Top Cheese: March 2019 Edition

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as the team is entering the exciting last stretch of the season, pushing for a spot in the playoffs. Four teams, including the Canadiens, are battling for the two Wild Card spots, three of which are also playing for the Metropolitan division’s third position, making for an exciting end to this regular season. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Less than 20 percent of the 2018-2019 regular season is left to play for the Canadiens and they find themselves in a dog fight to get in and gain the rights to play either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the leaders of the Metro division in the first round of the playoffs. Only 16 games, that’s what it boils down to, and we will find out if there will be some playoffs’ hockey at the Bell Centre come April. Players are banged up, they’re tired, but their sight is on playing for at least a chance to compete for the elusive Stanley Cup.

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One of those players on the Canadiens is team captain Shea Weber, who missed most of last season and the first couple of months to this season. While his play hasn’t been as sharp lately as we’re accustomed to seeing from him, he is still the backbone of that Montreal defense. If the Canadiens are going to make the playoffs, a lot of it will be on the shoulders of the one they call Man Mountain… and no one relishes that more than Weber, a true competitor who has proven time and time again that he can be counted on when everything is on the line.

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Shea Weber and Carey Price

Which makes Claude Julien‘s decision against the Pittsburgh Penguins that much more puzzling. On Saturday night, he gave the duty to neutralize Sidney Crosby to the defense pairing of Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn, and Sid the Kid finished the night with… four points in a Pens’ 5-1 victory at the Bell Centre. For fans and media members, who are not privileged to inside information, this decision is mind boggling at the very least and, in my humble opinion, could end up being the difference between making or missing the playoffs when it’s all said and done.

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But one would be foolish to blame it all is on Julien. Marc Bergevin has yet to address the team’s biggest need, finding a suitable partner for Weber, a left-handed defenseman who can log big minutes in a shutdown role against opponents’ top lines. Victor Mete is doing okay but when you have to rely on Mike Reilly or Benn on your top-4, it exposes the glaring need at that position. With the trade deadline come and gone, that gaping hole is still there and ultimately, the Canadiens are paying for it.

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The truth is that the Canadiens are greatly missing Andrei Markov. Maybe not Markov at his age, but a Markov-type player. Someone with his passing abilities, someone with his vision, a left-handed shot who can dish the puck from the point on the powerplay… but we’ll get back to that later on. Seeing the Habs with over nine million dollars under the cap and the GM’s inability to fill that hole in the summer or at trade deadline, perhaps Bergevin could have given the Russian defenseman a contract? Hindsight being 20-20, of course.

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All is not lost however, at least not for the mid to short term. Much like we’ve seen with Jonathan Drouin, the discussions held at the trade deadline often carry over to the Summer months and one can only hope that Bergevin’s talks for a quality left defenseman can pay off in the off-season. Could a Jonas Brodin, a Cam Fowler, a Shayne Gostisbehere, a Hampus Lindholm or another similar defenseman be coming in the summer? We can’t rule that out.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Yes, Alexander Romanov might be on the verge of coming to North America. Yes, Josh Brook has played on his off-side for a bit. But it’s far from ideal. Mostly, it’s unrealistic to expect a green rookie to fill that role. The Canadiens are better off doing the right thing, as they are doing with young Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and bring those guys up slowly and protect them with favourable matchups. As they should try to hang onto them instead of trading them for temporary help, the team MUST resist the temptation of rushing their top young talent. This also means that they must find some sort of stop-gap.

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One options that might be available is putting an offer in to pending UFA Jake Gardiner or the Maple Leafs, who will likely be unable to resign him. But is giving Gardiner, a very ordinary defenseman defensively, a guy who has been the scapegoat in Toronto more often than not, a contract in the seven million dollar range a smart move? Allow me to doubt it. In my opinion, Bergevin is better off sacrificing some assets and pick and chose the defenseman that he truly wants through a trade. Someone with a more cap-friendly contract and with term left to it.

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Here’s something that I’ve read that really irks me… Why trade to improve this year when the team doesn’t have a shot at the Stanley Cup, if others teams like Tampa Bay are stronger? Then why play the season then? Why want to make the playoffs? Why did the other teams fighting with the Habs for a playoffs’ spot trade to improve? If it’s pointless for the Habs, shouldn’t it be pointless for all other teams on the bubble? I’ll tell you why. When you are this close to a playoffs’ spot, you MUST try to get it. The experience gained by the young Canadiens would be most valuable in the long run. And I remember 1986 as if it was yesterday.

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In 1986, the Canadiens had no chance according to everyone around the NHL. But they had a great young goaltender and some young kids who didn’t know better. They had a balanced offense with multiple players around the 20 goals mark. Mostly though, they made the playoffs, giving them a chance to be in a position to battle for Lord Stanley. When you don’t make the playoffs, your chances are zero percent. Even a couple percentage points are better than zero. So folks, unless you have a crystal ball, stop pretending that you know better. You are talking odds and those odds can be beaten. It’s been proven time and time again in pro sports.

