The Decline of The Canadiens Empire

Another season, another year without playoffs for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans. As management claims that the goal each season is to make the playoffs, this would then mean that the team is falling short of their goal in what seems to be a bit too regularly. Based on the results, either the goals are set too high, or we’re not being told the truth. Either way, it’s a situation that must be corrected soon. Fans and media members are getting frustrated and if Carey Price‘s recent interview is any indication, it seems like the players are sharing their feelings. After all, being eliminated in January after missing the playoffs by four points a year ago is a huge blow for everyone.

With the team suffering through not one, but two 8-games losing streaks in the last few weeks, Twitter and call-in radio shows are not a good place to be these days. We know how fans and media can be in Montreal and they’re all out in full force for their witch hunt, pitchforks and lanterns in hand. But why exactly is this happening? What went wrong this season? The truth is, it’s not only one thing, one person or even one group responsible, but a series of events. Let’s have a look at why this is:

1- INJURIES

As of November 15th, the Canadiens were 11-5-3, a .658 winning percentage. The night before, they had just dominated the Washington Capitals in Washington by the score of 5-2, outshooting their opponent 40-28. The Habs were rolling, comfortably sitting in second place in the Atlantic Division, three points back of the Boston Bruins. They were fourth in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the New York Islanders, three points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Life was good in Habs’ land and it looked like the team was putting it all together.

In that game, the Canadiens lost two key pieces to their line-up. Jonathan Drouin, who was having a career start to his season, injured his wrist and Paul Byron, his knee. It was announced that both would require surgery and would miss several weeks of action. Victor Mete was injured on December 1st and didn’t come back until just before Christmas on the 23rd. On December 6th, sophomore Jesperi Kotkaniemi was diagnosed with a concussion after a cheap shot from Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov and didn’t come back until the 28th of that month. Joel Armia was placed on the injured reserve on December 26th, jamming his hand and he has been out since. Brendan Gallagher collided with Ben Chiarot‘s knee and was out from January 1st to the 8th. He played one game and headache symptoms appeared after the game and he’s out for the game against Ottawa. Ironically, Chiarot suffered a lower body injury and he has been out of the line-up since January 8th.

If someone is trying to convince you that those injuries had no impact on the Canadiens, they are lying through their teeth. Since November 15th, the team is playing for .370 with a 8-15-4 record. They are now sitting 13th in the Conference, nine points out of the last Wild Card spot with 5 teams to leapfrog to make the playoffs. And some of their injured players aren’t scheduled to come back until after the All-Star break. Since the Canadiens are going through a reset, they simply aren’t at the stage of it where they can rely on good organisational depth. As they say: stick a fork in them, they’re done!

2- TEAM COMPOSITION

The Canadiens have a team built on speed. With the exception of Mete, their defenseman are big and rather bruising. But their forwards are undersized. While they would go through a brick wall, the pounding of a NHL season is taking its toll, particularly against bigger teams. They are, for the most part, physical and gritty but if you get hit by a tricycle, it won’t hurt as much as if you’re hit by a bus. Michel Therrien once used the fruit salad analogy. I prefer comparing it to a cake. Most people love sugar, right? In order to bake a cake, you need all ingredients. If you run out of baking powder, you can’t substitute it with sugar. It simply won’t rise. What this team needs is size to go along with grit and toughness. It’s hard to find on your top-six forwards but not so much on the bottom-six. In another article, we presented a list of what the Canadiens need, and some of which might be available for a reasonable price. Here’s the list:

  • Nick Ritchie (ANA)
  • Lawson Crouse (ARI)
  • Christian Fisher (ARI)
  • Sam Bennett (CGY)
  • Adam Erne (DET)
  • Jujhar Khaira (EDM)
  • Kyle Clifford (LAK)
  • Marcus Foligno (MIN)
  • Sammy Blais (STL)
  • Jake Virtanen (VAN)
  • William Carrier (VEG)
  • Adam Lowry (WIN)

There are absolutely no reasons why the Habs shouldn’t have a couple of tougher guys in their bottom-six. Right now, it’s a team full of sugar. They need some baking powder in order to rise.

3- COACHING DECISIONS

First, let’s make one thing clear: Claude Julien is a good coach. But since the month of February of last year or so, he has made some very questionable decisions which ended up costing his team some very precious points. Who doesn’t remember Julien matching the Benn-Petry pairing against Sidney Crosby in March of last year? But that wasn’t the only mind boggling decision made by Julien, ultimately contributing to costing his team a playoffs’ spot.

Claude Julien

For the first month of the current season or so, Julien had Artturi Lehkonen and Jordan Weal playing on the wing of the Canadiens’ top points getter of last year, Max Domi. And it didn’t stop there. We wrote other examples back in October, and then again in December. If you add to that the number of games when Jordan Weal and Nick Cousins had more ice time than the Habs’ most skilled forwards, it contributed to the team’s fall this season.

4- GENERAL MANAGER

Where’s that elusive partner for Weber? No, Chiarot isn’t it in spite of his good play this season. Where’s that left-handed puck moving defenseman who can log big minutes and provide some help at the point on the powerplay, the Markov replacement? It’s been three and a half years since he acquired Weber and a case could be made that he’s wasted that time as Weber is burning good seasons. Yes, the Habs are still experimenting.

We have touched on this recently but it seems like making in-season adjustments is almost completely out of Marc Bergevin‘s league. With his team in contention for a playoffs’ spot last season, he chose not to pay the price instead of adding at trade deadline. This season, he waited for the Habs to practically be out of a playoffs’ contention to trade for Marco Scandella and to sign Ilya Kovalchuk. While those two moves can still be considered positive since they can be traded at the deadline for additional assets, it’s too little, too late to help the Canadiens qualify for the playoffs. So if your goal is to make the playoffs, do what it takes to achieve that goal. But if your goal is to rebuild, that’s fine too. Just don’t pretend that the goal is the playoffs if that’s the case.

5- CAREY PRICE

While it would be terribly unfair to pin this season’s setback on Price, he hasn’t helped his or his team’s cause this season. Having followed Carey closely since the Canadiens drafted him in 2005, I can tell you that something’s wrong.

Amongst starters, Price is 24th with a 3.01 goals against average and 23rd in saves percentage. To make matters worse, only 12 starters have had a better goals support than Price. Only so much of the blame can be placed on the system, the defensemen, the forwards’ back check or bad bounces. Price simply hasn’t been… Price-like and the Canadiens have suffered from it.

So there you have it folks. This is why the Canadiens are in the position that they are. The positive is that some of those points can be addressed rather easily. The injuries will take care of themselves. Just don’t rush them back as the season is a write-off. Remove Julien and replace him by Ducharme. Trade a couple of late picks for toughness and size. Use a couple of picks or prospects, perhaps with an established player (pay the price) and finally get that top end defenseman, as even with the possibility of Romanov coming, he’s a few years from being dominant. As for goaltending, it’s a different issue… Go Habs Go!

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