Breakdown of The Habs… Breakdowns

Every team goes through a slump or two during the long, gruelling NHL season. The Montreal Canadiens are going through theirs at the exact same time as they did last year, in mid to late November. Last year, they turned it around when ace defenseman Shea Weber returned to the lineup after a year-long absence due to injuries. This year, they don’t have such good news coming their way so unless Marc Bergevin pulls the trigger on something, it’s likely that we will hear the old “the solution is in the room” speech again very soon.

There has been a lot of criticism amongst the fan base. Some directed at Bergevin, most pointing the coaching staff, Claude Julien in particular, to explain the Canadiens’ slide. Both are right, to a point. Of course, you cannot win games when your goaltenders have a combined saves percentage below .890 over a long stretch. Of course, the defensive core is taking its fair share of abuse, but it’s also on the forwards. Basically, it truly is a team slump that the Canadiens are going through. In my opinion, there are a few key points that the coaching staff must focus on, something they can actually control and change.

Allow me to put on my coach’s hat and look at the issues the Habs are having in the current streak:

1- There are too many slower moving defensemen to play a man-to-man system in your zone. Guys like Weber and Ben Chiarot, while excellent shutdown defensemen, are getting beat regularly against faster and shiftier forwards. And so are lower end defensemen like Mike Reilly and Brett Kulak. Only Jeff Petry and Victor Mete have the wheels to play man to man. Zone defense would be a lot more efficient for the staff on hand. Even Karl Alzner would be more efficient in a zone defense setting.

2- It is clear that the system is asking defensemen to pinch in along the boards in the offensive zone. That is great to generate offense and keeping pucks into the offensive zone. It is also clear that the defensemen have the green light to support the attack when they see fit and the Habs’ defense is contributing offensively. But such a system will only work if forwards buy into it as one of them MUST take the pinching defenseman’s place when they do so. It’s very basic and every NHL player knows that. The problem lately is that forwards are lazy and don’t fill-in for those defensemen.

Claude Julien

3- The Habs have a fast team and they play their best team defense when the forwards back check and apply what we call in terms of hockey “back pressure“. For those unfamiliar with the term, back pressure is when Habs’ defending forwards skate hard to the puck carrier on the back check while they are moving up with the puck towards the defensemen. If there isn’t a strong back check, the opposition’s forwards will have all the time in the world to enter the Canadiens’ zone, stop at the blue line and/or cut up the middle. But if you have a couple forwards back checking hard on them, it applies pressure from the back (behind the opponents’ forwards), forcing them to make quicker decisions and playing more of a north-south game, which is easier to defend against. The back pressure has often been way too loosy-goosy and inconsistent, particularly during that slump.

4- For some odd reasons, it seems like the Habs’ defensemen forgot some very basic skills, such as “closing the gap” or playing the body instead of the puck. Closing the gap means not backing up too fast into their zone, keeping the gap closer between defensemen and forwards, which helps the Canadiens’ forwards in their back checks. When a defenseman closes the gap, opposition’s forwards tend to slow down their zone entry, giving your own forwards more time to catch up with their backcheck, therefore creating back pressure. Also, they seem to go fishing for the puck with their sticks instead of taking the body. Doing so makes them more vulnerable to speedy and shifty forwards.

5- We were chatting on Twitter during the games and we were wondering how does a NHL defenseman not know how to defend against odd-man rushes, like how to play a simple two on one? At a very young age, we coach our kids to stay in the middle, in the passing lane, then shade towards the player without the puck while leaving the shooter to the goaltender. Any goaltender will tell you that it makes their job a lot easier. But lately, it seems like defensemen are either over-committing to the puck carrier or they don’t ensure that the pass doesn’t come across. Goaltenders can only do so much on a good pass across.

There you have it folks. There are more smaller technical issues with this team as well, but the ones mentioned above are the main five, in my humble coaching opinion. And I’m not getting into player utilisation, ice time for lower tier players at the expenses of skilled players, player-personnel decisions on special teams, etc. That’s entirely on the coaching staff too. But if they want to get out of that slump, they’ll have to return to basics and the coach has a lot to do with that. Ideally, the GM also needs to get out of his comfort zone and address his team’s needs before yet another season is wasted. Go Habs Go!

Left Defense and Bottom-Six

There are slides and there are… SLIDES. The Montreal Canadiens were doing very well but then, disaster strikes as they lose two key players to serious, long term injuries, both requiring surgeries. Jonathan Drouin a wrist, Paul Byron to a knee. Since then, the Canadiens have yet to win a game in six tries, having a record of 0-4-2, and have literally slid out of a playoffs’ spot. As it stands right now, both Carolina and Philadelphia are ahead of them for the last Wild Card spot, while Tampa Bay (3 games in hand) and the New York Rangers (2 games in hand) are a single point behind Claude Julien’s troop.

