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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Top Cheese: January 2019 Edition

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as the team is entering the second half of their calendar, entering the exciting portion of the season and pushing for a spot in the playoffs. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Having reached the 41 games mark, the Canadiens have now played half the season. With a 22-14-5 record good for 49 points, they occupy the last Wild Card spot but find themselves only one point back of both Boston and Buffalo, and have closed in to within five points of Toronto. And they did that with Carey Price struggling through the first couple of months of the season and without Shea Weber in October and November. At what point can we agree that this team has had a major positive turnaround?

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When Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk were traded, many people were wondering where the offense would come from after trading the team’s best two goals’ producers and that, on a team already struggling to find the back of the net. While we know that the addition of Max Domi provides some of the answers, other players have also upped their game as well:

TOMAS TATAR

SeasonGPPts+/-
2017-20188234-19
2018-20194131+9

ARTTURI LEHKONEN

SeasonGPPts+/-
2017-20186621-11
2018-20194121+7

JONATHAN DROUIN

SeasonGPGoals+/-
2017-20187713-28
2018-201941130
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Are there still people doubting that Shea Weber is one of the NHL’s best defensemen? He has done a tremendous job since coming back for a full year absence, and his 11 points in 17 games with a plus -7 rating while impressive, isn’t telling the whole story. Averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game, he plays against the top lines, kills penalties and is a huge threat on the powerplay, and his leadership, often underestimated by some fans, is not amongst the hockey community and certainly not on the team. The Canadiens are 11-6-0 since his return.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Julien said. “I think it’s you getting your top defenseman back who’s got an unbelievable presence not just on the ice, but even off the ice with the team. As a coach, you’re happy to have your top leader — which is your captain — in the room because he’s managing that. As coaches — I’ve always said that, anyways — you go in the room and you tell them what needs to be done and you have your pregame meetings and all that stuff. But if there’s not a follow-up to that — if guys just kind of take off and there’s not a follow-up — it’s hard. But when you have a captain who believes and who’s going to go in there in the dressing room while they’re getting dressed — he’s not the only one — but who’s going to reiterate what we’ve talked about: ‘Hey, guys, let’s make sure tonight we’re doing this and that as what we said in our pregame meeting,’ it makes a difference. So are our guys even better prepared? Probably. I’m sure he has an impact there as well. We were good before he came back, I thought we did a great job. But we’ve gotten a little better now that our captain is back.”

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Speaking of Weber’s return, no one has benefited more than his good friend Carey Price, he whose performances were a legitimate concern for many. But since the return of the Habs’ captain, Price has returned to form. As a matter of fact, since Weber came back on November 27th, the Canadiens’ goalkeeper has allowed more than 3 goals only twice. He has a .924 Sv% since then and that, folks, is a good sign for the second half of the season

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Remember when Dallas’ Stars President Jim Lites did the unthinkable by calling out his team captain Jamie Benn and his assistant Tyler Seguin? Well since then, one Benn has taken Lites’ words serious… Jordie Benn did. The Habs’ Benn has accumulated five points in the five games he’s played since that time. As a matter of fact, the Benn with the nicest beard is plus -5, out producing his younger brother who has three (3) points and is minus -1. Jordie has turned his game around since the return of Weber and his experience has proven valuable. With David Schlemko on the verge of returning, it will be interesting to see who will be spending time in the press box. Benn should be safe.

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The 2019 World Junior Championships are coming to a close and seven of the Canadiens’ top prospects got to participate this year. While Canada and Sweden were upset, participating in this very competitive tournament will have been a very valuable experience for all of them, win or lose. Most have shone for their respective team and they will all take something from it. Ryan Poehling and Cayden Primeau were leaders on Team USA, as was Alexander Romanov for Russia, for whom Habs’ fans have finally got a chance to discover. Perhaps Trevor Timmins knows what he’s doing?

