How the Florida Panthers Match Up with Montreal in 2019-20

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 15: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens fires a shot against the Florida Panthers in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on January 15, 2019 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 15: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens fires a shot against the Florida Panthers in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on January 15, 2019 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) /

With the first three teams in the Atlantic pinned down, the Montreal Canadiens should prove to be one of Florida’s toughest adversaries for a race for a potential wild card spot.

For the Florida Panthers, and a lot of the rest of the league, the Habs were a very tricky team to face last year. A team that was expected to be near the basement after trading star wingers Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty away, and star defenseman Shea Weber missing a load of time to start the year. They had no star, yet it never stopped them.

One of the big reasons is former Bruins head coach Claude Julien. Julien, who was once looked at by the Panthers after firing Gerard Gallant, finally was able to implement how he wanted the team to play, and it was one of the more unexpected NHL events last season.

Under Julien, Montreal played with relentless speed on all four lines, got the best out of some of their defensemen like Weber and Jeff Petry, and saw goalie Carey Price return to form after an abysmal 2017-18 season.

Montreal is a team that doesn’t have a superstar goalscorer like many other Eastern Conference teams, but more like the Vegas Golden Knights, focus on getting the best out of their depth. Last season’s top point scorer for Montreal had just 72 points, with spots 2-5 all in the 50s, the 6th highest point-getter being a defenseman, and the 7th highest being a rookie center at just 34 points.

How did this team win? Discipline, passion, grit, and spirit. As corny as that sounds, the Panthers lacked all four of those things at various points last year, and that’s why Montreal was better. Keith Yandle, who had 62 points last year (5th on the Panthers), would have been Montreal’s second-highest scorer, yet it’s no fluke Montreal still had 10 more points than Florida.

The worrying part of Montreal for a team like the Panthers is that most of their bigger names had “down seasons” last year. Jonathan Drouin failed to bounce back to the extent he had hoped, with just 53 points, Shea Weber’s 33 points will increase with his health holding up, and Paul Byron missed 26 games last season, limiting him to just 31 points, his fewest since 2015-16.

So, who were the pieces that kept Montreal’s engine going? To start, they got some very solid depth scoring last season from Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Danault bounced back from missing 30 games in the season prior to his career-high of 53 points in 81 games, a very promising sign. Kotkaniemi, a rookie deemed to be a “project” and not a good pick with the third overall selection, finished with 34 points in 79 games and looks to be another promising Finnish two-way center in the Atlantic.

If I had predicted who their top two scorers before 2018 free agency, nobody would have believed me if I said Max Domi and Tomas Tatar. Not only did both not play for the Habs last season, but both had gone through terrible runs of form before arriving in Montreal.

Domi, who set the bar high with an 18-goal rookie season in Arizona, scored just 18 in the next two seasons combined and was traded for Galchenyuk. While most predicted Arizona fleeced the Habs, it was vice versa, as Domi exploded for 28 goals and 44 assists, beating his previous career-high in points by 20.

Tatar’s renaissance was even more shocking. After running out of steam in Detroit and flopping in Vegas, Tatar finished last season with 58 points, beating his previous career-high set back in 2014.

As awesome as their success story was last season, there are two factors that could undo Montreal this season.

With more expectation and notability, teams won’t overlook them like they did last season. Everyone knows how Montreal play, it’s a question whether they can stop it. With Sergei Bobrovsky as the new goalie in town, Florida should be better off.

The biggest problem that I have with Montreal is that their players’ expectations are so difficult to gage. Are we going to see the Domi of last season or the Domi that struggled to put the puck in the net in Arizona? Does Drouin become a legitimate 65-70 point scorer, or does he continue to frustrate?

Montreal made zero changes in free agency, which means that their team chemistry should be great, but if their players don’t keep their same pace up, it could be a rude awakening for the Habs.

The Panthers’ high-end talent should be licking their chops for this matchup, with Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck be ready to break down Montreal’s defense. If the Panthers can keep pace physically, they have the talent (and now the coaching) to be the much better team.

Next. Panthers vs Leafs 2019-20 Preview. dark

Similarly to Toronto, Florida won’t face Montreal until much later in the season, with December 28th their first meeting with this year’s Habs. The Panthers’ first trip to Bell Center is on February 1st, the first game back from the All-Star break. The two will meet twice in the last full month of the season, March 7th for Roberto Luongo‘s jersey retirement in Sunrise, and in game 78 on the 26th in Quebec.