The Montreal Canadiens are in an awkward position where they aren’t quite rebuilding, but it’s probably unfair to expect them to be competitive either.
On the plus side, that makes it relatively easy to imagine multiple divergent paths for them. Teams caught in the middle have the most “Bright Timeline,” “Darkest Timeline” potential, and the Canadiens are no exception.
It starts with Carey Price. After a bumpy season, the 31-year-old shakes off the rust and reclaims his throne as the best goaltender on the planet. That makes every player in front of him look a lot better, which is 100 percent necessary.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi continues his stellar preseason play, sticks it out for the season and finds himself in the running for the Calder Trophy. New acquisition Max Domi shows that he is who we thought he was when he was tearing it up in the OHL. Jonathan Drouin shows himself to be every part the No. 1 centre he thinks he is and learns to win a damn faceoff. Brendan Gallagher maintains his 2017-18 gains and puts himself in line for the “C.”
Phillip Danault and Paul Byron overachieve and Artturi Lehkonen goes from underrated bottom-six contributor to Finnish Max Pacioretty by getting some shooting percentage luck for once.
Shea Weber rehabs with the speed of a Shea Weber slapshot and returns to the lineup earlier than anyone expected. Jeff Petry continues to chug along doing his underrated thing and cuts enough visible mistakes that fans stop complaining about him. Karl Alzner takes all the rage he has about missing the Capitals’ Stanley Cup win and channels it directly into the torsos of the Habs’ foes. Victor Mete is the very best Victor Mete he can be.
At least one of the Atlantic Division’s Big Three crashes and burns completely. For the Canadiens’ sake let’s say it’s the Maple Leafs. Infighting between John Tavares and Auston Matthews absolutely torches the locker room as the team’s defence corps plays below even its suspect talent level. Overwork causes Frederik Andersen to be both injured and ineffective.
As a result the Canadiens sneak into the playoffs, where Price absolutely steals a Round 1 series against the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately for Montreal, the magical run ends against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2, because this is “Brightest Timeline” is not a “Non-existent Timeline.”
This one is particularly grim.
It starts with Price looking like a totally washed star whose athleticism has been sapped by injuries, making his enormous contract a franchise-altering anchor.
Kotkaniemi earns a roster spot but his slender frame fails to hold up as the season wears on, sinking his production and confidence and stunting his development.
From there it’s the same issue that has haunted the Canadiens for years: the lack of top-end centres. Drouin proves unable to carry the torch up the middle and ends up a disappointing scorer, defensive liability, and faceoff black hole. On his flank, Domi’s solid assist totals in the past prove to be an on-ice shooting percentage mirage and he is not a difference maker on any kind. Gallagher shows he’s more of a 20-goal guy than a 30-goal stud and no one in the bottom-nine distinguishes themselves.
Weber is unable to suit up at any point during the season. Petry’s gaffes become more consistent and none of the younger defencemen take the next step.
As the Canadiens begin to scuffle their fanbase abandons them and the Bell Centre goes from one of the best barns in the game to an empty cavern. To add insult to injury, the Habs don’t win a single game against the Bruins all season long and for some reason struggle against the lowly Senators — enough to finish one point below them in the standings.
Meanwhile in the Western Conference, Vancouver, Arizona and Calgary all have even worse seasons than the Habs leaving them with long odds of getting Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko.
Despite a disastrous year, Canadiens ownership decides to stick with Marc Bergevin.
More NHL coverage on Yahoo Sports: