Top Cheese: November 2019 Edition

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as the team is in the midst of a five game losing streak and barely hanging onto a playoffs’ spot in the Eastern Conference. They have scouts across the league, including the GM, and the pressure is mounting to stop the slide before it’s too late. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Just when fans didn’t think that it could get worse than surrendering a 4-0 lead to the New York Rangers only to lose that game 6-5, the Canadiens put up a stinker the following game, getting varlopped 8-1 by their arch rivals, the Boston Bruins, a team they had beaten already earlier this month. It didn’t take more to see the anti-Bergevin crowd come out of their mole hole to call for his head but that’s to be expected. They’ll go in hiding when the team does well and will call for his firing as soon as something happens. That’s a behaviour that will never change coming from that group of people. However, while we can dismiss the anti-Bergevin loud minority, many fans are calling from everyone’s head, from Marc Bergevin to Claude Julien, to Kirk Muller and Luke Richardson. That’s not counting the multiple players that should be traded, in their opinion. But hey, what do you expect? It wouldn’t be Montreal without the drama, right?

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If we turn back to clock to November 16th, the Canadiens had just dominated one of the NHL’s top teams, one of the hottest teams in the league in the Washington Capitals. The Habs were comfortably sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, three points behind the Bruins. But news came out that two quality players, Jonathan Drouin (wrist) and Paul Byron (knee), would require surgery and would miss a couple of months of action. Then, the wheels fell off the wagon in Montreal. Without those two in the lineup, the team has lost five in a row (0-3-2) and is barely hanging onto the final Wild Card spot, with teams right behind them looking at taking over as early as tonight. Worse than the losing is the way they’re losing.

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While Byron (19GP: 1G-3A-4Pts) wasn’t having the greatest start of this season, the same cannot be said about Drouin (19GP: 7G-8A-15Pts), who was amongst the team leaders in scoring and was finally showing signs of hustle game in, game out and that, at both ends of the ice. While many understood the importance of those two players, no one would have predicted such a drop in the team’s play and ultimately, confidence, resulting in those five consecutive losses.

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During that stretch, the Canadiens’ goaltending performances have been sub-par, like many other aspects of the team’s game. Since November 16th, neither Carey Price or Keith Kinkaid have been able to win a game on their own, steal a game in order to help get out of this embarrassing slump. It doesn’t matter on which team in the NHL, you are not going to win games with stats like this:

GPGSWLOTGASv%GAATOI
Carey Price4403118.8115.42199:25
Keith Kinkaid210017.8754.20100:07
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One would have to be out of their mind to think that this team doesn’t needs help. As we have touched on recently on this blog, Bergevin has a very good track record as the Habs’ GM but his biggest downfall is his inability or unwillingness to address needs in-season, on the fly, when the situation occurs, to prevent his team from sliding too far down in the standings. We have regularly heard him say that the goal is to make the playoffs as when you’re in, we never know what can happen. But in order to get there, the team needs their GM to reward his players and coaches by providing them with the necessary help when the going gets tough, like when going through injuries to key players as they are right now. It’s sad to say but eventually, the reverse will also true: don’t do anything and you run the risk of the players folding… as they feel their GM did.

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While I personally feel like he has made some very questionable decisions in the last calendar year or so and that he could very well be on a shorter leash, rest assured folks that Claude Julien’s status with the team is secure… for now. The team was doing well prior to the above-mentioned injuries.

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Bergevin had a long-term vision when he hired Dominique Ducharme as one of Julien’s assistants and Joël Bouchard as head coach in Laval. He was preparing the franchise by having not one, but two very respected individuals as potential successors to Julien if or when needs be. While that time hasn’t come quite yet, this is a good thing. Ideally, Bergevin would like to buy both of those guys more time to gain experience at the professional level but if push comes to shove, he won’t have to go look outside the organisation to find a quality replacement. My feeling is that the day Julien is removed as head coach, Bergevin will have a spot for him in management within the organisation.

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Back in the summer of 2017, team President Geoff Molson made a decision: it is Marc Bergevin who will be the GM to turn the franchise around by going through a youth movement. Ever since, Bergy has acquired quality young players and with the help of Trevor Timmins and Shayne Churla, he has replenished the cupboards with high quality prospects. Molson will not fire Bergevin. This would be punishing him for being ahead of schedule in his re-tooling, re-construction, re-building or whatever you want to call it. Aside from Price and Weber, the core of this group is young and we are starting to see the team’s top prospects starting to contribute. Further, there are more coming folks. Bergevin just needs to keep the team afloat for another season or two and that’s why he must help his people through trade this season. Playoffs’ experience is invaluable for those young guys.

