old had played in Montreal’s last three games before the rest of the regular season schedule was scrapped so the decision comes as a bit of a surprise. The pending restricted free agent spent most of the year with AHL Laval but had a goal in seven NHL contests in his first action with the big club.
If Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly’s face didn’t give it away during Friday night’s NHL Draft Lottery, this result was not what the league was expecting or hoping for. In a season when a decorated Original Six franchise, the Detroit Red Wings, had one of the worst campaigns of all-time and the league’s most downtrodden franchise, the Ottawa Senators, had not one but two high-percentage chances of winning the top pick, the No. 1 overall selection will instead go to a to-be-determined “playoff” team.
With the league expanding the postseason field to 24 teams this season as a result of COVID-19 cutting the regular season short, 16 teams will vie for a chance to move through a “knockout round” onto a more standard version of the NHL playoffs. However, now those same 16 teams, all of whom finished above .500 this season, will also be in the running to win the top overall pick and the right to select a generational talent in forward Alexis Lafreniere. All eight losers of the qualifying round will have even odds in a second running of the lottery and one lucky team will get playoff experience and an elite young player this season. No one is going to be truly happy with the result (apart from the lottery winner and their fans of course) but who would you least like to see win the top overall pick?
The Pittsburgh Penguins might be at the top of many peoples’ lists. The franchise has won three Stanley Cups in the last decade and no one would be surprised to see them win again this year, especially given the fact that they finished the regular season in seventh league-wide in points percentage. The Penguins are the best team slated to play in the knockout round, but if by some chance they lose to the Montreal Canadiens, Lafreniere could potentially join Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company in a move that could extend the dynasty for years still to come. The thought of the talented young winger playing beside either of those superstars would be daunting to every other team in the league.
Finishing just behind Pittsburgh with the ninth-best points percentage in the league this year were the Carolina Hurricanes. The club has quietly accumulated a deep, talented roster including a number of elite young players. Carolina is set to contend for titles for many years to come, but Lafreniere would make them truly dangerous. Like the Penguins, the Hurricanes simply do not need the best player in the draft. Keep in mind that they were also one of just two teams to vote against the expanded postseason model, making it especially twisted if they were to reap the benefits of this one-off lottery structure. As good as the Hurricanes were at times this season, they are a popular upset pick in the qualifying round against the New York Rangers and could wind up in the lottery.
The New York Islanders finished just outside the top-ten in points percentage this season and have a deep, experienced team. They also play a sound defensive system. While it works to win games, it isn’t the most exciting strategy and could limit the upside of an explosive offensive talent like Lafreniere. On top of that, the Isles don’t even know where they will be playing their home games next season and have suffered from poor attendance in recent years. It doesn’t exactly sound like an ideal landing spot for an exciting top prospect. Fortunately, the Islanders drew a plus matchup against the Florida Panthers and should advance past the knockout round if they can stick to their smothering defensive game.
Given their luck in the draft lottery over the past decade, it’s pretty gross to think about the Edmonton Oilers being in the running for another No. 1 pick. Likely soon to be the home of two MVP’s in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers landing Lafreniere as their fifth first overall pick and ninth top-ten pick since 2010 would really be something. With an improved NHL roster and a strong pipeline of talent, the Oilers are finally starting to be self-sufficient and don’t need Lafreniere like they might have in recent year. However, if the team can’t hold off a poor Chicago Blackhawks club in the knockout round, maybe they do need the pick.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are another team that is chock full of young talent and it would be an embarrassment of riches (and embarrassing for the league) to see them land Lafreniere. While the team would be in prime shape to finally snap their Stanley Cup drought with the addition, the Leafs are already well on their way and will be contenders for years and years to come even without the top pick. Additionally, should Toronto win the lottery, there would certainly be those that would cry foul about the whole situation. The Maple Leafs face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round in one of the more evenly matched of the upcoming series. Toronto is likely the slight favorite, but could just as easily wind up in the lottery.
