Top Cheese: January 2019 Edition

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as the team is entering the second half of their calendar, entering the exciting portion of the season and pushing for a spot in the playoffs. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Having reached the 41 games mark, the Canadiens have now played half the season. With a 22-14-5 record good for 49 points, they occupy the last Wild Card spot but find themselves only one point back of both Boston and Buffalo, and have closed in to within five points of Toronto. And they did that with Carey Price struggling through the first couple of months of the season and without Shea Weber in October and November. At what point can we agree that this team has had a major positive turnaround?

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When Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk were traded, many people were wondering where the offense would come from after trading the team’s best two goals’ producers and that, on a team already struggling to find the back of the net. While we know that the addition of Max Domi provides some of the answers, other players have also upped their game as well:

TOMAS TATAR

SeasonGPPts+/-
2017-20188234-19
2018-20194131+9

ARTTURI LEHKONEN

SeasonGPPts+/-
2017-20186621-11
2018-20194121+7

JONATHAN DROUIN

SeasonGPGoals+/-
2017-20187713-28
2018-201941130
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Are there still people doubting that Shea Weber is one of the NHL’s best defensemen? He has done a tremendous job since coming back for a full year absence, and his 11 points in 17 games with a plus -7 rating while impressive, isn’t telling the whole story. Averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game, he plays against the top lines, kills penalties and is a huge threat on the powerplay, and his leadership, often underestimated by some fans, is not amongst the hockey community and certainly not on the team. The Canadiens are 11-6-0 since his return.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Julien said. “I think it’s you getting your top defenseman back who’s got an unbelievable presence not just on the ice, but even off the ice with the team. As a coach, you’re happy to have your top leader — which is your captain — in the room because he’s managing that. As coaches — I’ve always said that, anyways — you go in the room and you tell them what needs to be done and you have your pregame meetings and all that stuff. But if there’s not a follow-up to that — if guys just kind of take off and there’s not a follow-up — it’s hard. But when you have a captain who believes and who’s going to go in there in the dressing room while they’re getting dressed — he’s not the only one — but who’s going to reiterate what we’ve talked about: ‘Hey, guys, let’s make sure tonight we’re doing this and that as what we said in our pregame meeting,’ it makes a difference. So are our guys even better prepared? Probably. I’m sure he has an impact there as well. We were good before he came back, I thought we did a great job. But we’ve gotten a little better now that our captain is back.”

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Speaking of Weber’s return, no one has benefited more than his good friend Carey Price, he whose performances were a legitimate concern for many. But since the return of the Habs’ captain, Price has returned to form. As a matter of fact, since Weber came back on November 27th, the Canadiens’ goalkeeper has allowed more than 3 goals only twice. He has a .924 Sv% since then and that, folks, is a good sign for the second half of the season

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Remember when Dallas’ Stars President Jim Lites did the unthinkable by calling out his team captain Jamie Benn and his assistant Tyler Seguin? Well since then, one Benn has taken Lites’ words serious… Jordie Benn did. The Habs’ Benn has accumulated five points in the five games he’s played since that time. As a matter of fact, the Benn with the nicest beard is plus -5, out producing his younger brother who has three (3) points and is minus -1. Jordie has turned his game around since the return of Weber and his experience has proven valuable. With David Schlemko on the verge of returning, it will be interesting to see who will be spending time in the press box. Benn should be safe.

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The 2019 World Junior Championships are coming to a close and seven of the Canadiens’ top prospects got to participate this year. While Canada and Sweden were upset, participating in this very competitive tournament will have been a very valuable experience for all of them, win or lose. Most have shone for their respective team and they will all take something from it. Ryan Poehling and Cayden Primeau were leaders on Team USA, as was Alexander Romanov for Russia, for whom Habs’ fans have finally got a chance to discover. Perhaps Trevor Timmins knows what he’s doing?

Nick Suzuki (CAN) 5GP – 3A
Josh Brook (CAN) 5GP – 2A
Jacob Olofsson (SWE) 5GP – 0Pts
*Ryan Poehling (USA) 6GP – 8Pts
*Cayden Primeau (USA) 4GP – 1.25GAA .947Sv%
*Jesse Ylönen (FIN) – 6GP – 5Pts
*Alexander Romanov (RUS) – 6GP – 7Pts

*One medal game to play

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Speaking of the World Juniors, what a shame to see the treatment given to Team Canada captain Maxime Comtois by some idiots hiding behind Twitter handles. The good news is the outburst of support Comtois has received from fans, coaches, Hockey Canada and even some NHL players including none other than Sidney Crosby himself:

“I feel bad,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s too bad that people have to react that way, and social media gives them that opportunity. My advice to him would be to ignore it. He’s a great player. He’s going to have a great career. That’s not going to define who he is — that penalty shot. The real fans and the players who are behind you … I think everybody is there to support him. Anything can happen in hockey in a quarterfinal game like that. You see [Dobson’s] stick break, it was one of those things. It’s easy to be a good fan when you’re winning. It’s a little tougher when you’re losing. I think everyone should keep that in mind.”