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Bergevin has been spending a lot of time scouting the Chicago Blackhawks and their farm team lately. He has also had scouts following the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, amongst others. Some people are wondering why he’s not also scouting the Philadelphia Flyers for Shayne Gostisbehere… that’s because the Ghost has been a healthy scratch for the last few games. Scout him for what? See how many hot dogs he can eat in the pressbox? Scouting is great Marc but now is the time to put your money where your mouth is. If your goal is to make the playoffs, it’s time to help your team. With a prospect pool as full as it is and with 12 picks at the next draft, if you don’t trade now, you never will… in-season that is.

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A year ago, the Canadiens went through the exact same slump at the same time of the year. Folks will remember that things got better when Shea Weber came back into the lineup and helped stabilize the team’s play, particularly the play of teammate and friend Carey Price. There is no Weber waiting to come back this season however, and Drouin and Byron are weeks away from returning to the lineup. And that’s why Bergevin MUST move and bring in help if he truly wants them to make the playoffs.

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Speaking of Weber, Man Mountain is having a career season. At the time of writing this, the Canadiens’ captain is seventh in the entire NHL in scoring amongst defensemen with 8 goals and 19 points in 24 games, on pace for 27 goals and 65 points. And he’s doing it by facing the opposition’s top lines game in, game out, playing on both the powerplay and on the penalty kill. Weber’s best season was in 2013-14 when he tallied 56 points with the Nashville Predators. Not bad for an aging, over the hill defenseman, right?

The Canadiens are scheduled to play 3 games in 4 nights this week. They are hosting the New Jersey Devils on Thursday (7:30PM ET) and the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday (3:00PM ET) before flying to Boston to face the Bruins on Sunday night (7:00PM ET). No need to say how important those games will be and coming out of it with a minimum of four points is crucial. Will they have the same lineup or will Bergevin inject some new blood in time for those games? That is the question. Go Habs Go!

Kotkaniemi: Sophomore Jinx or…

How many times, not only in hockey but in professional sports, have we seen athletes having a good first season, only to take a step back in the second season? A sophomore jinx, sometimes referred to as sophomore slump or sophomore jitters, refers to an instance in which a second, or sophomore, effort fails to live up to the relatively high standards of the first effort. In terms of sports, it often speaks of an athlete’s second season. While it’s hard to put the finger on the exact cause of such change in performance, the phenomenon can be explained either psychologically, or by competing athletes or teams adjusting to ones’ success. It is then to the athlete to find a way, through hard work and perseverance, to take the next step by making the necessary adjustments.

In the NHL, there are numerous examples of players who have gone through the sophomore slump. Some have risen above it in their third or fourth season, others have crumbled under the pressure, unable to ever repeat what they set to become in their first year. When talking about high draft picks however, the tendency is for players to find a way out of that said slump by year three or four.

Here are a few names of NHL top-4 draft picks who have gone through the sophomore jinx, or have gone through a slower progression:

  • Eric Staal (#2 overall) scored 11 goals in his rookie season, only to spend his entire second season in the American Hockey League (AHL).
  • Bobby Ryan (#2 overall) had to suffer through four seasons in the AHL before making it to the NHL.
  • Kyle Turris (#3 overall) scored 8 goals in his rookie season, then had to spend the next two seasons in the AHL.
  • Ryan Johansen (#4 overall) had seasons of nine and 5 goals before turning the corner.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau (#3 overall) scored 14 goals in his rookie season, nine in his second season and 15 in his third season before taking the next step.
  • Jonathan Drouin split his first two seasons between the NHL and the AHL. That’s 70 games at the NHL level in his rookie season, down to 21 in his second (amid being in his NHL coach’s doghouse).

Granted some of those are not, by true definition, sophomore slumps but stick with me for a bit, you will see where I’m getting to.

Kotkaniemi

The Montreal Canadiens and their fans don’t have to look far to find an example of a player having more trouble in his second season. Young Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi is struggling out of the gates this season, following a promising first season in the NHL. Some people see this as alarming, others feel like it’s part of the progression for a young player in his second year at this level. The fact is that nobody knows and all will find out in a year or two… but are we patient enough to wait before holding judgment? Asking the question, particularly in Montreal, is to answer it. Patience and Habs’ fans (media too) simply don’t go hand in hand.

