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.

What Have Fans Learned on The Habs?

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After the awful season Canadiens’ fans had to suffer through last season, and all the major changes the team has gone through in the off-season, there were many question marks on this year’s Habs and several people were very vocal in showing their displeasure with the direction the team was taking. They say that crow is best served cold and thankfully, hockey is a game played on ice. Take a seat folks, there’s plenty of servings for everyone! 

So what is it that fans and media have learned in the first quarter of the season? What were the question marks in the off-season and how have those questions been answers (if they have been at all) all things considered? Well, let’s have a look at the most “popular” topics of this off-season…

Alexander Radulov is not Alexander Semin

Yes, many were saying that Radulov would be Semin 2.0 and some were even hoping he would be. The fact is that Radulov was a gamble, but the odds were on his side. Bergevin did his homework and spoke to his former coach and GM. He even spoke to newly acquired All-Star defenseman Shea Weber about him, he who played with him in Nashville. At the time of writing those lines, Radulov has 18 points in 22 games, with 11 primary assists, second most in the entire NHL. He’s second in team points behind his linemate Alex Galchenyuk. Not Semin.

Carey Price was missed

If anyone expects that losing the league MVP, winner of five NHL awards, for most of the season won’t have a serious negative effect on a team, think again. Price was greatly missed by the Canadiens. You see, he’s so much more than just an excellent goaltender. He is the ultimate leader on this team and he’s also a third defenseman on the ice. The Habs’ breakouts are totally different when he’s playing, saving the defensemen from punishing hits facing the boards. He’s a key part of the system. He was missed.

Shea Weber is good at hockey

The hot topic of the season. We’ve learned that analytics are scratching their head trying to figure out mathematically how the Habs (and most particularly Weber) can have such a positive impact. Fans are realising that Weber is just… good at hockey! He’s a gamer, on and off the ice. We know about his leadership, we know about his booming slap shot. His detractors didn’t know about his shut-down ability, his physicality and the respect he imposes on the ice. His 18 points (including 8 goals) are good for second in the NHL in scoring for defensemen, two points behind Brent Burns, and his plus – 18 rating is also second (1st amongst defensemen) in the entire NHL. Thank you Dr. Kowalski, the kids really appreciate watching him and the Habs play some great hockey. Weber is good.

Michel Therrien’s job is not in jeopardy

We have heard and read all summer about “Ifs” and “Buts” about Therrien’s tenure as the Canadiens’ head coach. IF the Habs are up to a slow start… But he must improve his coaching… If Its and Buts were candy and nuts, it would be Christmas every day! He wasn’t my personal choice for head coach when the announcement was made but the fact is that Therrien’s record speaks for itself. Oh he’s far from perfect but players like him. Little things he does for them, days off, putting them in the starting line-up against teams they played for, rolling four lines, etc. Those are things players appreciate. His job is safe this year.

Kirk Muller knows powerplay

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Kirk Muller

Muller is a likeable guy. He’s a leader who not only played in Montreal and captained this team, but he understands the market and the pressure that comes with it. The Canadiens’ powerplay finished the season 25th overall last year. So far this season, they sit in 5th place in the NHL. As an associate coach, he has some say in the day-to-day decisions on the team and that is great for the organisation. Don’t kid yourself: while other coaches will give their input, it’s Muller and not Therrien who decides who plays on the special teams! The fact is that Muller knows powerplay.

Habs didn’t screw up Alex Galchenyuk’s development

So much was said about the way the Canadiens were bringing up Galchenyuk. As the youngster sits 5th in NHL scoring today, finally playing centre on the top line, it seems like “the plan” is paying off. Playing him all those years on the wing took some responsibility off his shoulders and, according to Galchenyuk himself, has taught him what it takes to score goals in this league. The beauty of it all is that he’s not done progressing. Therrien praised his hard work ethics just recently and they will keep on adding to his responsibilities as he improves. Not only didn’t the Habs screw up his development, they helped him develop in what he is today.

Coaches can sit David Desharnais

This is perhaps the most surprising to be honest. Here I thought that as long as Therrien was the head coach of the Canadiens, Desharnais would be a Top-6 centre. Well it looks like I was wrong. Not only is his ice time (12:52 per game) drastically cut from what it was last season (16:00), but he spent some time on the wing and was even a healthy scratch one game! Who would have thought? Even his powerplay time (1:21 per game) has been cut from last season (2:18). This being the last year of his contract, things aren’t looking so good for little Davey’s future with the team…

There you have it folks! Oh there are other topics we could have covered I’m sure, but those are, in my humble opinion, some of the key question marks entering the season. With the Canadiens sitting in first place in the NHL with a 16-4-2 record, good for 34 points, three points ahead of the New York Rangers in second place, one would be hard-pressed to convince me to be negative about this team. Yes, there is room for improvement and we are seeing a very active Marc Bergevin, trying to improve in areas where the team needs help. Anyone else curious about the GM spending a few days in San Jose considering the Canadiens aren’t playing there until… Friday?