It’s not quite the same team as last year. But there are many returning players from the team that reached the Stanley Cup finals just a few months ago. It’s the same GM. The same coaching staff. We’ve covered the changes that were made this off-season in more depth and although we can see a drop in quality, it’s hard to believe that those changes would be drastic to the point of going from runner-up in the playoffs to bottom-feeders in the NHL.
So there’s something going on. Yes, hockey has a lot to do with confidence and this version of the Canadiens is lacking it, but it goes further than that. Like last season, it’s not the newcomers who aren’t producing for the most part. Mike Hoffman leads the team in goals and Mathieu Perreault is tied for second. Both men were actually playing rather well.
I don’t have all of the answers. If I did, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about it. I’d occupy a position in the organisation. But here are a few things contributing, in my humble opinion, to the lack of success this young season:
Shea Weber was not replaced
Many claimed that the Canadiens wouldn’t miss Weber because he had a bad season to his standards last year. But the coaching staff still played him against the opposition’s top lines and gave him the toughest matchups in a hockey game. This allowed all other defensemen, Jeff Petry included, to fall to roles where they are at their best. Today, every defenseman is sitting in chairs that are not theirs and it shows big time, particularly in the Habs’ defensive zone. How many times have I read, this off-season, that David Savard would replace Weber effectively. I hate saying “I told you so” but… I did. Savard can’t hold Weber’s jockstrap.
Carey Price is missing
He’s the face of this franchise and has been for over a decade. Not only is he one of the league’s top goalies at stopping pucks, but he controls his rebounds better than anyone, which helps the defense greatly. Another thing he excels and helps the defensemen is the way he plays the puck. He’s like another puck-moving defenseman back there and that’s not to be undervalued. Have Price as the starter and Allen as the backup and you have a few more wins, guaranteed.
Top end leadership
Brendan Gallagher has leadership. So do Petry, Chiarot, Lehkonen. But they’re not Weber… or Price… or Perry… or even Staal, who captained a few teams. Paul Byron, an assistant-captain, has yet to play this season. One would be hard-pressed to find a better leader in the game than Shea Weber. Every coach and player who has had the opportunity to have him on their team says it. Just last night on TSN, Barry Trotz spoke about it. Just the way he prepares, the way he plays, just a look and you feel like you better pick up your game. That’s missing big time it seems.
Joel Edmundson effect
The team does miss Edmundson but more than that, Petry misses him immensely. Last season, Edmundson allowed Petry to take his game to a new level. A career minus 112, the American defenseman was a career-best plus six last season. They have tons of chemistry and their style complements each other. In spite of what some fans and members of the media wanted us to believe, we know that Petry is not a true number one defenseman. As good as he can be when at the top of his game, he lacks the consistency and suffers too many brain cramps (plays where you wonder why he did something) that are costly. But Edmundson covered many of those mistakes last season.
We spoke in length about it in a recent article but the fact that the future of GM Marc Bergevin is uncertain can play on the players’ mind. Yes, they’re professionals and should focus on their job at hand. But they’re human beings too. Many have families, kids. It’s Bergevin who brought them here (for the most part). It’s Bergevin who spoke to them, convinced them to sign in Montreal in some cases. It’s him who gave them their big contracts. If the GM goes, a new GM with new ideas will come in and the players’ own future becomes unstable and in question. Not only for them, but for their families. It’s not the main factor but to think it’s not one of them would be foolish. And that’s on Geoff Molson.
Yes, I went there. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was the team’s clear-cut third line centre and prior to his departure for Carolina, he was even penciled in as the second line centre due to Phillip Danault jumping ships, thinking that the grass is greener on the other side. Bergevin did an outstanding job under difficult circumstances by acquiring Christian Dvorak, a very suitable replacement for Danault. But Kotkaniemi’s spot was not replaced. Jake Evans isn’t KK and nor is Adam Brooks. Ryan Poehling missed a golden opportunity at camp. Mathieu Perreault did alright for a few games before his eye injury. I’m far from saying that the Habs should have matched the Hurricanes’ offer but force is to admit that the team misses Kotkaniemi.
Trying to pinpoint the guilty party or parties for the team’s dismal power play and penalty kill is a tough one. It seems like many like to pass the blame on the coaching staff but it goes beyond that. You can have the best coaches with the best ideas, if the players don’t execute, it’s all for nothing. Fact is that it’s a combination of things. The coaching staff must shoulder some of the blame, but so do the players for not executing. They’re the ones out there making the passes and shooting. Even as a decoy, Weber is missed on the power play. When teams focused on him and his big shot, it opened some ice elsewhere. You can’t teach skills but you can teach defensive positioning so the penalty kill’s struggle is mind boggling. They seem to be too passive, that’s all I can say.
The cliché says not to use injuries as an excuse but at some point, the Canadiens had $30 million worth of players out of the line-up due to injuries. It’s not much better now as others are joining the list while some like Petry and Gallagher are obviously playing hurt. In a league with so much parity, where the gap between the top teams and the bottom one is so tight, a few players out of the line-up can definitely be a factor. I know, some will point to Pittsburgh who won without Crosby and Malkin but the Habs missed more than that, in my opinion.
It takes a while to establish chemistry. Remember Ben Chiarot’s first 10-12 games in the organisation? The same happened with Joel Edmundson if you recall. The new players need to learn a new system and develop chemistry with their new teammates… and vice-versa. Nothing can accelerate that. It takes time. The Canadiens are 12 games into the season. Chemistry between new teammates should start developing by now.
It would be rather shocking to see Dominique Ducharme fired. He’s in the first year of a three-year deal and the Canadiens are still paying Claude Julien. As rich as people think he is, I highly doubt that Molson wants to pay two coaches sitting at home, and a third one behind the bench.
Fire Bergevin? It’s a possibility and it would make many people happy, some of which have been wanting that for a long, long time. For some, the dislike dates all the way back to June 29, 2016, when he dared trading fan favourite P.K. Subban. But the number of people dissatisfied is growing daily with the team’s struggles. Bergevin has been a finalist for the Jim GregoryAward as the NHL’s best GM three times in his nine years at the helm of the Canadiens, including last season. That’s most of any other GM in that time span. You don’t get that because you have blue eyes. So if you get rid of a great hockey man who happens to be bilingual, who do you replace him with and will his replacement be a better option?
My solution personally would be to extend Bergevin and give him the mandate to clean house when it comes to the on-ice product, and focus on next season. I personally like stability at the top, particularly when you have a quality hockey man in place, something some will argue vividly. But mine is just one man’s opinion.