The current iteration of the Chicago Blackhawks is not good. However, they are also the most dominant franchise of this decade with three Stanley Cups. It’s not east to find many outside of Chicago who have pity for the current Blackhawks given their sustained success of late. With some of those core players still in place and some exciting young pieces starting to build up, the Blackhawks may already be back on the rebound without the assistance of Lafreniere. If they make it a series with the star-studded Oilers, it will be even more evident that they don’t need a top pick to stay relevant. Like the Maple Leafs, some will also be outraged if the Blackhawks win the lottery due to the perceived favoritism shown by the league on a number of occasions in recent years.
If you really want to hear conspiracy theories though, look no further than the possibility of the Montreal Canadiens winding up with No. 1 overall. Yes, the Canadiens have no business in a playoff series and would have been in the standard draft lottery anyway, but there will be plenty who think that it is far too convenient if the Habs win the top pick when a Francophone and Quebec native is the best player on the board. It used to be that Montreal – who don’t forget have more Stanley Cups than any NHL franchise – was able to claim the best French Canadian players in the draft regardless of draft order. If that opportunity should inadvertently occur once again, plenty of people might get upset at the league despite the fact that Montreal technically is the most deserving (read: worst) of the qualifying round teams. The NHL does not want that drama right now and its most decorated club frankly does not need special treatment, perceived or otherwise.
As for the remaining teams, the Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, and Vancouver Canucks were all better than their records implied this season and already have elite young players, the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes may not have the fan bases to support a young star like Lafreniere, and I’m sure there are reasons to root against the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, and Minnesota Wild as well. If you can think of a valid reason why the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have one playoff series win in franchise history, don’t deserve a stroke of good luck, that’s fine too.
What do you think? Which team do you absolutely not want to see Lafreniere go to, either because of existing talent or complaints of foul play or for any other reason? The reality is that one of these 16 will end up with the best player on the board, which in many ways is already a loss for the league, but it can get much worse from here.
Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been cleared to play in their upcoming play-in series against Pittsburgh, reports Arpon Basu of The Athletic (subscription required). His availability had been in question after he suffered a splenic injury while on assignment with AHL Laval.
The third pick back in 2018 had a difficult sophomore campaign. After putting up a respectable 34 points in 79 games as the youngest player in the NHL in 2018-19, things went in the opposite direction this season. His ice time and role dipped as did his production; injuries and general struggles limited him to just 36 games where he had only six goals and two assists.
Kotkaniemi was sent to the AHL in late January where he fared much better, averaging a point per game (1-12-13) in 13 contests before being injured in early March. He had been ruled out for the year at the time but the extra three-plus months between the scheduled end of the regular season and the planned start of the play-in round have given him enough time to recover.
How Montreal decides to use Kotkaniemi remains to be seen, if he’s high enough on the depth chart to be used at all. Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, and Max Domi are their current top three centers and while Domi could move to the wing, he hasn’t fared as well there which means shifting him over to play the 19-year-old may not make sense. A fourth line role likely doesn’t make much sense either. With a three-week training camp on the horizon, there’s still plenty of time for head coach Claude Julien to decide whether or not to use Kotkaniemi against the Penguins but it’s fair to wonder if there will be a spot for him.
The “hub city” question now has an end date. Ever since the NHL began the process of creating an expanded playoff format for this year, the question of where these tournaments will take place has been a hot topic. Early on in this process, it was believed that non-NHL cities like Grand Forks, North Dakota and Manchester, New Hampshire could be the targets, but that plan fell by the wayside in favor of more familiar locales. The league made it clear when releasing formal details of the postseason plan that the two hub cities would be NHL homes and revealed that Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver were the finalists. The province of British Columbia recently submitted an official proposal for Vancouver to be one of the two cities selected and each of these finalists is believed to have made a similar pitch. So, when will know what the choice is? John Katsilometes of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that the NHL will announce the hub cities for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on June 22. He also adds that MGM Resorts is preparing as if Las Vegas will be one of the two choices. This would align with a rumor that Las Vegas and Los Angeles were the favorites to be selected as hub cities, likely with the Golden Knights and their Western Conference competitors going to L.A. as to avoid a hometown bias and the Eastern Conference moving in in Vegas. We will know the definite answer in just ten days, before training camps open on July 10 and well before the hopeful start date of actual game play on August 1.
