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!

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No Depth on Defense? Think Again!

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Defense wins championships. That’s what everyone around hockey, not only the NHL, is saying. In his book, the great Scotty Bowman always claimed that preventing a goal is more important than scoring one as if you allow a goal, you have to score two more to win. The NHL doesn’t look at the scores when awarding points in the standings. Only wins, losses and more recently, looser points (points obtained by losing in regulation or in skills’ competition) have an effect on the teams’ standings. So whether you win 8-7 or 2-1, it counts the same.

In Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens have the best goaltender in the world, and he was rewarded with a contract this summer that will make him paid as such, starting in 2018-2019. They still have arguably the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL in Shea Weber, against whom opponents struggled to score when he was on the ice all season long last year. That hasn’t changed.

Losing Andrei Markov however should have its effect and that, in spite of the fact that he’s not getting any better with age. He was still a key contributor to the Canadiens’ defensive core last season and there is no doubt that he will be missed. But the Habs’ defense was not Markov. It was a group effort, including the two corner stones mentioned earlier.

Here’s what Marc Bergevin had to say about the loss of Markov:

“Loosing Markov creates a big hole. Andrei was a very good player for us, but we added Mark Streit, which I think fills some of that role. We added David Schlemko. I think by committee we should be able to fill that gap. Let’s keep in mind we didn’t lose a 25-year-old defenseman. All respect to Andrei, he’s going to turn 39 in December. At some point we have to move forward.”

A Deeper Group

In a recent article on Sportsnet, beat writer Eric Engels tried to paint a picture claiming that the loss of Markov, Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin has affected the team’s depth at that position. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, the defense heading into training camp is the deepest in NHL quality than it’s been in Bergevin’s tenure as the team’s GM. Don’t take my word for it, look for yourself, including regular season’s games played in the NHL:

 

  • Shea Weber (841 GP)
  • Mark Streit (784 GP)
  • Karl Alzner (591 GP)
  • Jeff Petry (445 GP)
  • David Schlemko (360 GP)
  • Jordie Benn (315 GP)
  • Eric Gelinas (189 GP) – PTO
  • Zach Redmond (130 GP)
  • Brandon Davidson (101 GP)
  • Joe Morrow (65 GP)
  • Matt Taormina (59 GP)

You add to that group a guy like 26 year-old Jakub Jerabek (367 pro games) and young Brett Lernout who had a taste of the NHL at the end of last season. You also have Thomas Parisi and two newly pro in Noah Juulsen and Simon Bourque, who will likely all start the season in Laval, followed by non other than Victor Mete, the only junior-age player invited to the main camp.

 

If that’s not having depth, very few NHL teams have depth. Perhaps only the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who have 11 defensemen on one-way contracts, have more NHL depth than the Canadiens heading into camp.

Are they lacking a Top-4 defenseman, one who can log quality minutes with Weber? Absolutely and the organization isn’t denying it either. But quality depth, they have. At centre however, that’s a whole different story…