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Perhaps the most amazing thing about this season’s Canadiens is the fact that they are in the position that they are in, without a powerplay worth being called that. Sitting at a league worst 12.4 percent, the Habs have been unable to fix that issue all season long. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t start clicking. You see, a lot of it is playing on the players’ mind. They are making poor passing choices, and the passes are often off for one-timers or to keep the opponents’ penalty killers honest. Confidence plays a huge role in hockey and if my five decades of hockey have taught me anything at all, it’s that it can change quickly… with a bit of success.

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One guy who has been playing great hockey is Max Domi, although not so much on the powerplay. While I personally predicted that he would do well, he is playing well beyond what anyone could have expected when the Canadiens made his acquisition. And he’s doing all of this at the centre position, as the team’s number one centre nonetheless, with few points on the powerplay. Anyone miss Alex Galchenyuk… and his father?

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When the Canadiens acquired Jonathan Drouin, he and Max Pacioretty started practicing together in the off-season, hoping to develop chemistry, a chemistry that never came about. The same cannot be said between Drouin and Domi however. They started the season together and had great success, then got separated for a while but just recently, Julien put them back together and they started to produce again. Fast and creative, those two look for each other and it’s working. If only they could transpose that to the powerplay…

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Even a few percentage points improvement on the powerplay would go a long way to improving the Habs’ chances to make the playoffs but let’s be real here… their odds dropped drastically after losing that game against the Penguins. It is my opinion that they will fall just short of their quest and had Bergevin brought in some help at the deadline, and Julien made a better decision against Pittsburgh, this team would be part of the Spring Showdown.

What’s done is done and we can only look at the future. Bergevin must address the team’s needs on left defense as he’s done with the centre position this past summer. If he does that and if the team avoids key injuries, the Canadiens should be in the playoffs next season. Until then, let’s put that under the “experience gaining” category. Go Habs Go!

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No Depth on Defense? Think Again!

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Defense wins championships. That’s what everyone around hockey, not only the NHL, is saying. In his book, the great Scotty Bowman always claimed that preventing a goal is more important than scoring one as if you allow a goal, you have to score two more to win. The NHL doesn’t look at the scores when awarding points in the standings. Only wins, losses and more recently, looser points (points obtained by losing in regulation or in skills’ competition) have an effect on the teams’ standings. So whether you win 8-7 or 2-1, it counts the same.

In Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens have the best goaltender in the world, and he was rewarded with a contract this summer that will make him paid as such, starting in 2018-2019. They still have arguably the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL in Shea Weber, against whom opponents struggled to score when he was on the ice all season long last year. That hasn’t changed.

Losing Andrei Markov however should have its effect and that, in spite of the fact that he’s not getting any better with age. He was still a key contributor to the Canadiens’ defensive core last season and there is no doubt that he will be missed. But the Habs’ defense was not Markov. It was a group effort, including the two corner stones mentioned earlier.

Here’s what Marc Bergevin had to say about the loss of Markov:

“Loosing Markov creates a big hole. Andrei was a very good player for us, but we added Mark Streit, which I think fills some of that role. We added David Schlemko. I think by committee we should be able to fill that gap. Let’s keep in mind we didn’t lose a 25-year-old defenseman. All respect to Andrei, he’s going to turn 39 in December. At some point we have to move forward.”

A Deeper Group

In a recent article on Sportsnet, beat writer Eric Engels tried to paint a picture claiming that the loss of Markov, Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin has affected the team’s depth at that position. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, the defense heading into training camp is the deepest in NHL quality than it’s been in Bergevin’s tenure as the team’s GM. Don’t take my word for it, look for yourself, including regular season’s games played in the NHL:

 

  • Shea Weber (841 GP)
  • Mark Streit (784 GP)
  • Karl Alzner (591 GP)
  • Jeff Petry (445 GP)
  • David Schlemko (360 GP)
  • Jordie Benn (315 GP)
  • Eric Gelinas (189 GP) – PTO
  • Zach Redmond (130 GP)
  • Brandon Davidson (101 GP)
  • Joe Morrow (65 GP)
  • Matt Taormina (59 GP)

You add to that group a guy like 26 year-old Jakub Jerabek (367 pro games) and young Brett Lernout who had a taste of the NHL at the end of last season. You also have Thomas Parisi and two newly pro in Noah Juulsen and Simon Bourque, who will likely all start the season in Laval, followed by non other than Victor Mete, the only junior-age player invited to the main camp.

 

If that’s not having depth, very few NHL teams have depth. Perhaps only the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who have 11 defensemen on one-way contracts, have more NHL depth than the Canadiens heading into camp.

Are they lacking a Top-4 defenseman, one who can log quality minutes with Weber? Absolutely and the organization isn’t denying it either. But quality depth, they have. At centre however, that’s a whole different story…