Still Many Reasons for Optimism for The Habs

BellCentre

The biggest mistake fans and media personalities make every year is to rely too much on the past season’s performances for their assessment of what the upcoming season will bring. While some veteran players can, for the most part, be counted on year in, year out, there are many factors to take into consideration and whether it’s done on purpose or not, too many are being overlooked. Injuries, team chemistry and development are some of the main factors regularly overlooked by most, and are key reasons for disappointing or over-achieving seasons by some players or even some teams.

Much has been said and written about the Montreal Canadiens’ off-season and most hockey “experts” and “not-so-experts” seem to place the Habs at the bottom of the league once again. This negativity is justified by the fact that team GM Marc Bergevin, in spite of address this need through the draft, has failed, once again, to find an immediate solution for his team at the centre position. An aging Tomas Plekanec – who will get to play his 1,000 NHL game in the Habs’ uniform – will bring some much needed depth at that position but he is no longer a top-6 player. It seems like the team will have to rely, once again, on Jonathan Drouin and Phillip Danault to pivot the top-two lines.

The forgotten – or ignored – intangibles are certainly present however. While loaded with skills, the inconsistency and lack of effort by departing troubled-child Alex Galchenyuk has been replaced with a true team-first player in Max Domi, who will bring a Brendan Gallagher-like type of effort, with more skills.

Pundits will also ignore that usually productive goals’ scorer and team captain Max Pacioretty had his worst season since 2010-11 and it’s very unlikely that, at 29, he will continue on such a slump. It’s also very, very unlikely that the NHL will see Carey Price, its best goaltender, allowing over three goals per game and barely reaching the not-so respectable level of .900 saves percentage. Those two alone will account to more wins for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge for sure and that, in spite of missing a couple of key pieces in their line-up to start the season.

Screen Shot 2018-07-28 at 8.00.59 AM
Carey Price / Max Pacioretty

Last but not least, people tend to forget that young players often do improve from season to season, something a bit mind-boggling to tell you the truth. Here are some of the team’s young players who, with the exception of Pacioretty and Price, should improve over last season based only on the fact that they have gained on maturity and, hopefully, in their development…

MAX DOMI

Much has been said about his goals’ scoring (or lack of there of) by those who were opposed the trade of Galchenyuk but let’s be realistic here: Domi is a great talent. He’s a more talented Gallagher and he has produced at every level. At 23, he’s only a couple of seasons removed from an 18-goals and 52 points rookie season. And you know that this guy will be pulling in the same direction as the rest of the team. My prediction is that he will rapidly become a fan-favourite in Montreal.

JONATHAN DROUIN

Yes, the transition to centre came with bumps and bruises for him, to the point of being unfairly judged as a flop by some of the fanbase, particularly those who hate Bergevin’s guts. But Drouin finished strong, with 20 points in his last 29 games, including a stretch of 13 points in his last 14 games of the season. Would it had been preferable to move him back to the wing? It’s my opinion that yes, Drouin would benefit from playing at his natural position but he has shown that he can improve over last season’s production even if utilized at the centre position.

ARTTURI LEHKONEN

After an 18-goals rookie season, the notorious sophomore jinx appeared to have hit Lehkonen last year, until he too caught fire towards the end of the season. He scored seven of his 12 goals in his last 15 games of the season so everything points into the direction of the 23 year-old bouncing back for the upcoming season.

CHARLES HUDON

One word would, in my opinion, describe Hudon: streaky. Still, in his rookie season, he finished with 10 goals and 30 points, showing good offensive attributes. As he gains in maturity, experience and confidence, he is one of my favourite candidates amongst young players to have a breakthrough season. He has the hands and the nose to the net to make it happen. He reminds me a bit of a former Habs, Christopher Higgins, in his style of play.

JACOB DE LA ROSE

Screen Shot 2018-07-28 at 7.32.21 AM
Jacob De la Rose (right)

We often forget that De la Rose is only 23 years old! Yet at the World Championships in the Spring, he played a key role for Gold medalists Sweden. De la Rose, who was playing in his first-ever tournament as a member of the Swedish senior side, logged 16:32 of ice time in the Gold medal game. That could very well have given him the boost of confidence he needed to take the next step in his NHL career for next season.

MIKE REILLY

Okay, I have a soft spot for Mike, having seen him play for the Penticton Vees in the BCHL. He was, in my opinion, the best defenseman to wear that uniform since none other than Duncan Keith (who was 16 at the time though). I liked that acquisition by the Canadiens from day one and the potential is immense with this guy. I do feel like he can become a good top-4 defenseman in this league and he’s ready to take the next step… given the opportunity.

NIKITA SCHERBAK

This kid impressed from the day he spoke to the media at the draft after the Canadiens made him their first pick. He is excitable and he loves playing hockey. He did suffer a couple of setbacks, injury-wise, but he has the speed, the size and the skills to make an offensive impact in the NHL. I would be very surprised if Scherbak didn’t make the team and, by the same token, provide some much needed offense to a team in desperate need of just that.