While many fans and members of the media are pointing the finger at the team’s defensive core, they are not looking at the entire picture. There is no doubt that the defensemen have to clean up their act by making better decisions with and without the puck, and work on how to defend when outnumbered on the rush. It is clear that Claude Julien‘s system encourages defensemen to pinch in deep along the board in the offensive zone to keep pucks in. But anyone who has coached and played will tell you that the system will also dictate that when a defenseman does this, the high forward, whether it’d be a winger or the centre, has to take his spot in backcheck. That’s not happening, creating a multitude of odd-man rushes. You see, it’s on the forwards too.

Goaltending

While one would be hardpressed to put it all on goaltending, it would be just as wrong to take all the blame off the team’s goalkeepers. Here are their stats for the month of November:

GPWLOTSASVsSV%GAA
Carey Price11452332293.8833.77
Keith Kinkaid20015649.8754.20

One of Keith Kinkaid‘s two appearances was in relief of Carey Price in the blowout game against Boston. This means that he only had one start this month. For starter, that is way too many games for Price. But he is getting paid as the best goaltender in hockey. The issue is that he’s far from performing like it. Since November 16th, during the current skid, his numbers are as followed:

GPWLOTSASVsSV%GAA
Carey Price5041129106.8225.34

No team in the NHL will win games with a goaltender with such stats. Price needs to make the key saves. He’s paid to do that.

Left Defense

Rumours around the Habs all seem to be around Taylor Hall. Unless Hall can play defense, that is NOT the Canadiens’ biggest need. While Ben Chiarot has been a pleasant pick-up, he is not a top pairing defenseman and that’s what the Canadiens need. There are plenty of teams around the NHL in the same boat as Marc Bergevin‘s team, needing to tweak their lineup before the season is lost. For that reason, the “trading in a position of weakness” theory simply doesn’t apply.

While overall, Bergevin has done a great job, his downfall has been his inability or unwillingness to address his teams’ needs in-season or on the fly. It seems like he “doesn’t want to pay the asking price”, or so he says himself.

Shayne Gostisbehere has been a healthy scratch lately.

Listen up Marc… When I go to the mechanic, I swear every time because it’s costing me too much money for my liking. But guess what? My truck is on the road and it works! I could choose not pay the asking price and walk instead. Bergevin needs to pay the asking price to get what the Habs need and that, even if he thinks that the price is too high. When you have a prospect pool as full as the Habs’ have, and you hold 12 picks at the upcoming Entry Draft, you have the means to pay up a bit. He’ll be walking a long time if he doesn’t.

I’ve compiled a list of potential candidates that might help the Canadiens, guys that would solidify the left side of the defense. Some are more interesting than others for sure, but it’s an idea, food for thoughts. I don’t know the young upcoming defensemen of other teams so there are obviously many more candidates.

  • Cam Fowler (ANA)
  • Alex Goligoski (ARI)
  • Marco Scandella (BUF)
  • TJ Brodie (CAL)
  • Erik Gustafsson (CHI)
  • Ryan Murray (CBJ)
  • Jonas Brodin (MIN)
  • Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI)
  • Vince Dunn (STL)

Bottom-Six

The other thing that’s lacking is on the bottom-six of the lineup: grit. Enough already with the cookie-cutter players like Charles Hudon, Jordan Weal and Nick Cousins! No team fears those guys. The Habs need some sand paper. They miss Andrew Shaw and what he brought. They need more of that. The best 4th line in the NHL, in my humble opinion, is with the Islanders: Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. A true energy line. One that makes opponent keep their heads up and get rid of the puck much sooner than they want. One that will “tenderize” opponent in the course of a game and ultimately, a playoffs’ series.

Kyle Clifford would be an excellent addition.

Again, I’ve compiled a list of such players whom I’d rather have on the Habs’ bottom-six:

  • 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)

Those guys aren’t goons. They’re NOT like Dwight King, Andreas Martinsen or Nicolas Deslauriers. They can all skate and play hockey, granted not big minutes. Most can be inserted, from time to time, on a higher line to keep opponents honest. In the event of games like the Habs have been having, emotionless, these guys would provide the necessary energy to perhaps wake the team up. But that’s me. That’s the type of hockey that I like. If only Bergevin and the Canadiens saw it the way I do… Go Habs Go!