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Speaking of broken sticks, I’ve been swearing at those sticks for a long, long time as an advocate to the return of the wood sticks. Baseball resisted the aluminum and composite sticks. Hockey should have done the same. Al Iafrate and Al MacInnis were shooting at over 100mph with wooden sticks. Why couldn’t today’s players do that? But we have to laugh at a Tweet from a Finnish sticks company who jumped to the occasion to tease Noah Dobson, offering him a new stick.

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It would have been fun to see Jesperi Kotkaniemi play for Finland at the World Junior Tournament but let’s face it… the Canadiens need him. Since the start of his draft year, KK as they call him has made it a habit to surprise everyone with an incredibly rapid development. While some were shocked – even angry – to see the Canadiens draft him third overall, few question that decision today. He has now reached the 40 games plateau which ensures that this will officially be his first year pro and as a result, he will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at… 25 years old! But he should be a Montreal Canadiens for many, many years to come.

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This week saw a very incident involving Kotkaniemi and Vancouver Canucks rookie sensation Elias Pettersson. As Pettersson was trying to join the rush when Kotkaniemi hooked him to slow him down. Feeling the tug, Pettersson tried to reverse hit the Finnish rookie and both players got tangled up, falling to the ice. Had Pettersson’s leg not bent in a way a leg shouldn’t, no one would be talking about it but since the Canucks’ best player missed time after a concussion suffered after being slammed to the ice by Florida Panthers’ defenseman Mike Matheson earlier this season, Canucks’ fans were livid. After the game, Vancouver players, coaches and even Pettersson himself called it an accident, stating that it wasn’t a dirty play. Some Canucks’ fans need to channel their frustration elsewhere.

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Let’s just take a minute and give some well deserve praise to Canadiens’ head coach Claude Julien for having the guts and ability to completely change his system from last season, making this team fun to watch, win or lose. The arrival of new assistant coaches Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson are no coincidence I’m sure but ultimately, it’s Julien who makes the final decisions and he has done the right thing.

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At least two Montreal Canadiens’ players were more deserving to get an invitation to the All-Star game than Carey Price but they fell victims to the NHL’s flawed system. Max Domi should be the Habs’ representative, most fans and members of the media agree on that. Jeff Petry, a much underrated player, is another one who would be more deserving but they simply couldn’t beat other players at their respective position. Really though… who cares about the NHL All-Star game? Players are better off taking a bit of a break to lick their own wounds and prepare for the tough stretch of games ahead.

Atlantic Division (All-Star Appearance)
Auston Matthews, TOR (3rd)
Jack Eichel, BUF (2nd)
Nikita Kucherov, TBL (3rd)
David Pastrnak, BOS (1st)
Steven Stamkos, TBL (6th)
John Tavares, TOR (6th)
Thomas Chabot, OTT (1st)
Keith Yandle, FLA (3rd)
Jimmy Howard, DET (2nd)
Carey Price, MTL (7th)

But Habs’ fans can still vote for Shea Weber to join that group as NHL All-Star Last Men In.

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So here you have it folks! Your Canadiens are NOT is as bad of a shape as some want you to believe. As a matter of fact, they are in pretty good hands in spite of what some want you to believe. The future is bright and the sun will rise again tomorrow in Montreal. Enjoy this time of year and hop in for the ride, it will be a fun season! Go Habs Go!!!

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An Outburst the Stars Could Regret

The state known as “The Lone Star” state is about to get very lonely for a couple of Dallas Stars’ players after being singled out publicly by none other than the team President. In an public outburst leaving the entire NHL world scratching its head, Jim Lites decided to rip apart the team’s best two players, captain Jamie Benn and his assistant Tyler Seguin… and everyone around the league has taken notes. What remains to be seen is what grade they gave Lites who, according to many, crossed the line.

First and foremost, if you were living under a rock over the last few days, let’s take a look at what Lites had to say.

