Top Cheese: March 2019 Edition

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as the team is entering the exciting last stretch of the season, pushing for a spot in the playoffs. Four teams, including the Canadiens, are battling for the two Wild Card spots, three of which are also playing for the Metropolitan division’s third position, making for an exciting end to this regular season. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Less than 20 percent of the 2018-2019 regular season is left to play for the Canadiens and they find themselves in a dog fight to get in and gain the rights to play either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the leaders of the Metro division in the first round of the playoffs. Only 16 games, that’s what it boils down to, and we will find out if there will be some playoffs’ hockey at the Bell Centre come April. Players are banged up, they’re tired, but their sight is on playing for at least a chance to compete for the elusive Stanley Cup.

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One of those players on the Canadiens is team captain Shea Weber, who missed most of last season and the first couple of months to this season. While his play hasn’t been as sharp lately as we’re accustomed to seeing from him, he is still the backbone of that Montreal defense. If the Canadiens are going to make the playoffs, a lot of it will be on the shoulders of the one they call Man Mountain… and no one relishes that more than Weber, a true competitor who has proven time and time again that he can be counted on when everything is on the line.

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Shea Weber and Carey Price

Which makes Claude Julien‘s decision against the Pittsburgh Penguins that much more puzzling. On Saturday night, he gave the duty to neutralize Sidney Crosby to the defense pairing of Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn, and Sid the Kid finished the night with… four points in a Pens’ 5-1 victory at the Bell Centre. For fans and media members, who are not privileged to inside information, this decision is mind boggling at the very least and, in my humble opinion, could end up being the difference between making or missing the playoffs when it’s all said and done.

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But one would be foolish to blame it all is on Julien. Marc Bergevin has yet to address the team’s biggest need, finding a suitable partner for Weber, a left-handed defenseman who can log big minutes in a shutdown role against opponents’ top lines. Victor Mete is doing okay but when you have to rely on Mike Reilly or Benn on your top-4, it exposes the glaring need at that position. With the trade deadline come and gone, that gaping hole is still there and ultimately, the Canadiens are paying for it.

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The truth is that the Canadiens are greatly missing Andrei Markov. Maybe not Markov at his age, but a Markov-type player. Someone with his passing abilities, someone with his vision, a left-handed shot who can dish the puck from the point on the powerplay… but we’ll get back to that later on. Seeing the Habs with over nine million dollars under the cap and the GM’s inability to fill that hole in the summer or at trade deadline, perhaps Bergevin could have given the Russian defenseman a contract? Hindsight being 20-20, of course.

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All is not lost however, at least not for the mid to short term. Much like we’ve seen with Jonathan Drouin, the discussions held at the trade deadline often carry over to the Summer months and one can only hope that Bergevin’s talks for a quality left defenseman can pay off in the off-season. Could a Jonas Brodin, a Cam Fowler, a Shayne Gostisbehere, a Hampus Lindholm or another similar defenseman be coming in the summer? We can’t rule that out.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Yes, Alexander Romanov might be on the verge of coming to North America. Yes, Josh Brook has played on his off-side for a bit. But it’s far from ideal. Mostly, it’s unrealistic to expect a green rookie to fill that role. The Canadiens are better off doing the right thing, as they are doing with young Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and bring those guys up slowly and protect them with favourable matchups. As they should try to hang onto them instead of trading them for temporary help, the team MUST resist the temptation of rushing their top young talent. This also means that they must find some sort of stop-gap.

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One options that might be available is putting an offer in to pending UFA Jake Gardiner or the Maple Leafs, who will likely be unable to resign him. But is giving Gardiner, a very ordinary defenseman defensively, a guy who has been the scapegoat in Toronto more often than not, a contract in the seven million dollar range a smart move? Allow me to doubt it. In my opinion, Bergevin is better off sacrificing some assets and pick and chose the defenseman that he truly wants through a trade. Someone with a more cap-friendly contract and with term left to it.

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Here’s something that I’ve read that really irks me… Why trade to improve this year when the team doesn’t have a shot at the Stanley Cup, if others teams like Tampa Bay are stronger? Then why play the season then? Why want to make the playoffs? Why did the other teams fighting with the Habs for a playoffs’ spot trade to improve? If it’s pointless for the Habs, shouldn’t it be pointless for all other teams on the bubble? I’ll tell you why. When you are this close to a playoffs’ spot, you MUST try to get it. The experience gained by the young Canadiens would be most valuable in the long run. And I remember 1986 as if it was yesterday.

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In 1986, the Canadiens had no chance according to everyone around the NHL. But they had a great young goaltender and some young kids who didn’t know better. They had a balanced offense with multiple players around the 20 goals mark. Mostly though, they made the playoffs, giving them a chance to be in a position to battle for Lord Stanley. When you don’t make the playoffs, your chances are zero percent. Even a couple percentage points are better than zero. So folks, unless you have a crystal ball, stop pretending that you know better. You are talking odds and those odds can be beaten. It’s been proven time and time again in pro sports.

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Perhaps the most amazing thing about this season’s Canadiens is the fact that they are in the position that they are in, without a powerplay worth being called that. Sitting at a league worst 12.4 percent, the Habs have been unable to fix that issue all season long. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t start clicking. You see, a lot of it is playing on the players’ mind. They are making poor passing choices, and the passes are often off for one-timers or to keep the opponents’ penalty killers honest. Confidence plays a huge role in hockey and if my five decades of hockey have taught me anything at all, it’s that it can change quickly… with a bit of success.

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One guy who has been playing great hockey is Max Domi, although not so much on the powerplay. While I personally predicted that he would do well, he is playing well beyond what anyone could have expected when the Canadiens made his acquisition. And he’s doing all of this at the centre position, as the team’s number one centre nonetheless, with few points on the powerplay. Anyone miss Alex Galchenyuk… and his father?

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When the Canadiens acquired Jonathan Drouin, he and Max Pacioretty started practicing together in the off-season, hoping to develop chemistry, a chemistry that never came about. The same cannot be said between Drouin and Domi however. They started the season together and had great success, then got separated for a while but just recently, Julien put them back together and they started to produce again. Fast and creative, those two look for each other and it’s working. If only they could transpose that to the powerplay…

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Even a few percentage points improvement on the powerplay would go a long way to improving the Habs’ chances to make the playoffs but let’s be real here… their odds dropped drastically after losing that game against the Penguins. It is my opinion that they will fall just short of their quest and had Bergevin brought in some help at the deadline, and Julien made a better decision against Pittsburgh, this team would be part of the Spring Showdown.

What’s done is done and we can only look at the future. Bergevin must address the team’s needs on left defense as he’s done with the centre position this past summer. If he does that and if the team avoids key injuries, the Canadiens should be in the playoffs next season. Until then, let’s put that under the “experience gaining” category. Go Habs Go!

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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!