Habs and Playoffs: 5 Missing Ingredients

The second half of the NHL season is when you separate the boys from the men. That’s when teams start building an identity and momentum. That’s when key players are able to bring their game up to the next level in order to help their team make a legitimate push for a playoffs’ spot. If the eye test is any indicator, it is becoming more and more obvious that the Montreal Canadiens are closer to boys than they are to men.

Let’s not be fooled by their record on their last road trip, separated by a turkey Christmas dinner here. The game the Canadiens most deserved to win was the one in Tampa Bay, which they ironically lost. That was the last good team effort. They have not been playing well for quite some time and their inconsistency, while to be expected with such a young team, is ultimately slowly catching up to them. While teams could get away with playing 20-30 minutes a game earlier on in the season, it’s no longer the case when teams are getting down to business.

Aside from their lack of experience, there are five (5) key areas which are clearly hurting this team, keeping them from being able to take the next step. In no particular order, they are:

The Powerplay

Everything has been said about the Habs’ lackluster powerplay. Many, myself included, thought that things would improve once Shea Weber would be back at the point but it hasn’t been the case. While he did score a few goals early on, teams have adjusted and are taking away the Canadiens’ biggest threat. In the last 10-12 games or so, Weber has had very few opportunities to shoot the puck as teams know that they can afford to cheat towards him, since the Canadiens are lacking imagination down low on the powerplay.

More than just Weber, it’s poor decision-making and execution that’s making the Canadiens their own worst enemy. Instead of creating passing lanes, the Douin, Domi, Tatar, Kotkaniemi and company are making the low percentage passes which get intercepted or deflected. And when they finally find a passing lane, the pass is off, in the skates or on the wrong side for a quality one-timer. There are also way too many “no-look” passes. Sitting dead last in the NHL with a 12.8% success rate, it is inexcusable to see them that low with the skills that they have.

Faceoffs

Hockey is pretty basic game. When coaching, I always told my players that you either have the puck or you are chasing it. You spend a lot less energy when having the puck and controlling the play than having to spin and turn trying to retrieve it. The number one and easiest way to get that puck is to win your faceoffs. While the Canadiens have found some guys who can play centre, they cannot win faceoffs, which means that just about every time the puck is dropped, they’re the ones chasing, trying to regain control. Only the Washington Capitals have a worst faceoffs percentage than the Habs in the NHL.

Left defense

While Victor Mete has improved since coming back from a short stay with the Laval Rocket, others have plummeted. Mike Reilly has lost the poise and confidence he displayed earlier on this season. David Schlemko and Karl Alzner are closer to AHL caliber than NHL. Jordie Benn has played much, much better as off late but he is more efficient on the right side. He and Brett Kulak form a pretty decent third pairing.

Marc Bergevin has done an excellent job finding quality centre prospects and getting Max Domi proves to be an excellent move. Where he has failed so far as a GM is by being unable or unwilling to pay the price to get someone worthy of playing on the top pairing alongside Shea Weber. Someone who can skate, pass the puck, and play 25-27 minutes a game. Maybe one day Mete will be able to do that. Maybe one day Alexander Romanov will be the guy. But if you want to make the playoffs, you need someone now… or yesterday! While things have changed since, we explored 24 potential options recently on this blog.

Lack of top-end skills

Tampa Bay has Point, Stamkos and Kucherov. Colorado has MacKinnon and Rantanen. Calgary has Gaudreau and Monahan. Winnipeg has Scheifele and Wheeler. Toronto has Tavares, Matthews and Marner. Boston has Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak. Pittsburgh has Crosby, Malkin and Kessel. Buffalo has Eichel and Skinner. Heck, even if things aren’t rosy in Edmonton, they have McDavid and Draisaitl.

The Drouin/Domi duo is not enough.

The lack of top-end, game breaking ability is hurting the Canadiens. Yes, they score goals. But when the game is on the line, when you need a goal to tie or win a game, they don’t have that huge threat that other teams have. This, in the end, is costly for the Canadiens. With scoring by committee, you can’t send that ‘committee’ on the ice all at once when you need that elusive goal.

Too little grit

As the going gets tougher, the Habs’ lack of size and grit at key positions is starting to surface. With the exception of Weber and Nicolas Deslauriers, the grittiest players on the team are small for the most part. They don’t come any grittier than Brendan Gallagher but he won’t instate the fear of God into anyone. Byron, Domi and Shaw the same.

Too many of the Canadiens’ top players are shying away from physical contact and the dirty areas, particularly Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar and we’ve seen many examples lately, against bigger teams. And the games aren’t going to get any easier. Jesperi Kotkaniemi hasn’t filled in yet and he spends more time on his knees than on his skates, or so it seems. It will come, but he’s not there yet.