“They are fucking horse-shit, I don’t know how else to put it,” Lites said. The team was ok. But Seguin and Benn were terrible.” (quote from Sean Shapiro of The Athletic)

The quotes were taken from Sportsday – The Dallas News. For your convenience, I’ll post them here:

“It’s pissed me off,” Lites said. “What nobody says is what is completely obvious to me: We are getting terrible play from our top two players.”
“We pay these players to be the best players on our team and they are consistently out-efforted and outperformed by everybody else’s best players.”
“If 14 and 91 don’t lead, we will not be successful. I think this is the most talented and deep team we’ve had in years here.
“Certainly, this is the best team that we’ve put together from a talent perspective since Tom Gaglardi’s owned the franchise. Tom has allowed us to do everything we needed to do to be successful. Whatever it’s taken, he’s done. And I am tired of getting emails from him saying ‘What the hell is going on with our best players?'”
“He’s (Seguin) playing on the periphery. I’ve been in the business forever. I’ve been with Steve Yzerman in bad seasons, and what you’ll find is goal-scoring is a dirty business. You’ve got to go to hard places. And Tyler, last year, I saw him really perform and get into the difficult spots. This year, I’ve seen him as a weak forechecker, slow to the action and not getting it done.
“And he’s hit a lot of posts. He’s had some bad puck luck. But he’s not getting dirty. I don’t know what it is. I’m not accusing him of being without character, but we’re not getting it done.”
“Jamie Benn hasn’t scored a goal from longer than 5 feet all year. He makes plays in the neutral zone that if my kid had done it in squirts, he’d be benched. Am I wrong? He turned the puck over three times yesterday on plays if Denis Gurianov had done that, he wouldn’t have seen the light of day.”
“The owner and I see this the same way. We expect our best players to perform like other team’s best players, to be accountable, to have attention to detail, to have responsibility on the ice and off and get the job done for us. And it’s not getting done. Game in, game out, the best players on other teams are outplaying the best players on our team.”
“The coach has to, the GM has to, the owner has to, the CEO has to. I have to fricken hold these guys accountable and be part of the process of getting these guys to play to their best. … We don’t question their desire to win, but they think it’s easy, and that’s what bothers me. There’s just too much complacency in their games. Lack of attention to detail, and that’s what we need. Accountability and attention to detail and hard work.”
“The frustration I have is there were times where I think ‘Geez, we’re not getting any secondary scoring.'” Lites said. “But we’re not getting any primary scoring.”
“This team shouldn’t even be thinking about missing the playoffs. It shouldn’t even be an issue. We are too talented, too good, too strong to be performing this poorly.”

My first reaction after reading those comments was one of surprise. It’s not every day that you see a professional athlete get nailed to the wall like that. It’s even less common when it comes from the team President. And when he does it to his best two players, it’s unheard of.

Then I got thinking that maybe, he had talked to them in the past and saw no signs of improvement or willingness to improve. If that were the case, it could be a last ditch effort to get them motivated and if that failed, they would then consider moving one of them, or both.

I don’t play for him

“I don’t play for him,” Benn said. “I play for every player in this room and the coaching staff. I come to the rink and, like I said, I’m proud to be a Dallas Star and proud to go out there every night and battle with these guys in games. I’ve really put my teammates first.”
“Obviously, I read the article, and it is what it is,” Benn said. “People have their opinions on the outside. All it really is is noise. I think knowing there’s a situation within the organization, I try to keep it within the organization and deal with it face to face. With that being said, I come to the rink every day and wear the Dallas Stars jersey proudly and play hard for the fans and my teammates in here.”

“A little bit of a surprise there, because I didn’t know how he felt,” Seguin said. “It came as a bit of a surprise. I said it yesterday at practice. I understand I need to be better. Jamie understands he needs to be better. We need this team to be better, the organization to be better. I think everyone is frustrated over the last few years, and it came out yesterday.”

That was until I read the questions to Benn and Seguin, and subsequently, their answers. It was the first time they had heard that the President and the owner were not happy with their performances. Never were they approached with the exception of talks with head coach Jim Montgomery. Now I’m worried that with this outing, Lites has done some irreparable damages not only to Benn and Seguin, but to the Dallas Stars’ franchise. Who in their right mind will want to sign there as a UFA with a loose cannon at the helm?

Further, Lites might have tied his team’s hands in the even of a trade, by painting his players as ones who aren’t professional in not paying attention to details. Yes, there is a chance that Benn and Seguin will up their play but there’s also a huge chance that the players in the dressing room range behind their teammates and not care anymore.

In the only game the Stars have played since the comment, a 5-1 Dallas win over the Detroit Red Wings, Benn (39GP, 15G-15A-30Pts) played 15:07, with only two shots on goal to show for. Seguin (39GP, 11G-22A-33Pts) had 17:59 minutes of ice time, only managing one shot on goal although recording an assist on the powerplay.

In my humble opinion, Lites’ outing is a huge risk, one that no President or owner should take. Can you imagine had Geoff Molson come out that way against Carey Price when his play wasn’t up to par earlier this season? My oh my… Go Habs Go!