By JD Lagrange – Most of what Jeff Gorton, Kent Hughes and even Martin St-Louis have touched since being in place has been received by everyone as being positive moves and decisions. But a few recent decisions have created some rather strong reactions from fans and media members alike, making us feel like the honeymoon is definitely over.
With the season the Montreal Canadiens went though a year ago and with what management has done by getting the team younger, most fans were okay with watching them losing games. Deservedly so, management had a lot of slack from fans and media alike. Earlier in the season, everyone was happy to see an exciting team with a never-give-up attitude, a team that would compete game in and game out, no matter if they won or lost. But the for the past month or so, it hasn’t been the case.
In fact, as we’ve explored recently, December has been a very cold month for everyone on the Canadiens. The team is not only losing, they are getting blown out of games. They regularly allow one, two or even three quick goals the first period. Most times, they trail by three goals or more going into the third period and they allow close to 40 shots. The power play is still inexistent and now, they couldn’t kill a penalty if their life depended on it.
In their last four games, all losses, the Canadiens have been outscored 26-8. It would be even worse, but those stats were helped by a 3-goals output last night in Nashville. They’ve been outshot 38-28 on average and the penalty kill had a 46.7% success rate during that span, if we can call it a “success” rate.
Reminiscent of last year
We will all remember that Jeff Gorton had said that head coach Dominique Ducharme would finish the season last year, right? Watching interviews about the reasons for going back on that decision and firing their coach, both Gorton and Hughes said that it was due to the way they were losing. They were being dominated, and management didn’t want to see that happen with their young players.
Well, less than a year later, we’re in the exact same position. You don’t believe me? Allow me to refresh your memory. Let’s look at the 12 games leading up to management’s change of hearts – ultimately to Ducharme’s firing – compared to the Canadiens’ last 12 games.
Of course, I’m not suggesting firing Martin St-Louis. But I am reminded of a quote by someone you might have heard of before, as Albert Einstein once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results“.
Management and the coaching staff have been making some decisions that are difficult not only to understand, but to justify and support. Here are a few examples:
- Juraj Slafkovsky being prevented from playing in the World Junior Championships is the first one that comes to mind. Since Team Slovakia has released its preliminary roster on December 14th, only Anthony Richard, Rem Pitlick and Michael Pezzetta amongst Canadiens’ forwards have had less ice time per game than the NHL’s first overall pick. He has a single assist in the 10 games that he’s played, with five (5) shots in total and a differential of minus -6. Tell me again why he wasn’t allowed to go apply what he’s learned this season at the NHL level against kids closer to his own age, with friends Filip Mesar and Simon Nemec, in a leadership role? Those who claimed he had nothing to learn are obviously dead wrong!
- Not utilizing Justin Barron on the power play is mind boggling at this point. Upon his call-up, he lead the AHL’s defensemen with five (5) goals with the man advantage. With the way the power play has been clicking, what does the coaching staff have to lose by trying him out at the point on the second power play unit? Here we talk about putting young players in a position to succeed, the power play is one of Barron’s strengths. He can still work on his 5 on 5 play if getting a few minutes with the man advantage, no?
- The coaching staff over-utilization of some players like Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield is catching up with them. True that the loss of Sean Monahan is not helping as he would play in all situations, including taking key faceoffs and on special teams. But why use Suzuki to kill penalties? Why not save him and keep him fresh for the shift immediately after a kill to regain offensive momentum? Living in BC, I remember vividly Alain Vigneault with the Canucks doing utilizing the Sedin twins immediately after a penalty kill and it was successful.
- Speaking of the penalty kill, you cannot teach skills and goals’ scoring, or not much. You have it or you don’t. But good coaching can teach defensive positioning, systems and strategies to defend. I do not get how the Canadiens can be so bad at killing penalties. Too passive most times, the opponents can easily enter the zone without being challenged and once they’re in, Habs’ players give them all the room they need on the perimeters. It would be one thing if they checked the players in front and cut passing lanes, but they don’t even do that!
- It’s a fine balance between showcasing veterans in hope to raise their trade value and providing ice time based on merit. For a young player, it can be demoralizing to work your butt off, generate things on the ice, and see your ice time being cut at the hands of veterans who are literally dragging their feet and making… rookie mistakes. Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia and Mike Hoffman are, more often than not, wastes of space in all three zones. This doesn’t help the team’s competitiveness.
- As a former goaltender and coach, I never liked my defensemen being constant shot blockers. In order to block a shot, a player must be in the line of fire. By doing so, not only do they risk injuries, but they also risk obstructing the goalie’s view, deflecting a puck and they are systematically leaving someone open in front of the net. This is particularly true for defensemen. Let the goalie see the puck instead, and check someone in front of the net, trying to prevent tips and rebounds.
Admittedly, it’s one thing to criticize, it’s another to make suggestions for a solution. I would not pretend to have all of the answers but we are forced to acknowledge that the status quo is not working. No one is expecting this team to turn things around and challenge for a playoffs’ spot. But it’s not too much to expect them to compete and be in games, giving their best effort. When they do that, they are fun to watch, regardless of the games’ outcome. So here are some suggestions:
- Take Suzuki off the penalty kill and use him for offensive duties, better managing his ice time.
- Give Justin Barron a chance, for a few games, at the point on the man advantage.
- Revamp the penalty kill by having them be more aggressive, applying pressure, particularly the forwards. And I can’t believe that I have to say that but… do not let someone free in front to chase an opponent behind the net or in the corner! Yes, we’ve seen it happen many times.
- Less shot blocking, more checking guys in front of the net to avoid second and third scoring chances. What do you have to lose? What you’re doing isn’t working!
- Find a better balance to distribute ice time based on merit instead of thinking trade value and keeping veterans happy. It certainly doesn’t look like they’re upping their value anyway so cut your losses and teach accountability instead.
- For quality veterans like Edmundson and Monahan, do take your time by all means as the demand will be better by trade deadline. But when it comes to dead wood, cut your losses and trade what you can now, even if you don’t feel like you’re getting top value. Other teams do it and understand that sometimes, you can create an addition by subtraction.
- Get your hands on a good veteran right-handed defenseman by sacrificing a winger or left-handed defenseman. Having young defensemen playing on their wrong side while adapting to the NHL level is pure insanity!
- Put an emphasis on skills yes, but do not underestimate will to compete, character and grit. It takes all sorts of ingredients to bake a cake and right now, there’s too much sugar and not enough baking powder to make the cake rise.
- Understand that you have a rookie coach and he could use some mentorship. Hire a coaching consultant for Martin St-Louis. Two names come to mind, but there are many more I’m sure so of course, pick someone who fits in with the organization’s mentality. I’m thinking Bob Hartley or Guy Boucher.
There you have it folks. Whether you’re on the “tank wagon” or not, the Canadiens will have a good draft pick, maybe even two depending on what the Florida Panthers do. But we are all together, wanting to see a team that competes, in an environment where the young players can develop in a positive atmosphere, believing that they can play in this league. Status quo is not an option at this point as the team is getting blown out of games too easily and too early. It’s time to act, and act now. It’s not all on the players. Management has a few things that they can do – and should do – in order to help.