It’s early and at this point, panic shouldn’t be part of our vocabulary. But here’s the deal: the Montreal Canadiens lost the first game of the season, on the road, to the Toronto Maple Leafs by the score of 2-1. There were a few questionable calls from the referees in that game, most notably when they penalized Josh Anderson when three Leafs were over Brendan Gallagher with less than two minutes to go in the game. But it was respectable.
Then they go to Buffalo the next day, to face a team that is picked by everyone to finish at the basement of the NHL this season. They get totally outplayed and dismantled in a 5-1 loss. They looked bad. Really bad. But why is that? How can a team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals just a few months ago be so incoherent?
The Canadiens have, in my opinion, an improved group of forwards this season. When healthy, they have three offensive line with wingers that can play on the top lines any given night. The only question mark is at centre as the unmatched offer-sheet to Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling’s poor training camp, contributed to creating a substantial hole in the middle. The organisation hopes that with a couple of practices under his belt, Adam Brooks can help in that role.
In order to take advantage of this balanced offense though, they need the defense to give them the puck at the right place and at the right time. It’s a simple concept for the defense. Get the puck, pass the puck, move it quickly to a forward’s stick and follow the play, joining as the fourth man in. And that is what’s not happening right now. Not that they’re not trying, but they simply can’t do it. They spend so much time in their zone defending that the zone exit of choice is giving the puck to their opponents via the glass. Then everyone changes and they work at retrieving the puck once again. Wash, rince, repeat.
It’s early, yes, but the Canadiens’ current struggles were not difficult to predict. In fact, we talked about it on this very website not long ago, how the goaltenders in Montreal could find the season long. Even if you’re not a big analytic mind, if you have never coached and broken down the game, the issue is rather simple to explain and understand.
With Shea Weber out for the season and Marc Bergevin being unable or unwilling to address the problem, the defense is in trouble. Without the captain, everyone is playing in a chair that’s not theirs. In prior years, Weber was trusted by the coaching staff to play the games toughest minutes with the most difficult match-ups. You see, it’s not only about Weber’s efficiency while on the ice. Even if he didn’t have a great season (to his standards), he still played those minutes. And by doing so, he allowed everyone else to play where they’re comfortable and more effective.
The pairing of Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson was the Canadiens’ second pairing last year. This season, they are counted on as the first pairing. They are the ones who are facing the toughest opposition night in, night out. That in itself is an issue that too many fans downplay, but coaches know it to be a huge factor. Making matters worse, Petry greatly misses his defense partner who is out with an injury.
Then the Habs signed David Savard on the right side, hoping that he can take some of the minutes that Weber won’t be able to provide. There’s nothing wrong with Savard. But from reading Twitter, many fans genuinely felt like a healthy Savard would do better than an injured Weber. We’ve explained why it’s simply not the case and those who aren’t convinced yet will be forced to admit it as the season progresses.
Only one solution
But it’s not too late. This thing can still be fixed. Of course, it’s much easier to sit at home in my living room, typing about it, than it is to actually do the fixing. But that’s also why I’m not getting paid the big bucks. Bergevin and his management team are paid for that though and they will need to be creative, maybe bite the bullet and pay the price to do it.
If they want to compete this season, the Habs need a quality right-handed top-4 defenseman, preferably a puck mover. If Bergevin manages to get that elusive player, the rest will take care of itself and they will be battling for a playoffs’ spot. Otherwise, it will be a battle just to win games here and there. Fix the defense and you will fix the team. Of course, having Price and the injured players back will also make a difference but that one right-handed defenseman would go a long way right now.