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!

Advertisements

To Grit or Not To Grit

ToGrit

The meaning of the “to be or not to be” speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been given numerous interpretations, each of which are based. The purpose of it does, in general, question the righteousness of life over death in moral terms, a non-quantifying element of life itself.

Much (even too much) has been said about NHL analytics, and extremists have taken stats to a whole new level in trying to make people believe that if it cannot be measured, then it must be a non-factor of at least, not one worthy of taking into consideration. Yet, those involved in the game will tell you that this self-preserving excuse is as far away from the truth as it gets. Intimidation, a hit, a blocked shot, a fight… all have the potential of changing the momentum of a game and either lift, or deflate a team during a hockey game, even tipping the balance in a playoffs’ series.

Had Shakespeare been a hockey fan, or a Habs’ fan, he might chose “to grit or not to grit”, that it the question. Grit has been given multitude of meanings and definitions and the purpose is geared towards toughness or fortitude also in moral terms and also a non-quantifying element of the game itself.

NilanHit
Chris Nilan is the definition of “Grit”

For years, the Canadiens shied away from the rough stuff. I remember listening to Guy Carbonneau when he was coaching the Canadiens – who, ironically, spent most of his career in Montreal with none other than Chris Nilan on his wing – tell reporters that they didn’t need toughness. He stated that all they had to do was to capitalise on their power-play opportunities. While it may sound great in theory, it’s far from being a practical and realistic approach to the problem. After all, is there one NHL team not trying to have a better power-play? I’m guessing that recognizing and saying that it needs to improve or simply trying harder doesn’t mean better results?

Since Marc Bergevin took over as the Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager, he understood the need to protect his best players, allowing them to do their thing without the fear of being abused by opponents. His first move was to sign then UFA Brandon Prust to a four-year contract. Later, he went out and added the likes of Parros, Weise, Allen, Kassian, Shaw, Weber, Martinsen, King, Ott, Farnham, Deslauriers. Not all were success stories in Montreal, but the fact remains that Bergevin’s goal was none the less clear, by providing some sandpaper to a line-up in dire need of it.

I can already hear some who are chumping at the bit to tell me that skills wins game, that you can’t replace talent by grit. This is the extremists’ way of thinking. No, you don’t need to “replace” talent by grit. You need to “surround” your talent with grit. And in today’s NHL, which is now stuck with the worst rule in hockey, the instigator rule, grit doesn’t stop at fighting. You see, Bergevin is too often being ridiculed with his choice of words when putting the emphasis on “character” and “attitude” but guess what? He’s referring to grit!

Grit is blocking a shot, taking a hit to make a play, arriving first to the corner to get the puck, planting yourself in front of the net knowing that Shea Weber is shooting. Grit is defending your teammate, regardless of the size of the opponent. Grit is also doing everything to win games. No, grit is NOT penalties. Grit is being the instigator and not the retaliator.

Grittiest Canadiens

But just who does Claude Julien have available, which players will go to war for him, for his team? Here are just a few, just to highlight the work, sometimes the beating, some of those players are taking. Oh there are more, particularly amongst the younger prospects.

Who is the first one to come to mind? You guess it: Brendan Gallagher. Smallish, but one of the toughest – pound for pound – in the business. When asked who was the most difficult player was to play against, former Senators Marc Methot picked Gallagher “because he’s relentless”.

Bergevin acquired a guy who will soon become a fan favourite in Max Domi, another guy who wears the heart on his sleeve, a relentless worker. The guy doesn’t take a shift off, he can pass, he can score, he goes to the net, he will defend teammates and will drop the mitts if or when needed. Montreal fans – and most hockey fans – love that type of players.

Andrew Shaw is getting a bad rep by a group of “fans” unfortunately, but his usefulness has been severely affected by his style of play. A bit like Prust, Shaw is going up against the bigger guys. The guy has no fear and will also do whatever it takes to win, and as proven with the Blackhawks, he is a big game player. They don’t come much grittier than this guy. Here’s hoping that he’s back healthy. The Habs will greatly benefit.

Bergevin acquired Nicolas Deslauriers in hope that he could bring exactly what he has provided and the Lasalle native seems to be giving a little extra playing for his home team. In addition to the grit he brings, he has been a surprise offensively as he has shown that he can contribute in that aspect of the game as well.

It really is too bad that the fans didn’t get to see the real Shea Weber quite yet, as it seems like when he’s been in the line-up, he’s been battling injuries which, ultimately, ended up sidelining him. Yet even hurt, he’s producing like the top defensemen in this league still. Voted by his peers as the most difficult defenseman to play against, he can hurt you in many ways and you’ll find more grit in his fingernail than most have in their entire body.

Screen Shot 2018-09-06 at 7.30.04 PM
Jeremiah Addison could be a surprise at camp

Here’s an oddball for you folks as I picked Jeremiah Addison. Unfortunately, he also got hurt last season and Laval missed him greatly. This guy is a warrior and he will do whatever it takes to help his team win games. I pick him as a surprise player to steal a spot in Montreal this season. Call it a gut feeling.

Habs fans will remember Steve Begin but in Michael Chaput, they have a similar player. He will give and take hits, he will grind it out and he has surprisingly good hand. Eating home cooking and playing under Rockets’ coach Joël Bouchard could see Chaput earn a call-up if he doesn’t make the team at camp.

Okay, I admit, I like Brett Lernout. Physically dominant, he is most effective when he keeps his game simple. Many don’t see him making the big club but I feel like it will be between him and Juulsen. All will depend on which one has a better training camp. Either way, Lernout will bring tons of grit.

Now a second year pro, Noah Juulsen was giving a shot at the end of last year and he didn’t disappoint. His favourite player is Kevin Bieksa and he plays just like him. He will get the puck and if his opponent has it, they better keep their head up as Juulsen will hurt you.

We know that Mike McCarron is a tough cookie. He would be more physical if he was a better skater but he is quite gritty, as he’s shown it already at the NHL level. Both he and the Canadiens are hoping that he’s done enough this summer to improve to the point of earning a spot with the big club.

An honorable mention goes to Ti-Paul Byron, who will also do everything in his limited power to help his team win. See, grit isn’t just about fighting. Grit, character, attitude (hating to lose), all play into making a team hard to play against. If you combine and mix that with some skills like Jonathan Drouin‘s, it’s a recipe for success. Remains to see if the youngsters are ready to help the veterans in that aspect. Go Habs Go!