- The Canadian cities included in the list of “hub city” finalists – Edmonton, Toronto, and Vancouver – are seen by some as long shots to be selected due to the tighter restrictions on quarantining in Canada. The federal government currently has a 14-day mandatory quarantine in place for anyone entering the country and there had previously been no sign that they would waive this for NHL players and personnel. However, TSN’s Darren Dreger notes that British Columbia and Manitoba have lightened their rules, allowing anyone who has already quarantined for 14 days elsewhere in Canada to avoid doing so again when entering the province. If they were to allow that same policy to extend to teams coming from the U.S., that would make Vancouver and Edmonton into more attractive destinations. As for Ontario, the province has not been as lenient and although Toronto is considered a great option as a host, the NHL cannot afford a strict quarantine policy if there are other cities that do not require such a time commitment. The city Dreger feels is the front-runner to host? He too says Las Vegas.
- As for another impact of the current COVID crisis, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson told the press in a long conference call on Thursday that the league may not be done playing in front of empty seats after the 2020 postseason. Molson stated that the NHL has not ruled out the possibility that they might have to at least begin the 2020-21 without fans. While the hope is that by the time the new regular season starts, likely to be somewhere between late November to perhaps January 1, this will not be an issue, the league has discussed empty buildings or limited capacities. Molson himself said that he would be “very surprised” to see full capacities when the new season begins later this year.
- TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that CBA negotiations continue to move forward between the NHL and NHLPA. A sign of good progress could be that the two sides are reportedly discussing the term of the CBA extension right now, rather than arguing over actual aspects of the agreement. LeBrun reports that the new deal is expected to land at either four or five years. He believes that the players’ association prefers four while the league would like five. With two years remaining on the current CBA, a length of five year would maintain labor piece through the 2026-27 season.
Canadiens owner and team president Geoff Molson spoke with reporters on a 90-minute call on Wednesday to speak about several things going on with the team. Here are some of the key points, via Postmedia’s Stu Cowan and a partial transcript from the team’s website.
- The team is in the midst of getting their practice facility ready for players to resume workouts in advance of the anticipated training camps opening in mid-July. It’s expected to be available for use on Monday but with the self-quarantining rules in place, the team has recommended to the majority of its players that aren’t currently in the area to stay where they are and train rather than coming to Montreal and having to isolate for two weeks. They are hoping that the 14-day restriction could be waved with a commitment to testing players daily.
- Molson gave a vote of confidence to GM Marc Bergevin despite the fact that the team could miss the playoffs for the fourth time in his eight-year tenure if they don’t beat Pittsburgh in the upcoming play-in round. He believes in the team’s current reset plan, one that saw them nearly make the playoffs unexpectedly last season but they took a big step back this year. Montreal also has 14 draft picks for the upcoming draft, one they are no longer hosting due to the pandemic so there is likely to be some movement with some of those picks. Bergevin has two years left on his deal with Molson calling him one of the “most respected” GMs in the league.
- Molson also indicated that he has no intention of bringing in someone else to serve as a president of hockey operations, a role that he has held since 2011. There had been recent speculation that a move like that could be made to insert someone between Molson and Bergevin on the organizational hierarchy.
Not only did the Montreal Canadiens luck out by even making the NHL’s expanded playoff field, but they already may be winning the injury battle with their play-in opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins. While the Penguins announced today that forward Nick Bjugstad suffered a setback in his recovery from a herniated disc and required season-ending surgery, the Habs got the opposite news. GM Marc Bergevin revealed today that core forward Jonathan Drouin will be healthy and active for the team’s playoff series. Drouin only saw 27 games this season due to a litany of injuries, so the team will receive a major boost that they did not enjoy for most of the year. In a healthy 2018-19 season with Montreal, Drouin recorded 53 points and in his last playoff experience with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was a force with 14 points in 17 games. The Canadiens need Drouin to be at his best if they hope to beat the Penguins, but have to be excited at the mere idea that he could be 100% and ready to contribute to their unlikely postseason run.
