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.

Kesler: When You Bite More Than You Can Chew

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It’s exhibition game night of a tournament that’s made to sell the game around the world, trying to shine lights on the National Hockey League and its products. It’s a marketing opportunity for Gary Bettman‘s league to sell more jerseys, television time, and to ensure that the league is in the news for the right reasons, while garnishing the revenue line. While you have the best players in the world competing for the World Cup of hockey, it’s early, even before training camp and already, you play a high level game… for fun.

Someone should have told that to John Tortorella and to the US team, particularly to Ryan Kesler, as the Americans were playing as if it was game seven of the Winter Olympics, although dirtier, trying to run the Canadians at every opportunity, whether it was clean or not. To further prove this, Tortorella called out Montreal Canadiens’ captain Max Pacioretty whom he felt wasn’t showing enough effort to his liking… after a couple of exhibition games in September!

Team Canada, on the other hand, was slowly getting into game shape, working on building chemistry and perfecting head coach Mike Babcock‘s system. But how quickly things changed! In the first game of a back-t0-back between the two rivals, Kesler was issued a five minutes penalty for drilling Canada’s top defenseman Shea Weber from behind into the boards behind Carey Price‘s net. While Weber saw him coming, he was far from expecting Kesler to finish his check considering the game and the fact that he was showing him his number, while in a rather vulnerable position. You be the judge:

Luckly for him, Kesler found himself in the arms of Jonathan Toews, who came to defend his teammate, as Weber was heading straight for him to teach him a hard learned lesson! That would have been fun to watch, although Kesler wouldn’t have liked it quite as much as we would have…

Rallying point

Seeing how chippy and dirty the first game was, Babcock chose to sit team captain Sidney Crosby for game two and rightfully so. However, it became apparent very quickly that Kesler was not only a target for Team Canada, but he had awoken the beast in them! First, revenge came from a very unlikely source as New York Islanders’ star player John Tavares, not known for his physical play, took out Kesler in the Americans’ corner very early in the game, to set the tone.

Tavares was going in that corner with one purpose, and he knew that number 17 was there, make no mistakes. I’m not so sure that he would have done that had it been anyone else getting that puck but Kesler felt that one and he must have known then that it would be a long game for him.

Later in that same game, the San Jose Sharks were involved in the retaliation as Kesler was racing for the puck with Brent Burns after his shot was blocked. In a close foot race, Kesler played the puck but what he wasn’t expecting was for Joe Thornton, also not known for his physical play, used his 6-foot 4-inches frame and 220 lbs to propel Kesler flying into the boards, not even concerned about playing the puck.

Kesler also felt that one and while Big Joe was issued a minor penalty for his trouble, but no one on the Canadian bench was upset about the penalty, particularly not Weber and Babcock. And imagine… Kesler has yet to hear back from Weber himself, from his 6-foot 4-inches and 236 lbs!

The way Team Canada responded to Kesler’s dirty hit in the first exhibition game, particularly the combination of hits by the two JT (John Tavares and Joe Thornton), two players not known for their physical play, might serve as a turning point for this team, particularly against Tortorella and the Americans.

Remember that it’s the Nashville Predators who, in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last Spring, shocked the hockey world by defeating Kesler’s Anaheim Ducks and knocking them out early on… with Weber being a huge reason for that happening.

Mark your calendars folks as the Canadiens will be facing the Ducks twice this season, the first time being on November 29th, in Anaheim, then again at the Bell Centre on December 20th.