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2018-19 CWHL Preview: Les Canadiennes de Montréal

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Offseason moves make Les Canadiennes the team to beat.

Michelle Jay

Can you imagine a team with Hilary Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, Mélodie Daoust, and Genèvieve Lacasse that doesn’t top the table? Neither can we.

Last Season

Last season ended in heartbreaking fashion for a powerful Canadiennes team. After sniping Hilary Knight while she was still in her post-gold medal glow, Les Canadiennes looked like they had the pieces in place to repeat as Clarkson Cup Champions, despite missing their usual three Olympians.

That was not to be, however, as they fell, somewhat embarrassingly, to eventual champion Markham in the first round of the playoffs. Perhaps a result of an aging lineup and missing star power, Les Canadiennes looked underwhelming even with power forward Knight joining in the final few games of the season.

Despite an underwhelming playoff performance, Les Canadiennes were still by far the most powerful team in the CWHL last year. They eked out a first place spot, beating Kunlun Red Star by only two points to bring home the Chairman’s Trophy. Their goal differential was also above and beyond Kunlun’s, with a +58 compared to Kunlun’s +44. The depth of Les Canadiennes should have carried them to the final, and the rest of the league should fear a refreshed roster playing with a chip on its shoulder.

Offseason Moves

What didn’t Les Canadiennes do in the offseason. Besides re-signing Olympians Hilary Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, Lauriane Rougeau, and Olympic MVP Mélodie Daoust, Les Canadiennes also acquired more Hockey Canada talent when they signed Jill Saulnier and Geneviève Lacasse out of the Calgary Inferno in exchange for draft picks.

Here’s the result of GM Meg Hewings’ summer project:

More importantly, Les Canadiennes have hardly had to sacrifice depth for their star-studded roster, so their Olympians supplement their already brilliant, cohesive, and powerful lineup. Returning players who don’t lace up for Hockey Canada include Ann-Sophie Bettez, Katia Clement-Heydra, Karell Émard, and Sarah Lefort. Four of the top ten goal scorers in the league played for Montréal last season, and all four of them are returning.

That’s not to say that Montréal is not facing its fair share of turnover, as many of their longtime core finally hang up their skates after multiple Clarkson Cup wins. Caroline Ouellette, the only player remaining from all four franchise Clarkson Cup victories, retired in a touching letter to her daughter, Liv. Noémie Marin goes out as the league’s leader in goals. Cathy Chartrand won Defenseman of the Year twice, in 2014 and 2018. Emmanuelle Blais retires with 154 points to her name, good for top-ten all-time. Longtime backup Catherine Herron will no longer patrol the crease. All five cemented the powerful legacy of Les Stars, and ushered in a new era of dominance as Les Canadiennes.

montreal.thecwhl.com

Cassandra Poudrier is unfortunately forced out after suffering a career-ending injury late last season. Laurence Beaulieu, Natalie Barrette, and Kayla Tutino all retire fairly early in their hockey careers, with single Clarkson Cup wins on their resumes.

Les Canadiennes’ international core has left as well. French nationals Marion Allemoz and Lore Baudrit leave for MODO (SDHL) and IF Björklöven (Sweden-Division 1), respectively, and Japanese defender Nachi Fujimoto has signed with Färjestad BK (Sweden-Division 1).

While the holes in the forward lines are filled by Olympians returning from national team duty, the holes in the blue line will prove trickier to fill. Les Canadiennes are starting the season with a very young backline, with Melanie Desrochers and Laurianne Rougeau functioning as leaders. Although the goaltending duo of Emerance Maschmeyer and Geneviève Lacasse will provide excellent protection when the defense inevitably slips up, these offseason changes will make a difference in how teams approach playing Les Canadiennes through the season.

Three Players to Watch

Ann-Sophie Bettez, Right Wing

Chris Tanouye/CWHL

Why Bettez has not received numerous Hockey Canada call-ups is far above our pay grade. However, the Sept-Îles native has made her presence known as one of the best and most versatile players in the CWHL. She started off her six-year career with the 2013 Rookie of the Year, and won the Angela James Bowl and been named league MVP in the years since. Last season she had twenty goals, six behind eventual Angela James Bowl winner Kelli Stack. And she’s not slowing down any time soon.

When Bettez posted her first 40-point season in 2013-2014, some speculated that it was entirely due to the centralization process, as she was facing lower-caliber defenders. However, she’s steadily improved since that season, posting at least 35 points in each of the last three years, with and without top-tier defenders or feeds from Poulin and Ouellette. She is on course to continue to improve, and is a veritable force to be reckoned with for Les Canadiennes.

Marie-Philip Poulin, Center

Duh.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 13 Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

After a crushing shootout loss in the Olympics, there is no doubt that Hockey Canada’s wunderkind will be looking for redemption in the form of a Clarkson Cup win. When she hasn’t been busy breaking American hearts, Poulin has spent her time owning the CWHL— since the age of sixteen. In her two post-collegiate seasons, she’s won the Angela James Bowl (twice), been named the MVP (twice), and, most importantly, been voted the Jayna Hefford Award winner for most outstanding player by her peers (twice). She posted 46 points and 37 points in her first two seasons in the CWHL, and has been all but unstoppable in the bleu, blanc, et rouge.

Considering the CWHL provides an opportunity to play consistently with slightly less pressure than the Olympics, Poulin will likely post yet another standout campaign for Les Canadiennes this year. If she can stay on her feet.

Taylor Willard, Defense

Hockey East

Willard, an American blueliner fresh out of the University of Vermont, was Les Canadiennes’ top pick in the 2018 draft, and she will likely shoulder a rookie-heavy blue line.

As talented as the forwards and goalkeepers on this Montréal team are, the defensive corps is extremely young. Willard had an impressive campaign at UVM, and made the Hockey East second team two years in a row. Perhaps more importantly, she provided leadership and a measured, steady presence on her team. She was named captain as a junior and senior, and won the Sarah Devens award for leadership on and off the ice.

Although Willard’s point total may not be high, her measured presence will likely settle down a defensive line that may be too eager to make mistakes.

Season Prediction

It’s hard to imagine a team that has Hilary Knight, Anne-Sophie Bettez, Marie-Philip Poulin, and Jill Saulnier will not top the league. Other teams have standout players – Calgary has Kacey Bellamy anchoring its blue line, Shenzhen KRS has Alex Carpenter doing Alex Carpenter things, and Natalie Spooner and Sarah Nurse return to lead a reloaded Toronto. But there is no team in this league that has the star power and raw talent that Montréal has managed to put together for the 2018-2019 season.

Final Thoughts

There are not a lot of weaknesses on this Montréal team. Although I have always treated the thought of seeing Hilary Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin wearing the same crest as something like a fever dream, it’s still not clear whether they will even be on the ice at the same time. Most of the other new acquisitions have played together before and know each other well, but I fear Knight could throw a monkey wrench into Les Canadiennes’ systems.

The other weak point for Les Canadiennes will be its blue line, as it has yet to experience the CWHL level of play. None of the new signees were standouts in their college programs, so it’s difficult to gauge how well they will do under professional pressure.

It’s unlikely that either of these weaknesses will present realistic dangers to a Montréal team as stacked as this one. But, it’s worth considering as we enter the season, that maybe Montréal is not infallible. Maybe.