- Of course, the Habs also have a serious question to face in the availability of Max Domi. Bergevin spoke to media and noted that the team will put health above all else. What that means is that Domi, a diabetic, may not be able to play if team doctors determine it is unsafe for him to do so. Coronavirus in those with diabetes can cause complications, with WebMD estimating that diabetics are 25% more likely to require hospitalization. Domi has had no prior issues with his Type 1 diabetes during his NHL career, but Montreal will not risk his health regardless. They will need their medical staff to ensure that all necessary measures are being met to make to keep Domi and his teammates safe from infection.
- An Atlantic Division rival of the Canadiens is anticipating an exciting addition to their lineup. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas announced today that 2019 top pick Nick Robertson will join the team for their playoff run. Dubas had previously stated that he was excited for Robertson to fight for a spot next season, but that timeline has moved up with the talented prospect earning his way onto the team’s expanded postseason roster. Robertson, 18, is coming off a season in which he recorded 86 points in 46 games for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes and also starred for Team USA at the World Juniors. Whether or not Robertson actually plays for Toronto in the playoffs, his inclusion on the roster will be an interesting glimpse into the future for the Leafs.
The Detroit Red Wings season has come to an end following the announcement of the return to play format, meaning they’ll go down as one of the worst teams in history (at least in terms of points percentage). The club finished 17-49-5 and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, leading many to question the future of Jeff Blashill.
Steve Yzerman, Detroit GM, is not one of those questioning his head coach. On a conference call with reporters today including Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, Yzerman explained that he has “no plans on making a coaching change at this time.” Blashill signed a two-year contract extension in 2019 that carries him through the 2020-21 season but now has a 153-194-52 record as head coach of the Red Wings.
- A report out of Russia has Buffalo Sabres defenseman Lawrence Pilut heading to the KHL next season, though it has not been confirmed at this point. Lance Lysowski of the Buffalo News reports that the Sabres are inquiring with Pilut to see if he has indeed signed or agreed to terms with Traktor Chelyabinsk. Pilut is scheduled to become a restricted free agent later this summer, but with the Sabres already eliminated from play he could be looking for a new opportunity already. The 24-year old Pilut ended up playing just 46 games over two seasons for Buffalo, despite being excellent in the minor leagues and showing he could handle NHL duty. Should he decide to pursue a contract overseas, the Sabres could temporarily retain his rights by issuing him a qualifying offer.
- With just a few days left to sign them, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin explained to reporters including Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports that they will not be issuing contract offers to a few prospects. Allan McShane, Cole Fonstad and Samuel Houde–all players that will see their draft rights expire on June 1st–will not receive contracts from the Canadiens.
Now that the AHL season is officially over, awards and accolades will start pouring out for its players. Today, the league announced the 2019-20 All-Rookie Team, which is voted on by coaches, players, and media. Though not a guarantee of future NHL success, the AHL rookie team has a long history of star players including captains, Stanley Cup champions, and future Hall of Fame members.
The 2019-20 selections:
G Cayden Primeau, Laval Rocket (Montreal Canadiens)
D Joey Keane, Hartford Wolf Pack/Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes)
D Brogan Rafferty, Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks)
F Alex Formenton, Belleville Senators (Ottawa Senators)
F Joshua Norris, Belleville Senators (Ottawa Senators)
F Jack Studnicka, Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins)
Canadiens forward Max Domi is Montreal’s most notable restricted free agent case this offseason. After having a breakout year in his first season with the team that saw him record 72 points, his output has dropped considerably this year with just 44 points in 71 games. He also has spent time on the wing after playing exclusively at center a year ago. On the surface, another bridge contract could make sense but as he’s just two years away from unrestricted free agency, doing so would carry some risk.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call, including Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, the 25-year-old indicated that there hasn’t been much in the way of substantive contract talks. While some teams are hesitant to talk about extensions due to the salary cap situation, the Canadiens aren’t a team that should be as concerned by that as they have been well under the cap over the last few seasons. However, it appears they’ll wait until the season ends before getting those talks underway.