Conclusion

In conclusion, those are the reasons why the Canadiens are unlikely to make the playoffs when the dust settles. The team has taken huge strides since June 2018 but there is a lot of work to do still, before being considered a threat in the Eastern Conference. While my early prediction was that they would sneak into the playoffs, I have to admit that it is becoming less and less likely as the season progresses. This doesn’t mean that we should start asking for heads to roll, folks. The team is heading in the right direction. But we will need to give Bergevin and his team a little bit more time to address the points mentioned above. Go Habs Go!

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Weber’s Partner: 24 Potential Trade Targets?

Some of the world’s certainties… Christmas has come and gone but will return next year… New Year’s resolutions will be made only to see most of them get broken… There will be an election with a bunch of people wanting a change, like at each previous election… Gary Bettman will be booed when comes time to hand the Stanley Cup to the winners… Donald Trump will lie about something and he will do or say something stupid… some Habs’ fans will be complaining about something… and the Montreal Canadiens will be trying to figure out who can play with Shea Weber on their top pairing.

As a fan of the team, this situation is getting frustrating and even ridiculous. Since THE trade, the Canadiens have been unable or unwilling to pay the price to find someone capable of playing 25-30 minutes with Weber. Not that the Habs’ captain is difficult to play with, but the lack of quality on the left side has been an issue for that long. A situation that was further emphasised when veteran Andrei Markov took too long to accept a one-year deal from Marc Bergevin and had to return to Russia to continue his career in the KHL.

The 3 Options

When looking for a solution, the options are not illimited. After all, much like centres, top-4 defensemen capable of playing quality minutes are not always made available but when one is, it is important as a GM to be ready to pounce. With his recent trades and picks, there are now many factors working in Bergevin’s favour. For one, he has plenty of cap space to play with, and he has few impact players needing to be re-signed in the near future. Also, he and Trevor Timmins have done a great job at replenishing the cupboards with quality prospects, some of which could be used as trade baits for the right defenseman. But mostly, with the team performing above most people’s expectations this year, he is under no pressure crunch to overpay to get what he wants.

1- Stick with the plan

The Canadiens are developing from within and they form one of the youngest teams in the NHL. With the exception of Shea Weber and Carey Price, their core is extremely young. They have some good young players on the team and in the system. Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly could still be developing into good defensemen and they have 20 year-old Victor Mete. While he has the potential to become a top-4, Noah Juulsen is right handed and so is young prospect Josh Brook. Yes, he’s playing on the left side with Team Canada but that’s not an ideal situation at the NHL level, particularly when it’s time to keep the puck in the offensive zone and sending it to the net quickly. As for Alexander Romanov, he will need a few seasons to mature in order to fill such an important role. Still, Bergevin can afford to be patient and see where this group leads them.

2- Get a stop-gap veteran

Price and Weber still have a few good seasons in them but they will soon be getting long in the tooth. If a veteran defenseman capable of eating up some quality minutes alongside Weber became available at the right price (without sacrificing a blue-chip prospect), Bergevin could be tempted. He tried to do so with Karl Alzner and that blew back in his face. It doesn’t mean that the next move will, however. Bergevin has always claimed, as many other GM’s have, that the goal is to make the playoffs as once you’re in, you never know what the outcome might be. Such veteran could help bring some valuable playoffs’ experience that will serve the young group as they mature.

3- Youth for youth

What is the Canadiens’ strength in the prospect pool? Quality young forwards, including much sought after centres, which come at a prime cost. With Jesperi Kotkaniemi having developed much sooner than expected, with Nick Suzuki almost making the team at training camp, and with Ryan Poehling on the verge of being ready to sign his first pro contract, the Canadiens are deep with youth and quality in the middle. And I’m not counting Jacob Olafsson, who is playing on Sweden’s top line (although moved to the wing) for the World Junior tournament currently taking place in B.C. You then add Joni Ikonen, Jesse Ylonen and the numerous others playing junior or internationally.

To be totally honest, that third option is my favourite. No one likes to so-call “give-up on a young prospect”, as some have told me on Twitter. But you see, I don’t see this as giving up. I see this as displacing assets strategically based on the team’s needs. Good, smart GM’s trade from a position of strength and the Canadiens’ strength is at forward. For other teams, their organizational depth is on defense.

What I see happening is a trade like the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets consumed a couple of years ago. Nashville, deep on the blue line, traded away Seth Jones to Colombus for Ryan Johansen. Young player for young player, in the lines of what the Habs did when trading Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev… except that now, Montreal is deep at forward.

Potential trade target?

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, let’s look at what makes teams decide to trade.