Nick Suzuki (CAN) 5GP – 3A
Josh Brook (CAN) 5GP – 2A
Jacob Olofsson (SWE) 5GP – 0Pts
*Ryan Poehling (USA) 6GP – 8Pts
*Cayden Primeau (USA) 4GP – 1.25GAA .947Sv%
*Jesse Ylönen (FIN) – 6GP – 5Pts
*Alexander Romanov (RUS) – 6GP – 7Pts

*One medal game to play

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Speaking of the World Juniors, what a shame to see the treatment given to Team Canada captain Maxime Comtois by some idiots hiding behind Twitter handles. The good news is the outburst of support Comtois has received from fans, coaches, Hockey Canada and even some NHL players including none other than Sidney Crosby himself:

“I feel bad,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s too bad that people have to react that way, and social media gives them that opportunity. My advice to him would be to ignore it. He’s a great player. He’s going to have a great career. That’s not going to define who he is — that penalty shot. The real fans and the players who are behind you … I think everybody is there to support him. Anything can happen in hockey in a quarterfinal game like that. You see [Dobson’s] stick break, it was one of those things. It’s easy to be a good fan when you’re winning. It’s a little tougher when you’re losing. I think everyone should keep that in mind.”

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Speaking of broken sticks, I’ve been swearing at those sticks for a long, long time as an advocate to the return of the wood sticks. Baseball resisted the aluminum and composite sticks. Hockey should have done the same. Al Iafrate and Al MacInnis were shooting at over 100mph with wooden sticks. Why couldn’t today’s players do that? But we have to laugh at a Tweet from a Finnish sticks company who jumped to the occasion to tease Noah Dobson, offering him a new stick.

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It would have been fun to see Jesperi Kotkaniemi play for Finland at the World Junior Tournament but let’s face it… the Canadiens need him. Since the start of his draft year, KK as they call him has made it a habit to surprise everyone with an incredibly rapid development. While some were shocked – even angry – to see the Canadiens draft him third overall, few question that decision today. He has now reached the 40 games plateau which ensures that this will officially be his first year pro and as a result, he will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at… 25 years old! But he should be a Montreal Canadiens for many, many years to come.

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This week saw a very incident involving Kotkaniemi and Vancouver Canucks rookie sensation Elias Pettersson. As Pettersson was trying to join the rush when Kotkaniemi hooked him to slow him down. Feeling the tug, Pettersson tried to reverse hit the Finnish rookie and both players got tangled up, falling to the ice. Had Pettersson’s leg not bent in a way a leg shouldn’t, no one would be talking about it but since the Canucks’ best player missed time after a concussion suffered after being slammed to the ice by Florida Panthers’ defenseman Mike Matheson earlier this season, Canucks’ fans were livid. After the game, Vancouver players, coaches and even Pettersson himself called it an accident, stating that it wasn’t a dirty play. Some Canucks’ fans need to channel their frustration elsewhere.

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Let’s just take a minute and give some well deserve praise to Canadiens’ head coach Claude Julien for having the guts and ability to completely change his system from last season, making this team fun to watch, win or lose. The arrival of new assistant coaches Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson are no coincidence I’m sure but ultimately, it’s Julien who makes the final decisions and he has done the right thing.

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At least two Montreal Canadiens’ players were more deserving to get an invitation to the All-Star game than Carey Price but they fell victims to the NHL’s flawed system. Max Domi should be the Habs’ representative, most fans and members of the media agree on that. Jeff Petry, a much underrated player, is another one who would be more deserving but they simply couldn’t beat other players at their respective position. Really though… who cares about the NHL All-Star game? Players are better off taking a bit of a break to lick their own wounds and prepare for the tough stretch of games ahead.

Atlantic Division (All-Star Appearance)
Auston Matthews, TOR (3rd)
Jack Eichel, BUF (2nd)
Nikita Kucherov, TBL (3rd)
David Pastrnak, BOS (1st)
Steven Stamkos, TBL (6th)
John Tavares, TOR (6th)
Thomas Chabot, OTT (1st)
Keith Yandle, FLA (3rd)
Jimmy Howard, DET (2nd)
Carey Price, MTL (7th)

But Habs’ fans can still vote for Shea Weber to join that group as NHL All-Star Last Men In.

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So here you have it folks! Your Canadiens are NOT is as bad of a shape as some want you to believe. As a matter of fact, they are in pretty good hands in spite of what some want you to believe. The future is bright and the sun will rise again tomorrow in Montreal. Enjoy this time of year and hop in for the ride, it will be a fun season! Go Habs Go!!!