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!!!

Habs Defense And The Whole Nine Yards

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The old Detroit Red Wings under Mike Babcock were always a solid team and their biggest quality, in spite of having guys like Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg leading the way, they were always known for their solid defense, making an average goaltender like Chris Osgood look like a top one. Of course, you had a Nicklas Lidstrom leading the way but if you ever noticed at the trade deadline, they always added another defenseman or two. And this is the era when Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin played his NHL career and learned his craft in the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization. 

While it has proven true that defense will win you championships more often than not, the strength is in quality, not in quantity. And that’s where the Canadiens just aren’t quite there. In Shea Weber, they have one of the best all round defenseman in the entire NHL. Not only is he a threat at the point on the powerplay, but he will intimidate you physically as one of the toughest players to go against, as attested by anyone in the league. To round it up, he is one of the best shutdown defensemen out there and by playing over 26 minutes per game (6th most in the NHL), opponents have to work for their goals.

The problem in Montreal is that Bergevin was never able to find Weber a suitable partner and while 19 year-old Victor Mete did well at the start of the season, the game might be catching up to him a bit, and his ice time has reflected that. Further, it’s not guys like Jordie Benn, Karl Alzner, Brendan Davidson or Joe Morrow who can step in there and eat the minutes needed to be paired with Weber.

 

Log jam

The strength of a good hockey team does rely on depth at the blueline but in the Canadiens’ case, while they certainly have the quantity, it’s the quality that’s lacking. Here’s what the Habs’ defense looks like, injured players included:

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Jeff Petry is Jeff Petry, with his ups and downs and the odd brain cramp. Alzner and Benn had a slow start but both have been playing better for a few games now. Davidson and Morrow have filled the gaps when needed but they are depth players. It does look like the internal solution rests on two unknowns…

Due to Weber’s injury, the Canadiens have called up former KHL star Jakub Jerabek, who was having a good season with the Laval Rockets of the AHL, while adapting to the North American smaller ice surfaces and style of play. In his first NHL game against Nashville, Jerabek did quite well for himself as coach Claude Julien gave him over 18 minutes of ice time. Is he a solution? Possibly, but time with tell.

Then you have David Schlemko who has yet to suit up for his first game as a Habs due to injury. He has been skating and he even made the recent road trip with the team, but hasn’t been cleared to return. But even when he does, he has lost the first quarter of the season and will be jumping in without a training camp so while the negative Nancy’s in the fanbase will be quick to be on his (or Bergevin’s) case, he will need some time to get in top game shape.

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Victor Mete will likely be loaned to Team Canada Junior

As for Victor Mete, you can expect the Canadiens to make him available to Team Canada for the World Junior Championships over the Christmas Holidays. This will be great for his development as he will be playing key minutes in a very high-tempo and high quality tournament, with other kids his age. While he doesn’t seem phased by it (yet), this tournament should do wonders for his confidence as well.

But as it stands today, including Weber and Schlemko (injured), the Canadiens have nine defensemen on their roster. When they come back, expect for at least one player movement at the blueline. Jerabek is waiver free, which means that the team can send him down without the risk of losing him through waivers. Everyone else (but Mete) has to clear. Sure, losing one of them wouldn’t be a huge blow but it would affect the team’s depth at that position in the even of injuries. Unless Bergevin manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat, something we are told by reputable NHL insiders, he has been working hard at. Go Habs Go!