  • Team aging and heading in the wrong direction (LAK, CHI,…)
  • Team’s window of opportunity rapidly closing (SJS, ANA, DAL,…)
  • Team spent lots of money on UFA’s to win now, under-performing (STL,…)
  • Team with upcoming cap crunch (TOR, ANA, EDM,…)
  • Team almost sure of missing the playoffs (list growing daily)
  • Team wanting to add for playoffs’ push (too many to list)
  • Team with disgruntled player(s)
  • Team like the Habs wanting to plug holes for present and future

Okay, you get the gist. Of course, many factors will dictate the asking price with most based on the market (RE: supply and demand). In the list of players below, some may not be available. Some may be available but it would be very costly. Some will be available but there could be a bidding war, or the Canadiens may not have what the other team needs in return. But some will also be perfect trade partners for Bergevin and his crew. I will refrain from trying to attempt to guess on what it would take to get any of those defensemen as 95% of the time, we’re all wrong when doing so. But let’s look at the names and what they could potentially bring, shall we?

TEAMNAMEAGECONTRACTSTATUSSCOUTING REPORT
(Sports Forecaster)
CHIDuncan Keith35$5.5M until 2022-23UFAIs as good a skater as you can find from the back end. Can log ridiculous amounts of ice time effortlessly. Excels at using his mobility to shut down opposing forwards. Has above-average two-way instincts for the blueline position. Plays a very cerebral game, too. Is a little undersized to play against giant-sized NHL forwards. Is not capable of taking his offensive game to the next level, as he is not a natural power-play quarterback. Could also stand to improve his shot from the point, which is only average (at best).
STLJay Bouwmeester35$5.4M until 2018-19UFAHas incredible skating ability, size and hockey smarts. A capable shutdown defender, he can log huge minutes and usually positions himself perfectly well on the ice. Does not play enough of a physical game to dominate in that department, but it has never been his style. Lacks a big shot and produces underwhelming offense.
ARIAlex Goligoski33$5.475M until 2020-21UFAPossesses plenty of puck-moving excellence. Has outstanding mobility, sound hockey sense and the ability to jump up into the play. Will also distribute hits, when necessary. Can log lots of minutes. Can at times cough up the puck under pressure. Is an undersized defender that can struggle when up against physical forwards, especially in front of his own net. Could use even more bulk.
PHIAndrew MacDonald32$5M until 2019-20UFAMoves the puck well and is generally good with the puck. Can log an awful lot of ice time at all levels. Very mobile, he also has a bit of offensive ability (especially at lower levels). Does not play a consistent game at all, in all facets of the game, so there is a true lack of dependability and reliability here. Is somewhat prone to injury. Lacks ideal size.
ARINiklas Hjalmarsson31$5M until 2020-21UFACan log big minutes and is adept at shutting opponents down. Has a very solid frame, grit and plenty of puck-moving ability. Gives his all every time he hits the ice. Blocks shots with aplomb. Does not own high-end offensive acumen, or the ability to quarterback a power play, so that limits his overall production in the NHL. Also, he lacks consistency in the physicality department.
LAKAlec Martinez31$4M until 2020-21UFAIs a strong, swift and well-balanced skater with two-way ability. Has solid puck-moving and passing skills, as well as defensive acumen. Usually keeps things simple and limits mistakes. Lacks consistency in terms of offensive production at the National Hockey League level. Is not overly physical, despite pretty decent size. Could stand to shoot the puck more.
LAKJake Muzzin29$4M until 2019-20UFAHas good size (6-3, 216 pounds) for the highest level and a great point shot from the back end. Moves the puck well out of danger. Can log big minutes. Despite his big frame, he isn’t the type of defenseman who will punish opponents physically with consistency. Also, his shot accuracy needs more work.
VEGNate Schmidt27$5.95M until 2024-25UFAHas excellent puck-moving skills and can jump-start the counter-attack effectively from the back end. Is capable of playing on either side of the ice and can log a lot of ice time. Isn’t very physical and somewhat undersized for the National Hockey League game, so he must prove capable of handling bigger forwards consistently at the highest level.
NJDSami Vatanen27$4.875M until 2019-20UFAOwns excellent offensive ability, solid puck-moving skills and plenty of hockey sense. Is capable of running a power play and also owns a very accurate point shot. Is somewhat undersized for the North American pro game, so he needs to add bulk and get stronger physically in order to maximize output and avoid long-term injury.
NYINick Leddy27$5.5M until 2021-22UFAIs a tremendous skater with outstanding mobility and acceleration. Can lead the rush and set up teammates with great vision and passing skills. Is willing to initiate contact and take a hit to make plays in the defensive zone. Is not overly big and could stand to continue adding bulk to his 6-0 frame in order to better handle bigger forwards at the National Hockey League level. Also needs to improve his shooting accuracy (and also his frequency).
LAKDerek Forbort26$2.525M until 2020-21UFAHas shutdown upside, plenty of size (6-4, 216 pounds) and great skating ability. Moves the puck swiftly and is a good overall defender. Is capable of logging big minutes. Must become a more physically imposing player, since he tends to lack consistency in the hitting department. Also, the jury is still out on his long-range offensive upside.