JOEL ARMIA

Few know this guy and several downplayed his acquisition. Those people looked at the stats, forgetting that he was playing the wing behind Blake Wheeler and… Patrik Laine! Selected 16th overall by the Buffalo Sabres, Arnia still managed 12 goals and 29 points from his 6’3″ frame. I would not be shocked one second if Armia was the surprise of the year for the Habs.

You will have noticed that I’m purposely leaving out young defensemen Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen and Brent Lernout, all of which could provide a push and force Bergevin to unload some veterans in order to make room for them. Get excited Habs’ fans. Don’t let the Negative-Nancy on the Twitter-universe, radio sports show or garbage newspaper reporters get to you. There are many, many positive news to get anxious about for the upcoming season and we – those who cheer for the logo in front of the jersey – can sign along with the great Anakin Slayd!

Habs Centres: Not a Oversight

BellCentre

If you have been around the NHL for some time, if you have followed trends, you will have noticed that the last team to win the Stanley Cup becomes the “norm” to build a winning franchise. Back when the Canadiens won their last two Stanley Cups, it was believed that you needed to have excellent goaltending if you wanted to hope to win the Holy Grail of hockey excellence. In the Red Wings’ run, it wasn’t as important as having a true number one defenseman ala Nicklas Lidstrom, or the Blackhawks with Duncan Keith. Now with the Penguins lifting Lord Stanley, you need quality centremen. The truth sits somewhere in between: you need a good team, filled with players willing to do what it takes to win and that, no matter what position they play at. 

As many feel like the centre position is pivotal (pun intended) in order to win as it stands today, November 2nd, 2017, let’s see what the Canadiens have done in order to try to draft players at that position. Understanding that drafting 17-18 year-olds in the top rounds doesn’t guarantee success, let’s see if the franchise has attempted, or not, to address the need that many are planting on Habs’ GM Marc Bergevin.

Since 2009, the Canadiens have drafted a total of nine (9) centremen in the top 3 rounds, and have tried converting one more, Michael McCarron, from the wing to centre. In a year when they lacked second and third round pick (2010), they took a flyer on centre Mark MacMillan in the fourth round. Results? Obviously not great as the team is still trying to fill that void. Does that mean that they haven’t tried? Allow me to doubt it.

Centre of attention

In 2009, the Habs selected Louis Leblanc (remember the fans chanting his name at the Bell Centre?) 18th overall. What could go wrong? A local, young future star pivoting the Canadiens’ top line? Need I say more? That year, the Habs had no second round picks and they selected Joonas Nattinen in the third round, 65th overall. That one unfortunately didn’t pan out either.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Minnesota Wild
Louis Leblanc was picked 18th overall in 2009

2010 was tough on Trevor Timmins as the team’s head draft man had no second or third round picks to play with. Still, he took a chance on selecting a centre, Mark MacMillan, with the 113th overall pick. Mark unfortunately moved on this year but as a fourth round pick, he was a long shot, let’s admit it.

After a dismal season seeing the team lose Carey Price for the season, the 2012 saw the Canadiens have the third overall pick and with it, they drafted a player whom they thought would be the team’s number one centre for years to come. Alex Galchenyuk has shown flashed of greatness, but much more disappointment than anything and he’s been reverted back to the wing by a second coach now. We know the rest of the story.

In 2013, the team drafted Michael McCarron (25th), Jacob De la Rose (34th) and Connor Crisp (71th). The last two were potential centres, and they are still attempting to see if McCarron can become a good centre, although it seems like he won’t be a top-six player at that position. We cannot say that the team hasn’t tried to fix this whole at centre, at least not that draft year!

2015 was another year with which Timmins had no second round picks so he selected Lukas Vejdemo (87th) in the third round that year. Time will tell if this was or not a good selection but when drafting that late, it takes time for those players to develop to the point of having an impact at the NHL level.

Timmins selected William Bitten in the third round of 2016, having no second round picks once again. Bitten is showing some very good things at the CHL level, which should leave the fan base hopeful.

We all know what the 2017 draft brought the Canadiens as both Ryan Poehling (25th) and Joni Ikonen (58th) drew much attention on the international stage this past summer. Those two could very well become, in due time, a very good one-two punch down the middle for a team in much need of such depth.

Conclusion

As we can see, we can argue all we want about Trevor Timmins’ effectiveness at drafting, but there is no denying that the lack of depth at the centre position was NOT a oversight by the team or its management team. Sometimes, teams need to catch a break with players coming out of nowhere, or players developing and turning into what scouts saw in them in junior. Here’s hoping that the drought is coming to an end… until a new trend comes along with the next Stanley Cup winners. Go Habs Go!