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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Five Reasons Why the Habs Are Struggling

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It’s no secret, it’s the talk of town in Montreal: the Montreal Canadiens are off to a very slow start and fans and (some) media personalities alike are in full panic mode. The media because they like feeding the sensationalism to bring viewership/listenership, and the fans because… many act like drama queens, making us wonder if they can or not see beyond a 4-5 games stretch, therefore making them totally vulnerable to what those media members are saying. 

The reality, however, is not so sombre. The team is, most nights, outplaying their opponent but they simply cannot find ways to either put the puck in the opponents’ net, or keep it out of their own. Hockey is a team sport, at the same level as basketball and football. Yet, it’s composed of individuals who are occupying certain roles on the team. If the most important role players aren’t performing, it creates problems for the entire team and that, my friends, is what’s happening with the Canadiens in this early season. No, it’s not Claude Julien and no, in spite of all the misdirected information we read on Twitter, it’s not Marc Bergevin either.

For one reason or another, fans seem to find very difficult to point the finger at players, particularly their favourite player(s). Instead, they prefer blaming the coach, the GM, the equipment manager or the water boy. Basically, anyone but the culprit. We’ve noticed it many times with P.K. Subban, who was absolutely hated by his teammates for his behaviours. Fans, in fact, are still bringing him up every single day, or anytime he does something positive. We are seeing some of it today with Galchenyuk. Faultless players is key for some fans in Montreal, even when it’s far from the truth.

Five reasons for slow start

Fans can blame the coach or GM all they want, I am not willing to fall for that false excuse until the team’s key players are back at playing to the level that everyone should expect from them. If those players were performing and the team still struggled, then fine, we could look at different culprits but it’s definitely not the case here, folks… at least not yet.

1- Carey Price

So far this season, Carey Price has a record of 1-3-1. His goals against average sits at 3.45 (38th in NHL) while is saves percentage is well below NHL level at .885 (39th in NHL). For someone who is qualified as the best goaltender in the league, this is completely unacceptable. He is fighting the puck more times than not and he is not making the key saves as he has accustomed his fans to. Price is this team’s franchise player and the Canadiens have made him the best paid goaltender in the league with an eight year extension, paying him an average of $10.5 million. That contract, by the way, doesn’t kick in until the 2018-2019 season. If the franchise player doesn’t find his playing form, this team will have a very tough time to have any sort of success. That’s where it starts. He is not paid, nor are the standards for him set as a 38th or 39th goalie in the NHL. We will chill Carey, but you need to start showing signs of who you really are.

2- Max Pacioretty

NHL: New York Islanders at Montreal Canadiens
Price and Pacioretty

Goals’ scorers go though droughts out there during a long season and it happens that the captain is having a rough start. But it’s not his one goal in five games that worries me here.  He is not looking good out there. He is not generating much offensively and against the Leafs, he looked totally lost. Max Pacioretty is at his best when he finds a soft spot in the offensive zone to get open for the lethal shot of his. Right now, he’s all over the ice trying to do too much, or so it seems. The fact that the team is still searching for a qualified and deserving right winger for him and Jonathan Drouin could have something to do with it, as the Brendan Gallagher experiment has been lukewarm and Arturri Lehkonen‘s play has regressed since being brought up to that line. Yes, Alex Galchenyuk could be the solution but not until he shows that he’s willing to put in the effort, which hasn’t been the case so far this season.

3- Shea Weber

The towering defenseman leads the team in ice time this season with an average of 26:20 minutes per game, good for fifth most in the entire NHL. Although the Canadiens have allowed nine (9) more goals than they have scored so far this season, his minus -1 is quite excellent, showing that he is still one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league. Where the Canadiens need Shea Weber to pick it up however is on offense. Weber only has one assist so far this season in five games and it seems like the system and the team haven’t been able to take advantage of his booming 106 mph shot, either at even strength or on the powerplay. As a matter of fact, the Habs’ defensive corp has a grand total of 4 points so far this season, two of which belonging to… Karl Alzner!

4- Alex Galchenyuk

Everything but the kitchen sink has been said or written so far about the enigmatic Galchenyuk. Some feel like no matter his effort level or performances, he should be given indemnity and be moved to the top line with Pacioretty and Drouin but most, myself included, range with the coaching staff in thinking that he must first earn that promotion by displaying an constant effort and better focus on the ice. Either way, as a team struggling to put pucks in the net, the Canadiens need Galchenyuk’s offensive production. Something tells me that there nothing that coach Julien would love more than promote him to first line duties, but early in the season is when you want to instate your system and expectations, at the risk of losing a few games. It was great to see Chucky put one in against the Leafs, and here’s hoping that he can use this goal to get his season going.

5 – The powerplay

The Canadiens finally broke the goose egg when Galchenyuk scored the team’s very first powerplay goal against the Leafs, but that’s a very small victory in the hearts of Julien and Kirk Muller. With one goal in 16 opportunities, only the Vegas Golden Knights, New York Islanders and Anaheim Ducks have a worse success rate with a man advantage than the Habs so far this season. In a league where the first goal of a game is so important, having a strong powerplay can make the difference between a win or a loss, and on a team struggling to score goals, taking advantage of your opponents’ indiscipline is that much more important. This, folks, is where the absence of Andrei Markov is mostly felt, as the general had a way of finding passing lanes where few others could. Someone else has to find a way to get this thing going in the right direction and the sooner, the better.

 

So as you can clearly see, this is not a managerial problem at this point. When the players are playing at their full capacity, only then talk to me about Bergevin being fired! Until then, it’s a matter of players finding their game, for the coaching staff to find lines with chemistry and for key players on the team to find their legs. Which reminds me of this quote from one of my very favourite movies all-time:

Lieutenant Da

Here’s hoping that the Canadiens do have legs to find! Go Habs Go!