Questionable Decisions Costing the Habs Playoffs’ Hopes

Management can put the team together, coaches can set systems and game plans but ultimately, the players are the ones who have to put it all together on the ice. They’re the ones scoring goals, defend, stop pucks. They’re the ones deciding if they’re going to put the necessary effort to make things happen or not. And when players put it all on the line for 55 games, exceeding expectations according to most “experts”, you have a team like the Montreal Canadiens battling for a playoffs’ spot at trade deadline.

This group took it upon themselves, coaches included, to go against everyone’s predictions and played an uptempo, fast game that gave opponents nightmares night in, night out. Several players had career years and the team remained relatively healthy. When, by the time team captain and undisputed leader Shea Weber came back from a year’s absence, the Canadiens were in a good position to keep battling for a playoffs’ spot and they did just that… until recently.

What happened?

The team’s anemic powerplay certainly hasn’t helped. It was actually a huge factor. Having said that, it’s been like that all year, even when the team was winning. That alone isn’t enough to explain the drop in team success. Pointing fingers to the coaching staff for the man advantage is, in my opinion, not right. That one is on the players. It’s not a strategy problem, but rather an execution issue here. Coaches aren’t the ones telling players to make high-risk passes getting intercepted. They’re not the ones saying “give it to Shea” all the time. They are certainly not the ones making the wrong decisions at the wrong time resulting in turnovers in the offensive zone and ultimately, the Canadiens’ players chasing the puck behind their own net.

As of trade deadline day of February 25th, the Canadiens were sixth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 33-23-7, comfortably in a playoffs’ position and closing in on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins.

In the days leading to the trade deadline, every General Manager of teams battling with the Canadiens made trades to improve their team substantially. Instead of addressing needs at positions where the Canadiens needed help most, like improvement on left defense and secondary scoring, Marc Bergevin decided to add depth to his fourth line and added an outcast defenseman from the Philadelphia Flyers. By “playing it safe”, Bergevin dropped the ball and failed to reward his players for their great work.

Coaching decisions

Aside from the powerplay, Claude Julien and his assistants have done an outstanding job this season… at least until shortly after trade deadline. The first very questionable decision taken by Julien was on March 2nd against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The night before, the Canadiens had defeated the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden by the score of 4-2. Shea Weber had a reasonable 23:40 of ice time. The Penguins had also played the night before, dropping a 4-3 contest in overtime against the Buffalo Sabres.

Yet against the Pens, seeing that Mike Sullivan was sending Sidney Crosby‘s line to start the game, Julien – who had the last change being at home – decided to respond by sending the pairing of Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn. A mere 21 seconds after the initial puck drop, Benn turned the puck over at his own blue line and Crosby made him pay to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.

Claude Julien

As if this wasn’t enough for Julien to realise that for one, the Petry-Benn pairing didn’t work well last year or this year for that matter, and two, they were outmatched by Sid the Kid, he insisted in keeping them against the player voted in a recent NHL players’ survey as the best player in the league. Results? Habs lost that key game 5-1 and Crosby left Montreal after a four-points night. Never has Julien adjusted in that game and put his best shutdown defenseman against the Pens’ top line. Mind boggling decision to say the least.

The following week, the Canadiens were on their annual road trip to California facing two bottom dwellers in the L.A. Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, facing the powerhouse San Jose Sharks in between. Julien, claiming seeing fatigue from his young player, decided not to dress Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Further, he chose to start Antti Niemi against the Sharks instead of against the Kings, a decision that left many perplexed. The Canadiens ended up losing two out of three games on that road trip.

After a lackluster effort against the New York Islanders, forward Andrew Shaw, who was one of a few Canadiens who showed up from start to finish in that game, did not mince his words when asked about the difference in the game.

“They came out to win the game from the start. They wanted to win more than we did. We need to be a team playing hard. Everyone. All lines, all D, goalie; everyone has to be playing their best every night. Lines are taking nights off, players are taking nights off. They don’t have that fight.”

You see, Bergevin went and got Shaw for his leadership, big game ability and because he knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. Last night, Shaw continued his inspired play.


Julien continued with his questionable decisions. In a game when the Canadiens were looking for solutions on offense, his second most utilised forward was… Jordan Weal. Kotkaniemi finished the night with 7:56 of ice time, the least utilised player on both teams. Asked after the game why the rookie only played 44 seconds in the third period, Julien explained that the young centre missed a couple of defensive assignments. Geez Claude, if you’re going to sit everyone who misses defensive assignments, I hate to tell you this but you won’t be able to field a team!

As a result, the Canadiens now find themselves three points out of the last Wild Card spot held by the surging Columbus Blue Jackets, and four points back of Carolina who also have a game in hand on both the Habs and Jackets. To make matters worse, the Canadiens can’t “tie” those two teams in points as both have more regulation and overtime wins, which means that Montreal has to finish at least one point ahead.

As much as it pains me to say this folks, forget the playoffs this year and that’s very unfortunate. It could have been prevented. The players brought the team close, management and coaching have let them down. It will be an interesting end of the season as there should be a lot of frustration showing from everyone, from players to media members, and of course fans. Particularly those who were waiting in the weeds all season to pounce on Bergevin.

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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!