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Canadiens Analysis

Top Five Canadiens Players That Exceeded Expectations



Montreal Canadiens goaltender Samuel Montembeault

Now that the Montreal Canadiens are looking to modify their roster ahead of the 2023-24 season, we have an opportunity to take a look at some of the players that surpassed expectations.

It’s an important experiment for a team in a rebuild, giving management insight as to what some players can do regardless of the quality of their teammates or the opponents.

We’re not talking about players like Nick Suzuki or Cole Caufield.

Yes, they had good seasons, but that’s exactly what you expect from the team’s top players. Without finishing among the five-most productive players in the league, you’d be hard-pressed to qualify the aforementioned Canadiens forwards as players that exceeded expectations.

Pushing It Forward

On that note, there is one player that featured on the top line that clearly blew everyone away with his results.

Rafael Harvey-Pinard, 24, wasn’t just impressive when he played alongside Suzuki, he also produced on the third and fourth lines, using his seemingly endless supply of energy to create havoc in the offensive zone.

His fantastic work ethic and nose for the net led to 14 goals in just 34 games, which pro-rates to a 34-goal pace in an 82-game season. But even if we only focus on his raw totals, it’s worth pointing his 14 goals were good for fourth on the team, tied with Mike Hoffman and Kirby Dach, both of whom played significantly more games last season.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one of Harvey-Pinard’s teammates in the AHL: Alex Belzile.

Belzile, 31, finally made his NHL debut this season, and much like every other player that spent a significant amount of time in the AHL with the Laval Rocket, he quickly made an impact.

It’s important to note Belzile was playing on the fourth line for the majority of his tenure with the Canadiens, which puts his production, six goals and eight assists in 31 games, into a much more positive light. Simply put, he essentially outproduced players like Christian Dvorak and Jonathan Drouin while playing minimal minutes with questionable teammates.

Some have scoffed at the idea of offering him an extension, but they’re missing the forest for the trees.

Belzile is the type of player that will never complain about his assignment and thus would fit as a perfect option for a 13th forward or the first call-up from the AHL, where he served as the Rocket’s captain last season.

MUST READ: Call-up Belzile Among Most Productive NHL Players

You don’t want your top prospects toiling away on the fourth line, it’s the opposite of intelligent hockey development, therefore, giving him a spot on the fourth line should not prevent talented players from earning a job with the Canadiens. If anything, it would lead to top prospects spending more time in the AHL, which is never a bad thing in an organization that has a history of rushing its top players.

His contract would be very reasonable as well, which means it would allow the team to focus their financial commitments on players that are a key part of the rebuild. And there are few chances he’d be claimed if he were to be put on waivers.

He’s also quite versatile and has shown he can produce in the NHL in very difficult situations.

It’s worth noting one member of the Canadiens managed to finish among the top 30 players in points per 60 at 5v5: Belzile.

If you can find a better fourth-line player that would sign for cheap that’s already in the organization, I’m all ears.

But for now, it’s clear Belzile has value. Not only is it apparent when he plays, as the mistakes are few and far between, but it’s also represented in his production.

The numbers don’t lie.

Defensive Surprises

It’s tempting to mention Jonathan Kovacevic and Jordan Harris separately because they definitely played well when they weren’t on the same pair.

However, they did form the Canadiens’ most reliable pairing throughout the season, which is something the team should note as they move forward.

We’ve discussed their surprisingly effective play at length this year, but it’s worth repeating: the Harris and Kovacevic duo produced fantastic numbers while facing a relatively high level of competition. It wasn’t just surprising, it was necessary for a team that genuinely struggled defensively. Their penchant for joining the rush at the right time and helping the team in transition was a godsend.

Also, by packaging Harris and Kovacevic, it allows us to give a stick tap to Arber Xhekaj.

His ascension to the NHL epitomized the term surprising.

As far as I can tell, no other undrafted defencemen made the jump directly from the CHL to the NHL. For the most part, undrafted defencemen have to spend a significant amount of time in the AHL.

But not Xhekaj, a player who filled a crucial role for the Canadiens during a very difficult season.

Team MVP

Last, but certainly not least, is goaltender Samuel Montembeault.

It’s time, to be honest.

When the Canadiens offered him a contract last season, most had a wry smile on their face. The understanding was that Montembeault would help the team land a strong pick at the 2023 Draft Lottery.

But Montembeault had other idweas.

His play took everyone by surprise, though, given he was playing with an injured wrist last season and was forced to play through it, his uptick in results makes a lot more sense.

Statistically speaking, no other player led to more wins than Montembeault.

Time will tell if Montembeault has what it takes to become a legitimate starter in the NHL, but there’s no denying he was one of the most surprising players on the roster last season.

All statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted, via NaturalStatTrick.

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