When The Math Doesn’t Add Up

By JD Lagrange – If there’s one thing that this rookie tournament is doing, it’s opening the eyes of Habs’ fans everywhere about how effective the reset started in 2018 is starting to be. You see, it takes time for young players to develop and only a few of them can have an immediate impact. Of course, the continued work by current management, following in the footsteps of Marc Bergevin and his group, has added to that prospect pool.

There is another potential issue it’s raising as well. As it currently stands, the Montreal Canadiens have little to no room on their roster to allow for these young players, particularly at forward, to remotely hope making the team. The same cannot be said on defense where, as we’re speaking, there are three spots available for these young men. Even in net, there will be a battle between two young goalies to be Jake Allen’s backup. But let’s look at the breakdown.

Forwards

Give or take, there are about 20 forwards who have a legitimate claim at being of NHL caliber. Some definitely are, others are ready to prove that they belong. The issue is that too many are on NHL contracts, some with substantial contracts. Saying that Kent Hughes must move some forwards would be stating the obvious, but something has got to give.

Juraj Slafkovsky, Jesse Ylönen, Emil Heineman, and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard all seem to be ready to prove that they belong. Unfortunately for them, they have 16 other forwards “ahead” of them. When you consider that teams usually carry 13, sometimes 14 forwards on their club, it leaves zero room for them. And when you’re talking young guys, you’re also talking cheap cap hit and players motivated to earn and keep their spot in the line-up…

NAMEPOSSHOOTSAGEHTWT
Nick SuzukiCR235’11”205
Sean MonahanCL276’2″200
Christian DvorakCL266’1″200
Kirby DachCR216’4″197
Jake EvansCR266’0″176
Jan MysakCL206’0″182
Brendan GallagherWR305’9″184
Josh AndersonWR286’3″227
Jonathan DrouinWL276’0″203
Evgenii DadonovWL335’11”185
Mike HoffmanWL326’0″184
Joel ArmiaWR296’3″218
Paul ByronWL335’9″158
Rem PitlickWL255’11”196
Juraj SlafkovskyWL186’3″238
Cole CaufieldWR215’7″166
Michael PezzettaWL246’1″216
Jesse YlönenWR226’0″167
Emil HeinemanWL206’1″185
Rafaël Harvey-PinardWL235’9″182

Defensemen

As mentioned, the situation is slightly different on defense. Four players are guaranteed their spot: Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson, David Savard and Chris Wideman. In total, there are about 14 players who are either NHL-caliber or close to being NHL-ready. Once again, teams usually keep seven, sometimes eight defensemen on the team.

Due to the lack of right-handed defensemen, Justin Barron starts with an advantage. But he’s only 20 years old and he may (or not) benefit from some development time in Laval. Corey Schueneman did well when called upon last year and many felt like he could replace departing Brent Kulak.

Then, you have a group of quality young players in a bunch: Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, Mattias Norlinder and Arber Xhekaj all have a legitimate shot at making the big club. Young veterans Otto Leskinen, who is returning to North America, and Madison Bowey will ensure to make the Canadiens’ decision difficult. It is important to note that this list doesn’t include quality young prospects That list doesn’t include Logan Mailloux, Lane Hutson, Jayden Struble and Peter Nurmi.

NAMESHOOTSAGEHTWT
Joel EdmundsonL296’5″224
Mike MathesonL286’2″188
David SavardR316’1″234
Chris WidemanR325’10”180
Corey SchuenemanL276’0″196
Justin BarronR206’2″195
Jordan HarrisL225’11”179
Kaiden GuhleL206’2″199
Mattias NorlinderL226’0″185
Otto LeskinenL255’11”187
Arber XhekajL216’4″238
Madison BoweyR266’2″202
Gianni FairbrotherL215’11”202
William TrudeauL196’0″190

Goaltenders

Right now, the Canadiens have three goaltenders who can be considered of NHL caliber. It’s not saying that the team lacks depth, but the others simply aren’t ready yet. With the news that Carey Price is likely out for the season, Jake Allen becomes the number one by default. Samuel Montembeault and Cayden Primeau both signed one-way deals and will be battling for the backup position.

Montembeault seems to have the edge simply due to the fact that he must clear waivers, but don’t count Primeau out just yet. In fact, the Canadiens have a couple of options for him but in either case, he must play.

NAMEAGEHTWT
Jake Allen326’2″190
Sam Montembeault256’3″199
Cayden Primeau236’3″203

So as you can see, training camp should be more competitive than ever and decisions will have to be made. The most pressing issue, however, remains at the forward position and the coaching staff needs help from their General Manager to create at least some room up front. Hughes has done pretty well so far, but he still have work to do before the season begins.

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Defense – A Potential Surprise

By Bob Trask – The news surrounding the Canadiens’ defense today is focused on the departure of Luke Richardson, and with good reason. He has proven himself as an adept assistant coach and filled in admirably as head coach in the playoffs when Dominique Ducharme was sidelined with COVID.