The kid they nickname KK was the first player born in the 2000’s to play in the NHL. Last year, he was the youngest player in the league. Yet, he still managed 11 goals and 34 points in his rookie season and that, in spite of his play fading towards the end, opening his eyes on just how long and grueling a NHL season truly is. His selection at third overall surprised many but the young man seduced the fanbase with a smile that never ends, an exemplary attitude, some promising play and charisma few players have.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki

At training camp this fall, Kotkaniemi had put on 16 pounds of muscle, something much needed as he spent a lot of time on his knees last year, being constantly pushed around by much heavier players. But straight from camp, we could see that something was off. He wasn’t skating as well and his decision making wasn’t on par to what we had seen last year. He and teammate Jonathan Drouin were taking some heat for their lackluster pre-season games and while young veteran Drouin found his game when regular season started, KK seemed to keep skating in quicksand… until he was placed on the injury list with a slight pulled groin.

The time off, or his delayed return, got a lot of people talking around Montreal. Were the Habs hiding something? Were they holding him back from making a return? Let’s just say that the conspiracy theorists were out in high numbers, questioning the so-called lack of transparency of the organisation. But hey, we’re used to that, right? Listenership, viewership and readership sells and there’s a group of fans who seems feed on that kind of stuff.

KK ended up missing seven games before returning to the line-up on November 16th against the New Jersey Devils, a game in which he only played nine minutes. In his second game back against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he logged 14:17 minutes and has nothing to show for offensively in those two games. In fact, Kotkaniemi only has three points (2 goals, 1 assist) in 14 games this season. His time on the ice per game has dropped from 13:44 minutes last season to 12:50 minutes, while his power-play time has gone from 1:56 minutes per game last season down to 1:08 so far this season.

The process

Some fans and members of the media are extremely hard on KK and while they are not wrong in pointing that his play is not where it was last year, they tend to forget that he’s only 19 years old and that developing a player is not a race. Those complaining are often the same ones who complained that the Habs “ruined” Alex Galchenyuk in his development. The truth is that the Canadiens are taking a progressive approach with the young man, adapting to his progression (or seemingly slight regression in this case). The Canadiens simply cannot miss the boat with this pick and they know it. In spite of what sensationalists will try to make you believe, Claude Julien, Dominique Ducharme and Kirk Muller are working WITH Kotkaniemi and not AGAINST him.

Also, KK is benefiting immensely from the outstanding leadership of team captain Shea Weber, Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry, Nathan Thompson, Paul Byron and company. These guys have been there and are taking the young players under their wings, Kotkaniemi included. Furthermore, the young man has the luxury of having quality players ahead of him in the lineup, which should, in theory, alleviate unnecessary pressure. But I we can be convinced of one thing: if there is any pressure placed on him, it’s not coming from within the organisation. It’s coming from blood-thirsty media members and fans who don’t know any better, or from those who so desperately want Marc Bergevin to plant himself, that they will want KK to fail in order to be proven right.

Dominique Ducharme teaches Kotkaniemi

There is no doubt that part of the pressure from fans and media is coming from the surprising play of rookie Nick Suzuki, drawing unavoidable comparisons between the two. What people do seem to forget however, is that Nick is a year older. As good as he might be now, we cannot forget that at 19, Suzuki was playing junior hockey. At 18, he was also playing junior hockey. Kotkaniemi was in the NHL. So the true question is: where will KK be in a year from now, and not so much where is he now.

In my humble opinion, from the outside looking in, Kotkaniemi is just fine. He is going through that sophomore jinx but he is in good hands. As you are well aware, I have been critical at times of Claude Julien’s decisions but I am entirely confident and supportive of the way he’s handling his young centre. He’s sheltering him more than ever. We have already debunked the myth that Julien is not good with young players, and he’s doing with KK what he’s done with other young players he’s coached before.

Some fans would like him to get on the power-play and be given a chance on the top-2 lines in hope that he finds his mojo back. It is my opinion that it would be too high of a risk and detrimental to his confidence and development to do so while he’s looking to find his game. Let’s not forget that while Julien’s job includes developing players, his main duty is to win games and put players in positions to help him do just that. KK is still a teenager playing against the best men in the world. He is filling in, growing both physically and emotionally. He is learning. He has a great attitude. He will be good, likely very good. Give him time folks and trust the process. Go Habs Go!