CHIErik Gustafsson26$1.2M until 2019-20UFAIs a quality puck-moving defenseman who can put up solid offensive totals at lower levels. Can be used a lot because he’s a minute muncher. Does not have ideal size for the blueline position at the National Hockey League level, so he needs to get stronger physically to maximize output.
STLJoel Edmundson25$3M until 2018-19RFAHas a mammoth frame and is a physical force from the back end. Generally keeps his game simple and uncomplicated. Is a big presence on the ice. Does not have a lot of offensive ability, so he is a limited producer at the National Hockey League level. Also needs to avoid taking bad penalties.
DALEsa Lindell24$2.2M until 2018-19RFAHas excellent size (6-3, 215 pounds) for the blueline position at the National Hockey League level. Owns a big shot from the point. Displays all-around ability. Lacks game-to-game consistency. Could stand to be a little more assertive when on the ice. Is a bit raw, so he needs to learn the intricacies of playing defense.
DALGavin Bayreuther24$925,000 until 2018-19RFAHas a history of quality point production at lower levels. Owns a projectable (6-1) frame and plenty of puck-moving ability. Can be an asset on the power play. A late bloomer, he could stand to fill out his frame in order to maximize ice time at the highest level. Also, he does not play an overly physical game from the back end.
PHIRobert Hägg23$1.15M until 2019-20RFAIs a tremendous puck mover with a smooth skating stride. Can play an effective shutdown role, mostly because of an extremely active stick. Can log huge amounts of ice time. Has the size NHL scouts love, but he must learn how to use it more effectively (and more often) to maximize output at the highest level. Is not a natural point producer.
STLVince Dunn22$722,500 until 2019-20RFAA mobile, ‘modern-day’ defenseman with excellent offensive prowess and plenty of puck skills, he thrives in an offensive system. Can also be a big factor on the power play due to his hockey sense and good point shot. Does not have ideal size (6-0, 187 pounds) for a National Hockey League defenseman, and also lacks a strong physical presence overall. Therefore, he must get stronger in order to maximize output at the highest level.
NSHAlexandre Carrier22$688,333 until 2019-20RFAHas excellent hockey sense, plus great mobility from the back end. Is a very good passer with a huge point shot for the power play. Also displays all-round ability. Is sound defensively, largely because of his active stick. Lacks ideal size (5-11, 174 pounds) and strength for the blueline position at the National Hockey League level. Therefore, he will need to add significant bulk to better compete with much bigger forwards at the highest level.
WPGSami Niku22$775,000 until 2019-20RFAHas outstanding puck skills, and is reliable in his own end of the ice. Makes smart, safe decisions and displays a sound hockey IQ. Skates very well and makes a good first pass. Owns a strong lower body and is solid on his skates. Is somewhat limited, both in terms of ideal size for the National Hockey League and high-end offensive upside. Must prove he can withstand the rigors of the North American professional ranks in order to maximize output.
PHIIvan Provorov21$894,167 until 2018-19RFAHas excellent skating ability and a penchant for displaying tremendous mobility on the ice. Is also extremely conscious of the defensive zone. Has all-round ability. Can produce good offensive totals, as well. Must prove capable of handling the front of his own net. Gets into trouble when he tries to do too much, so sometimes less is more with him. Needs to learn how to pace himself to thrive with a lot of ice time.
CGYOliver Kylington21$730,833 until 2019-20RFAIs an outstanding skating defenseman, which enables him to move the puck out of danger swiftly and also join the rush with aplomb. Owns both good vision and passing skills. Has great hockey sense and instincts. Doesn’t own ideal size to play at the highest level, so he could stand to become stronger in his upper body (to play a more aggressive brand of defense). At times, he is guilty of trying to do too much with the puck.
VEGNicolas Hague20$822,500 until 2020-21RFAA mammoth physical specimen at 6-6, 215 pounds, he skates very well for a hulking defenseman and can log huge minutes. Owns a heavy point shot and also displays the physicality to perform shutdown duties with aplomb. Needs to become a bit more consistent in all facets of the game in order to maximize ice time and output at the highest level. Can be guilty of being a little too aggressive at times. Is not a natural power-play quarterback.
WPGLogan Stanley20$863,333 until 2020-21RFAIs a huge, towering presence along the blueline. Uses his reach and active stick very effectively in defensive situations. Can also be a physical force. Could stand to add more bulk to his massive frame in order to maximize his physicality at the highest level. Also, he is a limited offensive producer.

After looking at this list, I have a couple of questions for you. Which of the three options mentioned above would you rather see Bergevin do? Not address the need? Stop-gap veteran? Youth for youth? Second question is if you had to pick from that list (or elsewhere in the NHL), who would YOU target if you were Bergevin? Feel free to reply in the comments below or on Twitter. Go Habs Go!