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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The Habs’ Centre of Attention

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November blew by, December has arrived and yet, the Montreal Canadiens continue to surprise experts by standing atop the NHL standings. As sure as there will be snow in Canada this winter, the team will be hard pressed to keep this insane pace until the end of the season as glaring holes are facing them while key players are struggling to get their season going. Nothing, however, has been more evident than the production – or lack of thereof – from the centre position.

Aside from Alex Galchenyuk who is continuing on his extraordinary stretch from last season, the Canadiens pivots are as cold as ice and that’s not helping scoring wingers like captain Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. Pacioretty, whose lowest production in the last five years (aside from the lockout shorten season) was 30 goals, has only found the back of the net five times so far. Gallagher, with only one goal in his last 17 games, scored 24 goals two seasons ago and was on pace for 30 last year prior to missing weeks of activities with broken fingers.

Look no further than the centre position to explain, at least in part, the lack of production from the above-mentioned young veterans. David Desharnais, when on top of his game, did alright with Pacioretty but his play has been dreadful this season. His one goal (4 points) in his last 19 games and his 46.2% on faceoffs has forced head coach Michel Therrien to drastically cut his ice time from 16:00 minutes per game to 12:51 per game and he even found himself watching a game from the press box for one game.

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David Desharnais

With one goal goal (7 points) in 23 games this season, Tomas Plekanec fairs no better, particularly when considering that he occupies $6 million of the team’s cap space. While his defensive play has not suffered, he is getting paid to produce offensively. Plekanec’s faceoffs’ percentage sits at 50.5% which is okay, but not great. With one more year after this one on his contract, one has to wonder what team GM Marc Bergevin thinks of a guy who has managed to score only 10 goals in 99 games since signing his contract extension. And is it acceptable that two months into the season, Paul Byron, Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw have more points than Plekanec?

Torrey Mitchell, the team’s fourth line centre, had a great start to the season but he has not managed a single goal (2 points) in his last 13 games. His faceoffs’ percentage however is more than respectable with a success rate of 53%. But really, how much more do you want from your fourth line centre. He provides speed, defensive responsibility and quality ice time to the team and it wouldn’t be fair to point the finger at him for the scoring woes of the Canadiens’ top scorers.

One guy who surprises however, at least in the faceoffs’ dot, is Shaw, who took 157 draws so far this season and has won 58% of them. Perhaps he will have to take more of them in order to gain possession of the puck.

As a comparative, let’s take the Canadiens’ last opponent for example, the Anaheim Ducks. Their four centres all have an excellent faceoff percentage as Ryan Getzlaf (53.8%), Ryan Kesler (59.8%), Antoine Vermette (66.3%) and Ryan Garbutt (55.6%) gives them the chance to start the play with the puck. When you start with the puck instead of chasing it, it’s only logical to think that you will spend more energy attacking than defending.

Bergevin looking for help

A news (or non-news) that almost went unnoticed is the fact that the GM and his assistants have taken a flight for San Jose well before the rest of the team. As a matter of fact, they were seen at the SAP Center on Friday, November 25th.

What’s unusual about it is that the Canadiens were a week away from playing the Sharks and no, he wasn’t there because of the upcoming game between the two teams. You see, NHL teams don’t send their upper management to scout games in advance just because they’re playing them. General Managers and their assistants go to game to evaluate talent and to discuss in person with other GMs.

Some of my Twitter followers suggested that they wanted to spend some time in California, enjoying the weather ahead of the team’s trip in that state. Does Marc Bergevin come across to you as someone who will take some vacation time during the season? Bergevin is known around the NHL as one of the hardest working individuals in the game. Sometimes, people wonder if he ever stops working.

Some options in the Western Conference

In no particular order, here are some centres who might be of interest to the Canadiens, players who might be made available by their team for different reasons.

  • ARI Martin Hanzal (7 points in 16 GP, 55.6%)
  • COL Matt Duchene (14 points in 17 GP, 58.5%)
  • DAL Jason Spezza (9 points in 17 GP, 55.3%)
  • SJS Joe Thornton (13 points in 24 GP, 57.7%)
  • STL Paul Stastny (13 points in 23 GP, 54.2%)

Potential options in the Eastern Conference

While it seems like teams prefer trading with the other conference, here are some teams and centres who might be of interest for the Habs.

  • CAR Jordan Staal (9 points in 21 GP, 60.1%)
  • NJD Travis Zajac (15 points in 22 GP, 52.5%)
  • PHI Brayden Schenn (14 points in 21 GP, 54.0%)
  • TOR Tyler Bozak (16 points in 23 GP, 56.6%)

Matt Duchene and Brayden Schenn would be my personal targets, but the price would be rather steep, particularly for Duchene. Their age is what draws me to them and while Duchene’s offensive upside is a no brainer, Schenn’s combination of offense and grit is what I like from him. Remember that not all that long ago, there were rumours circulating to the effect that the Canadiens were scouting the Flyers and some suggested that it was for defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. What if it was for Schenn?

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Brayden Schenn

When Bergevin traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, he seemed to want to make his team a contender now rather than later and that in itself makes me think that Big Joe Thornton would be one of his targets. Having said that, he has a No-Move Clause on his contract and has often said that he didn’t want to play in a traditional hockey market. Would he wave for a chance for a Stanley Cup to play alongside his two teammates on Team Canada, Shea Weber and Carey Price? It’s a stretch I know, but is it remotely possible that Bergevin is in San Jose in an attempt to convince Big Joe to wave his NMC to come to Montreal? It’s worth the try.

Jason Spezza is having a very difficult season by his own standards but there is no denying his talent. His 6-foot 3-inches frame would add some much needed size up the middle and he is a right handed shot, which could benefit a left winger like Pacioretty.

Galchenyuk’s ice time

Many Habs’ fans wonder why Tomas Plekanec has more ice time than Alex Galchenyuk. Aside from the fact that Plekanec kills penalty, something that Galchenyuk doesn’t do, the answer is rather simple. Sitting at a mediocre 39% in the faceoffs circle, coach Therrien is reluctant in sending his number one centre to take defensive zone faceoffs and because of Plekanec’s defensive reliability, he is often the one taking those draws.

The day that Galchenyuk improves in the faceoffs dot, he will see a lot more ice time.