Hockey experts all over the league were surprised and questioned Montreal management’s judgment as GM Lennart Westman made two big trades in 24 hours.
With the Canadiens leading the division, in second place in the conference, and third place overall, the critics called the trades "a very questionable move to fix something that obviously isn’t broken”.
The Montreal management on the other hand claims the team was in big need of a change and that they believe these trades will strengthen the chances to make it all the way this year.
The two trades with Minnesota and Dallas have seen Mikko Rantanen, assistant captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikael Backlund, and Tony DeAngelo leave while Elias Lindholm, Alex DeBrincat, Jakub Voracek, and Neal Pionk will be joining the team.
While the players in many aspects may seem similar, a comparison player for player shows some pretty big differences, some surprising those who know Westman’s moves up to date.
Westman and the Canadiens have always preferred big, strong, and physical players, so seeing them sending away guys like Rantanen and Landeskog and bringing in someone like DeBrincat (5’7” / 165 lbs) is indeed a big surprise and a definite change of direction.
So why does the management feel there was a need for change and why this direction? "Our success last year was based on the defensive strength, and while we still are allowing fewer goals than 30 of the other teams, there are some alarming stats that need to be addressed," GM Westman explains.
"Last season our PK was one of the best in the league, pending between 86 and 94%. This year it has dropped down to 81%. If you then add the fact that our penalties average has gone up and our FO average has dropped below 50%, while we at the same time still are one of the teams with the greatest problems to score - you realize this is somewhat of a ticking bomb and an issue that needs attention."
"With Lindholm at center (instead of Backlund) we will get more possession, more scoring opportunities in general, and hopefully more goals scored, without losing any of Mikael's great leadership on the ice. With DeBrincat (instead of Rantanen) we actually get more physical and disciplined, while at the same time improving our offensive ability."
"Finally, with Voracek (instead of Landeskog) we may actually lose some checking and scoring ability, but the guy has great hands, a superb eye for the game, and is a great leader on and off the ice. So I think he will fit in nicely with the team."
Finally, the big trade with Minnesota also saw defender Tony DeAngelo move to make room for Neal Pionk. When acquiring DeAngelo, Westman said he would be an important piece in the effort to improve last years’ poor power play (15.45 %). So far, the PP is 18.67% with DeAngelo contributing with two goals and three assists.
The question is what will happen now as Pionk is a more defensive-minded player.
"We’re not happy with any of our special teams right now, to be honest," Westman admits. "But the biggest change from last year and the area in biggest need to improve is the poor support to our netminders. We are allowing over 32 shots/game right now which puts us in 22nd place as opposed to between 1st – 9th place over the past season.
"We may miss Tony’s playmaking skills but welcome the more physical and defensive-minded personality of Neal."
Looking at the papers, comparing stats it seems like the trades may have made the Canadiens a better team. The big question, however, will be if the new player personalities will work together with the old team or if Westman should have listened to the critics and not tried to fix what wasn’t broken.