Claude Julien settles in for his first full season behind the bench with the Montreal Canadiens, who open the campaign on the road against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. Julien steadied the Canadiens over the final two months last season en route to the Atlantic Division title before the team was bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Montreal made a pair of offseason moves that it expects to ensure success, locking up franchise goaltender Carey Price to an eight-year, $84 million contract extension and adding a burgeoning offensive talent with the acquisition of Jonathan Drouin from Tampa Bay. “There’s a lot of things that I think Jonathan can see and do, and we’ll continue to work with that,” Julien said of Drouin, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2013. Buffalo made sweeping changes in the organization in the offseason, including the hire of former Sabres defenseman Phil Housley as its new head coach. Housley’s hopes for success, and that of the organization‘s, rest on the shoulders of its young marquee star -- a point driven home when the team signed third-year center Jack Eichel to an NHL-maximum eight-year, $80 million contract on Tuesday.
TV: 7 p.m. ET, RDS, TSN2 (Montreal), MSG-B (Buffalo)
ABOUT THE CANADIENS (2016-17: 47-26-9, 1st in Atlantic Division): Captain Max Pacioretty scored 35 goals last season, the fifth time in six years he has eclipsed 30, but he was limited to one assist as Montreal managed 11 goals in a six-game playoff loss to the New York Rangers. Pacioretty will be paired with the 22-year-old Drouin, who is shifting to center after scoring 21 goals and adding 32 assists last season, with 26 of his 53 points coming on the power play. Drouin’s presence allows Alex Galchenyuk, who dipped from 30 goals in 2015-16 to 17 last season, to remain on the wing, while veteran Ales Hemsky was brought in to bolster the offense. Montreal lost three defensemen but inked free agent Karl Alzner to join stud blue-liner Shea Weber in front of star netminder Price, who won 37 of his 62 starts last season.
ABOUT THE SABRES (2016-17: 33-37-12, 8th in Atlantic Division): Eichel, taken one spot behind Edmonton’s Connor David in the 2015 draft, missed the first 21 games last season due to injury but matched his rookie total of 24 goals while collecting 57 points in 61 games. Ex-Sabres captain Jason Pominville was brought back to join an offense that features 28-goal scorer Evander Kane, Ryan O‘Reilly (20) and Kyle Okposo (19), while there were a number of changes along the blue line. Marco Sandella was acquired along with Pominville in a trade with Minnesota to join former Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Russian signee Victor Antipin. Robin Lehner had a 2.68 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in his first full season as starter and will be backed up by Chad Johnson, who started 40 games for Buffalo in 2015-16.
1. Montreal has had its struggles with Buffalo over the past two seasons, winning five of nine meetings (5-3-1).
2. Eichel has yet to score a goal in eight career matchups against Montreal.
3. The teams swung a minor trade Wednesday, with Montreal sending D Zach Redmond to Buffalo in exchange for F Nicolas Deslauriers.
PREDICTION: Canadiens 3, Sabres 2