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!

Claude Julien On A Short Leash?

General Managers manage, players play and coaches… well, they’re supposed to coach. Marc Bergevin the GM went and robbed the Arizona Coyotes by acquiring Max Domi and giving away a player that lasted one season in the desert. Domi delivered by finishing his first season at the top of his new team’s list in scoring, with a breakthrough season which saw him get 72 points while making the difficult transition from winger to centre at the NHL level. Claude Julien took a while to understand but finally, he’s starting to coach.

You see, up until the last two games, the team’s best offensive player had been spending the vast majority of his time with Artturi Lehkonen and Jordan Weal on his wing. It’s not the first time that we question some of Julien’s decisions as we did it last year, but this one took the cake. Name me one other coach in his right mind who would play his best offensive player with third and fourth liners? Alexander Ovechkin has Nicklas Backstrom, not Lars Eller as his centreman. Patrice Bergeron has Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak on his wings. And the list goes on.

In the meantime, the Canadiens’ most consistent player and the biggest offensive threat to his opponents, Jonathan Drouin, was proving doubters wrong as he was carrying a struggling Jesperi Kotkaniemi and helped Joel Armia to his best start of a season in his career. It took nine games for Julien to realise that maybe, giving offensive wingers to Domi would take a load off the Tatar, Danault and Gallagher line. In my opinion, that’s way too long to react and reward your top-end players for their hard work.

Yet in spite of that, Domi finds himself tied for the team’s lead in points with 10 in 11 games. But he was finally rewarded by getting Drouin and Armia on his wing and this line is as predicted: a secondary threat to the opposition. So if we can see it as fans, what took so long for the coaching staff to detect it as well?

Julien on a short leash?

Let’s get one thing clear here: Claude Julien is a good coach. All we have to do is to look at his winning record in the NHL and his Stanley Cup ring as an undeniable proof. However, look at what the Boston Bruins did since they fired him and went with a younger and more progressive coach. In Montreal, Julien adapted for half a season last year before reverting to his old conservative self, rewarding bottom-six type players. This season, he’s back to his old tactics again and it’s costing the Canadiens some crucial points.

Domi and Drouin finally reunited

As crazy as this may sound, there’s a reason why Bergevin went out and hired the top two French Canadian coaches available two summers ago. Dominique Ducharme is helping bring a wind of fresh air in Montreal as a new assistant-coach. He’s learning on the fly under Julien and it seems like he’s not too far from taking over from the dinosaur mentality.

In Laval, Joel Bouchard is doing an outstanding job at developing young talent, something that wasn’t done under Sylvain Lefebvre. He too has a different approach, one based on open communication with his players, a style and a coach which Rocket’s players are raving about.

I strongly believe that teams will come knocking on the Canadiens’ door for one, or perhaps even both Ducharme and Bouchard in the next few months. And when that time comes, it won’t be worth risking losing one, or even both young hockey minds to keep the old guy at the helm.

Many fans, most of whom still hold a grudge against the GM for the Subban trade, think that Bergevin’s job is on the line. It is my humble opinion that they are barking up the wrong tree and that it’s Julien who is on his last days, weeks, months as the Habs’ headcoach, particularly if the team misses the playoffs. And once this team is under a different leader behind the bench, watch this team take off!

In the meantime though, let’s enjoy seeing the young guys develop into future young stars. Don’t forget that Domi and Drouin are only 24 and the likes of Nick Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, Cole Caufield, Cale Fleury, Josh Brook, Jake Evans, Alexander Romanov, Victor Mete, Jesse Ylönen, Cayden Primeau and company will be joining them in driving this bus to bigger and better things. The future is bright folks… but it may take a younger leader behind the bench to bring the team to the next level. Go Habs Go!