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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NHL Playoffs Format

NHLplayoffs

A few days off NHL hockey for us, fans, as we await the Stanley Cup finals, provides us with plenty of time to think. You see, many NHL fans are very much like team executives and players in the sense that until the final buzzer has sounded and the Commissioner has been booed to death when presenting the Stanley Cup, hockey is on our mind. For some, it’s a 12 months endeavour. With all of that said, what better time to look at what’s wrong with the current playoffs’ format, right?

With the current format, where the first round of the playoffs is played within the division, the NHL is losing teams who have seeded very well during the regular season every year at the expanse of other teams who have not faired quite as well. So really, aside for allowing the team owners to pocket their dollars and perhaps home ice advantage, what is the incentive for ranking higher in the standings? As Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin always says:

“The goal is always to make the playoffs. Once you’re in, anything can happen.” ~ Marc Bergevin

While some pundits don’t like it as it appears to them as aiming too low (which really isn’t the case), history is proving Bergevin right. It’s often not the best team in the NHL who wins the Stanley Cup, but the hottest team going in, with a bit of luck here and there, and being able to stay relatively healthy. Here’s a look at the teams who have qualified for the playoffs this season, and the matchups:

2018 current

Now let’s have a closer look at the number of points gathered in regular season, as well as in brackets, their league-wide rankings:

WESTERN CONFERENCE 2018

Nashville 117 (1) vs Colorado 95 (16)

This one makes sense.

Winnipeg 114 (2) vs Minnesota 101 (15)

This one also makes sense. So far so good, right?

Las Vegas 109 (5) vs Los Angeles 98 (12)

This is where it starts getting messed up, but since we’re staying within Conferences, it’s also right as LA had fewer points than both the Ducks and the Sharks.

Anaheim 101 (9) vs San Jose 100 (11)

See above comment for the Vegas vs LA series. The NHL  will never revert back to league-wide ranking and get rid of Conferences.

EASTERN CONFERENCE 2018

Tampa Bay 113 (3) vs New Jersey 97 (15)

That’s actually spot on when looking at league rankings.

Boston 112 (4) vs Toronto 105 (7)

That’s the most messed up. Both teams got the short end of the stick here.

Washington 105 (6) vs Columbus 97 (14)

The Caps got a slightly good deal in that one.

Pittsburgh 100 (10) vs Philadelphia 98 (13)

Not only should the Pens have faced the Leafs, but Toronto would have had home ice advantage! Philly got an easier matchup as they should have faced Ovy and the Caps.

But is this just a one-time phenomenon, right? No, it’s not. In the 2017 playoffs, instead of facing off with the 7th seed in the West (Calgary), the 2nd seed Minnesota Wild lost in the first round to the St. Louis Blues, ranked 5th in the Conference. The Montreal Canadiens, who had won their division, had to face the New York Rangers, a team who finished one single point behind them, and lost. The Pittsburgh Penguins finished with 111 points (2nd seed) and had to face Columbus (3rd seed) who finished only 3 points behind them, while 6th seed Boston played 7th seed Ottawa.

In 2016, the Washington Capitals won the East and should have technically played the 8th seed (Detroit). Instead, they played the 7th seed (Philadelphia). Instead, it’s Tampa Bay (6th seed) who played the Red Wings! Meanwhile, the Penguins (2nd) had to play the Rangers (4th) in the first round. In the Western Conference, the NHL was guaranteed to lose their 2nd (St. Louis) or 3rd (Chicago) seed in the first round as those two faced off against each other! How messed up is that?

FIRST ROUND IMPROVEMENT

As mentioned, there is no way that the Board of Governors and the NHLPA would ever vote to revert back to a league-wide standings to determine first round playoffs’ seeding, where the President’s Trophy winners would be facing the team finishing 16th overall regardless of conference. Too much travel, too costly and a definite advantage for teams happening to face a closer geographical rival.

As the very first step to improve the playoffs, considering that the NHL now has 31 (soon to be 32) teams, the league should revert back to the four divisions instead of six. This means that next season, you would have three divisions of 8 teams and one division with seven teams. That seven team division would be formed with keeping in mind the soon to come expansion of Seattle in the North West.

Then for playoffs, if the league went at the very least with Conference standings, keeping with the Wild Cards, three of the four 2018 playoffs’ matchups would have been different this season. The goal would be to avoid top teams being eliminated in the first round, while still giving Division winners an advantage. Here, have a look:

EasternCO

WesternCO

SECOND ROUND IMPROVEMENT

So far so good, right? I’m not quite done yet. In the current format, you could never see a Stanley Cup finals between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Edmonton Oilers facing their arch rivals Calgary Flames in the finals. Same goes in the states, as how entertaining would it be to see the Chicago Blackhawks fighting their neighbouring state rivals St. Louis Blues in the finals? Or even better, any of you old enough to remember the hype in Major League Baseball for the 1989 World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants? Imagine now the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, within a 40 minute commute between them.

What? It wouldn’t draw enough interest nationwide, you say? And having an expansion team facing the Capitals in the finals is drawing interest outside of Las Vegas and Washington, aside for some curiosity for the Golden Knights? Think again.

But how do we achieve this, will you say? By simply adopting a system that already exists at the international level. There is no need to re-invent the wheel here. Just apply the IIHF format, with a crossover between Conferences, where the highest seed coming out of the first round in the East would face the 4th seed in the West, and the 1st seed in the West facing off against the 4th seed in the East. Just like in the IIHF, the 2nd seeds would cross over facing the 3rd seed team in the other Conference as well.

What? The cost of travel? You mean to tell me that sold out building for a guaranteed 4 home games minimum (two rounds), with all the revenue attached and no players’ salary to pay couldn’t more than cover for that travel for the eight remaining teams?!? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Teams would still fill their pockets, you better believe.

Just for the sake of discussions, let’s assume that all top teams win their first round series. I know, I know, there are always upsets but those are pretty hard to predict so bear with me here and play along. The following would have been the 2018 2nd round matchups based on seedings:

Crossover2018

The goal and hopefully results would be to give more meaning to the gruelling 82-games schedule by rewarding teams who finished with more points, while greatly improving the quality of the product on the ice by having the best teams, for the most part, make it further into the playoffs. Oh there will be upset, there has always be and it won’t change, but at the very least, you won’t see the best series at the start at the expenses of the later rounds.

 

In the meantime, have fun watching an expansion team in the finals, playing for what’s supposed to be the toughest trophy in the world to win. As you do that, I will be doing things outdoors, dreaming of a Leafs/Bruins and Canadiens Stanley Cup finals. Go Habs Go!