With three wins to start the inaugural BEARD Hockey season, Montreal is poised to become a true powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
The Montreal Canadiens have gotten the best possible start this first ever season in BEARD Hockey. Three games in a row without a loss, a league historical first hat trick by Mikko Rantanen and a team historical first shutout by Andrei Vasilevskiy is all very promising and get the hopes up high for the rest of the season. But will the recent blockbuster trade that followed have the desired effect?
Expectations were high as the Canadiens were set to take on Tampa Bay Lightning on the road the opening night. Prior to the start of the season legendary and very respected hockey analyst Steve McConnell predicted the Habs would end up first in the Atlantic division this year, followed by Tampa. Needless to say the pressure to live up to the expectations was substantial, but according to GM Westman that was only good for the team performance.
”We have declared that we have the ambition to be a serious contender already this first year and if we want to live up to that we must learn to handle the pressure we and others put on us," said Montreal GM Lennart Westman. "In fact I would say the McConnell chronicle is tougher on the other teams, as they feel the urge to prove themselves better than predicted.
"The fear of losing will make you lose and I rather put a team expected to win than a team expected to lose on the ice, for many reasons obviously.”
Ever heard of the expression that motivation beats class and that statements like that could add fuel to the fire McConnell lit with his controversial chronicle?
”Absolutely! But I feel you get me wrong. There are still many good teams out there that can and will beat us from time to time. I’m not even saying McConnell was right to make us favorites, but I am saying that if we want to be the best we must handle the pressure and dare to look upon ourselves as a team that actually could be the best. Any team without that courage we will never in fact be the best.”
So, back to the three opening games and the history made by the Canadiens. Already in the opening game, Mikko Rantanen scored the first hat trick ever in the league as the Canadiens defeated Tampa 5-3. Two days later the Habs tightened up the defence and only allowed one goal against as the second consecutive win over the alleged division title rival was a fact. And already in the third game of the season netminder Vasilevsky decided even one goal against was too much.
With an overall strong defensive effort, allowing merely 21 shots against, the Canadiens shut out the second Sunshine state team, the Panthers, winning 4-0. And with that Vasilevskiy put his name in the history books as the man behind the first shutout ever for the Canadiens (second ever in the league) in BEARD Hockey.
While most GM's would be very pleased with a team writing history and winning three consecutive games, Westman followed up on the great start with a shocking blockbuster trade, sending Sebastian Aho and first assistant captain Jamie Benn, along with young Nils Hoglander to a division rival! In the trade the Habs acquired Jack Eichel, Jordan Eberle and the Ottawa second round pick for 2022.
"Trading away Aho and Benn was by far the toughest decision I have made so far. I always thought Sebastian was the player we would build the franchise around for many years to come and that Jamie would be a mentor to him, leading by example, always hard working, engaging physically, setting up plays and being one of our lead scorers.
"It still feels a bit unreal that this will now not be the case and that we instead will frequently have to face two of my favorite players, and personalities, facing a division rival."
So how did it happen then? Who contacted who and how was the final set up of the trade processed?
”Ottawa was not pleased with their preseason at all. As the regular season started in the same fashion, losing to Florida and being shut out by Boston, GM Mike Bell decided to shake things up and put assistant captain Jack Eichel on the block. With that we initiated the talks.”
Days, and several offers and counteroffers later the teams came to an agreement. An agreement some salutes and others fear damages the team and affects the great chemistry within the team in a bad way. And surprisingly, Westman admits that Ottawa benefits more than the Canadiens from the trade - at least in the short run.
”If we disregard the people and personalities in the trade and look strictly at individual skills you may argue that the loss in skill between Benn and Eberle is greater than respective advantage between Aho and Eichel. Even though that may be correct it is making a complex trade like this too simple.
"This is so much more about chemistry and line composition, and having two incredible leaders and role models like Eichel and Malkin centering the first two lines I believe will give us an advantage over many opponents.”
So, why should Eichel all of sudden start producing in Montreal when he during the first eight games of the season was a great disappointment in Ottawa?
"I once again believe it’s a matter of chemistry and line composition. We have talked the situation over with not only Malkin, Eichel and Eberle but the entire team and we all believe that the surroundings on the ice here in Montreal will be very different from Ottawa.
"We believe those differences will create more space and opportunities and it would surprise me if we didn’t see the result of that already in the next game, against the Sabres on Tuesday night.”