At other times the focus has been on Jeff Petry and his potential departure, the potential of Jordan Harris and Justin Barron, the maturation of Alex Romanov, the new contract for Chris Wideman, the return of Mattias Norlinder and Otto Leskinen to North America, the surprising play of Corey Schueneman and the pending arrival of Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj to the pro ranks.

Under the Radar

One name missing in all of this is David Savard. He ranked 3rd in ice time per game for the Canadiens behind the already departed Ben Chiarot and the probably soon to be departed Jeff Petry. Alex Romanov was close on his heals with only 23 seconds fewer minutes per game. In other words, Savard carried a heavy load but he is rarely discussed. We can do that now.

Focus on Flaws

The biggest flaw in Savard’s game is his foot speed and as critical fans, we immediately pounced on that shortcoming. At times players will try to compensate for a weakness in one part of their game by “cheating” a bit and we could occasionally see that happening with Savard.

There are two ways to try to solve this – and perhaps combining the two approaches will bring success.

David Savard

Pairing Savard with a complementary partner who is quick and adept at moving the puck on breakouts can only help. This could be a defenseman who lacks the size and strength of Savard but who would benefit from a partner that could assume the more physical responsibilities of playing defense. A player like Jordan Harris comes to mind.

The second approach may be a more sensitive topic. This is pure speculation on my part but Martin St. Louis and Kent Hughes may have discussed with Savard the need to get quicker. Like many other Canadiens, Savard had a short summer last year and little opportunity to recuperate from a long playoff run. This off-season will run closer to five months rather than a few weeks and gives Savard the time to work on a program designed to prepare him for the role the coaching staff has in mind.

Strength of Savard’s Game

Savard was second on the team in blocked shots per 60 minutes played, behind only Corey Schueneman!? He was also third in the team in hits per 60 minutes played, behind Alex Romanov and Joel Edmundson but ahead of both Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot. If paired with a smaller, quicker, puck moving defenseman these are a good skills to have.

Savard’s offensive game can also be overlooked but he has surprised more than one team with his stick-handling and his ability to get quality shots on goal. During his career he as averaged 5 goals and 17 assists per 82 games . In his best offensive season he picked up 11 goals and 25 assists so teams ignore covering him at their own risk. He is not a black hole offensively.

His quiet demeanour also speaks of a calming influence and leadership by example. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in the dressing room but by observing what we can, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he has earned a measure of respect from is teammates and the coaching staff.

A New Role

When Savard was signed it seemed apparent that Marc Bergevin was trying to plug a hole left by the departure of Shea Weber. One big, physical defenseman was brought in to replace another and it was unfair of anyone to expect Savard to fill Weber’s shoes – but the comparisons were frequent. Savard would take over Weber’s physical responsibilities while Chris Wideman would take over Weber’s power play responsibilities. In theory it could have worked; in practice it failed miserably.

It seems unlikely that those kinds of expectations will be placed on Savard this season. Indeed, we could see Savard tasked with reduced responsibilities and be put into a position to succeed.

At the moment, Joel Edmundson and Alex Romanov look to be the 1st and 2nd pairing defensemen on the left side. And neither is the perfect complement to Savard. In fact, Jordan Harris and Mattias Norlinder seem to fit that description better. And depending on training camp, Kaiden Guhle might be in the mix. All three are young defensemen who could benefit from the presence of a veteran partner.

Chris Wideman

But what that also means is a 3rd pairing role against presumably weaker competition and with reduced minutes. It would also leave Savard with more energy available in penalty killing roles. All of those factors point toward a stronger season from Savard.

It also means that players like Justin Barron, Chris Wideman and any new acquisitions would be vying for the #1 and #2 roles on left defense. Barron with Edmundson seems to make sense but Wideman seems better suited to a role as the #7 defenseman and occasional power play specialist than as a 1st or 2nd pairing defenseman. But those aren’t Savard’s problems, they are problems for management to overcome.

The Coaching Influence

The departure of Luke Richardson creates a big question mark with regard to the coaching staff but it does give St. Louis and the management team the opportunity to hand pick his successor. With one of the organizational strengths going forward being the prospect pipeline on defense, it is imperative that the team does its due diligence and picks the right person for the job.

As we have seen with Marty St. Louis, a coach can have a profound effect on a player’s performance. Jeff Petry and Cole Caufield are outstanding examples of this effect. Without diminishing Richardson’s contribution, there is the potential for a new coach with a new approach to benefit a player like David Savard. It is something we won’t know until the new coach is hired and the season gets underway.

A New Look Defense

The Canadiens defense will look nothing like the group that started last season. Chiarot and Kulak are already gone with Petry a good bet to follow soon. Young players like Barron, Harris, Norlinder and Guhle will be vying for positions while others like Clague and Schueneman could be in the mix if re-signed.

But even though the Canadiens’ defense needs an overhaul and an upgrade, some sense of stability is also important. Maybe David Savard can help to provide that – don’t count him out just yet.

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