The second half of the NHL season is when you separate the boys from the men. That’s when teams start building an identity and momentum. That’s when key players are able to bring their game up to the next level in order to help their team make a legitimate push for a playoffs’ spot. If the eye test is any indicator, it is becoming more and more obvious that the Montreal Canadiens are closer to boys than they are to men.
Let’s not be fooled by their record on their last road trip, separated by a turkey Christmas dinner here. The game the Canadiens most deserved to win was the one in Tampa Bay, which they ironically lost. That was the last good team effort. They have not been playing well for quite some time and their inconsistency, while to be expected with such a young team, is ultimately slowly catching up to them. While teams could get away with playing 20-30 minutes a game earlier on in the season, it’s no longer the case when teams are getting down to business.
Aside from their lack of experience, there are five (5) key areas which are clearly hurting this team, keeping them from being able to take the next step. In no particular order, they are:
Everything has been said about the Habs’ lackluster powerplay. Many, myself included, thought that things would improve once Shea Weber would be back at the point but it hasn’t been the case. While he did score a few goals early on, teams have adjusted and are taking away the Canadiens’ biggest threat. In the last 10-12 games or so, Weber has had very few opportunities to shoot the puck as teams know that they can afford to cheat towards him, since the Canadiens are lacking imagination down low on the powerplay.
More than just Weber, it’s poor decision-making and execution that’s making the Canadiens their own worst enemy. Instead of creating passing lanes, the Douin, Domi, Tatar, Kotkaniemi and company are making the low percentage passes which get intercepted or deflected. And when they finally find a passing lane, the pass is off, in the skates or on the wrong side for a quality one-timer. There are also way too many “no-look” passes. Sitting dead last in the NHL with a 12.8% success rate, it is inexcusable to see them that low with the skills that they have.
Hockey is pretty basic game. When coaching, I always told my players that you either have the puck or you are chasing it. You spend a lot less energy when having the puck and controlling the play than having to spin and turn trying to retrieve it. The number one and easiest way to get that puck is to win your faceoffs. While the Canadiens have found some guys who can play centre, they cannot win faceoffs, which means that just about every time the puck is dropped, they’re the ones chasing, trying to regain control. Only the Washington Capitals have a worst faceoffs percentage than the Habs in the NHL.
While Victor Mete has improved since coming back from a short stay with the Laval Rocket, others have plummeted. Mike Reilly has lost the poise and confidence he displayed earlier on this season. David Schlemko and Karl Alzner are closer to AHL caliber than NHL. Jordie Benn has played much, much better as off late but he is more efficient on the right side. He and Brett Kulak form a pretty decent third pairing.
Marc Bergevin has done an excellent job finding quality centre prospects and getting Max Domi proves to be an excellent move. Where he has failed so far as a GM is by being unable or unwilling to pay the price to get someone worthy of playing on the top pairing alongside Shea Weber. Someone who can skate, pass the puck, and play 25-27 minutes a game. Maybe one day Mete will be able to do that. Maybe one day Alexander Romanov will be the guy. But if you want to make the playoffs, you need someone now… or yesterday! While things have changed since, we explored 24 potential options recently on this blog.
Lack of top-end skills
Tampa Bay has Point, Stamkos and Kucherov. Colorado has MacKinnon and Rantanen. Calgary has Gaudreau and Monahan. Winnipeg has Scheifele and Wheeler. Toronto has Tavares, Matthews and Marner. Boston has Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak. Pittsburgh has Crosby, Malkin and Kessel. Buffalo has Eichel and Skinner. Heck, even if things aren’t rosy in Edmonton, they have McDavid and Draisaitl.
The lack of top-end, game breaking ability is hurting the Canadiens. Yes, they score goals. But when the game is on the line, when you need a goal to tie or win a game, they don’t have that huge threat that other teams have. This, in the end, is costly for the Canadiens. With scoring by committee, you can’t send that ‘committee’ on the ice all at once when you need that elusive goal.
Too little grit
As the going gets tougher, the Habs’ lack of size and grit at key positions is starting to surface. With the exception of Weber and Nicolas Deslauriers, the grittiest players on the team are small for the most part. They don’t come any grittier than Brendan Gallagher but he won’t instate the fear of God into anyone. Byron, Domi and Shaw the same.
Too many of the Canadiens’ top players are shying away from physical contact and the dirty areas, particularly Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar and we’ve seen many examples lately, against bigger teams. And the games aren’t going to get any easier. Jesperi Kotkaniemi hasn’t filled in yet and he spends more time on his knees than on his skates, or so it seems. It will come, but he’s not there yet.
In conclusion, those are the reasons why the Canadiens are unlikely to make the playoffs when the dust settles. The team has taken huge strides since June 2018 but there is a lot of work to do still, before being considered a threat in the Eastern Conference. While my early prediction was that they would sneak into the playoffs, I have to admit that it is becoming less and less likely as the season progresses. This doesn’t mean that we should start asking for heads to roll, folks. The team is heading in the right direction. But we will need to give Bergevin and his team a little bit more time to address the points mentioned above. Go Habs Go!