The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

By JD Lagrange – The Canadiens have reached the 14 games mark and force is to admit that they have surprised many pundits in the hockey world so far. That includes many of their fans, and members of their wolf-like media pack, who thought that the team would be falling in the bottom-five of the NHL once again.

The season is still young and it’s way too early to celebrate, it’s true. After all, the team was in a similar position at this point last season before everything started crumbling due to the countless injuries to key players. But so far – knock on wood – the team has only lost one player long term in Kirby Dach, who is done for the season after having knee surgery to repair not one, but two torn ligaments. David Savard is also out for 6-8 weeks with a fractured left hand.

The team improved depth has been paying dividends so far, and it’s particularly noticeable at the center position. While the Alex Newhook experiment at center hasn’t been conclusive, the return of Christian Dvorak has provided a boost to this line-up. Savard’s loss is more difficult to replace as neither Johnathan Kovacevic or Jordan Harris have been able to face the tougher opposition on the top-4 so far.

A few hours from puck drop against the Vancouver Canucks, the Canadiens are two games above .500 and sit fifth in the Atlantic Division. They are only one point back of the Florida Panthers, two back of Toronto and Detroit. The Canadiens have a game in hand on every one of those teams except on the Panthers. Further, the Habs have won back to back games against their division rivals Red Wings and Bruins.

Today, I’ve decided to highlight a few players so far and the cowboy in me picked a good old classic Western to make my point. Here are The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for the first 12 games.

The Good

A few players have really stood out so far this season and I’ve picked

  • Sean Monahan: what a start to the season for Mony! Third on the team in scoring with 12 points, and a faceoffs’ percentage of almost 60%.
  • Brendan Gallagher: Many had left him out for dead and finished, but Gally has bounced back so far this year. His five goals have him tied with Caufield, one back of Monahan and Suzuki.
  • Cole Caufield: Mr. Overtime already has three OT goals so far. What’s more surprising from Cole so far is his playmaking abilities, with 14 points in as many games.
  • Nick Suzuki: They were many to criticize the Canadiens’ captain earlier this season but that proved to be a futile exercise, as he’s once again leading the team in goals (6) and second in points (13).
  • Kaiden Guhle: The young defenseman missed four games to injuries so far but he’s been a rock defensively. Only Matheson has more points than Guhle amongst the team’s defensemen, and he leads the Canadiens with a surprising +9 rating.
  • Justin Barron: In spite of the fact that I had written about the possibility of him surprising, Barron is a transformed player. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that he’s the most stable defenseman on the right side for the Habs so far this season.

The Bad

Others have been up and down. In this case, the term “bad” might be a bit severe, I’ll be the first to admit. But these guys, in my opinion, can and should offer more.

  • Mike Matheson: His situation is weird. At times, he’s like Bobby Orr and other times, he’s Jeff Petry. More consistency should be expected from Matheson but he’s still, with Guhle and Barron, the Canadiens’ best defenseman.
  • Alex Newhook: Prior to Dach’s injury, Newhook started on fire. But since being moved to center, he struggled mightily. He creates stuff with his speed, but there’s something missing in his game.
  • Sam Montembeault: The starter position was his for the taking, but he’s been outplayed this season by Jake Allen. Up, down, up, down. Stats are okay, but the bad goals are a killer. Elliotte Friedman claims that the Canadiens and Monty are close in a contract extension.
  • Johnathan Kovacevic: He’s better suited for the third pair and penalty kills. When asked to play on the top-4, like he’s had to do with Savard’s injury, he struggles. Not his fault, it’s not his chair. He’s not meant to play consistently against top opposition.

The Ugly

Some stand out in the eyes of fans and media, but for the wrong reasons. Their production is not where it should be, for whatever reasons.

  • Josh Anderson: It hurts me to put him here but the stats line is just not good enough to bring him higher. He’s holding the stick tight but at least, he’s creating offensive opportunities for the team. If he can get one, the monkey will be off his back.
  • Juraj Slafkovsky: Much like for Anderson, it hurts me to put Slaf here. This is NOT a knock against the kid, whom I wanted the Habs to pick. He is progressing, but the offensive output is simply not there. And for a first overall pick, some offense should be expected. Like Andy, he has been getting some chances.
  • Jordan Harris: One has to be quite critical to put Harris on this list but he hasn’t been the shadow of himself so far this season. He’s being outmuscled and makes questionable decisions from time to time in his zone. His passes are not as crisp as they were last season. Playing on his wrong side isn’t helping any…
  • Joel Armia: He got a kick in the pants when sent to Laval, where his attitude was irreproachable and his production was great. He had a couple of good games after being called back up but he has disappeared since. He just doesn’t have it.

There you have it folks. Admittedly, I’m anticipating a lot of pushback on some of those. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, and my list certainly isn’t the Bible of assessments. It’s simply based on what I, personally, was expecting from some of the Canadiens’ players. But rest assured that this is not meant as a player-bashing article. In fact, in spite of the struggles by some of the players listed above, the start of the season is, overall, quite positive.

This and That: Quit The Drama

By JD Lagrange – The Montreal Canadiens were dealt a huge blow this weekend after finding out that they will have to be without Kirby Dach for an extended period of time. Dach injured himself on Saturday in the game against his former team, the Chicago Blackhawks. It is believed that 22 year old center has damaged the ACL, and possibly also the MCL in his knee.

We are two games into the season and some media members and bloggers are already writing off this season. That’s right. 80 games remaining (before tonight’s matchup against Minnesota) and we have several people throwing the towel. That’s pretty incredible, if you ask me.

For one thing, this isn’t the Habs of the past. Why? They have depth at the center position. Gone are the days of trying Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi at center and if one player got injured, the team had to rely on Ryan Poehling or Jake Evans on the second line.

Alex Newhook, for one, is a center. They started him on the wing so he can acclimatize easier into what Martin St-Louis does with his team, and because of the depth on the Canadiens at that position. He will be returning to center with Dach out. Let’s remind Habs’ fans that Newhook is tied on the team lead in goals with Cole Caufield, with two goals each in two games.

Then you have veteran Sean Monahan whom, at this point in his career, is a better centerman than Dach. The former Calgary Flames captain seems healthy and he has two points in two games so far, with a plus-two differential rating. His success rate of 64.3% in the faceoffs’ dots (to Dach’s 37.5%) is excellent for a team wanting to have puck possession.

Also, Christian Dvorak is hinging closer to a return. D-vo has led the team in faceoffs since joining the team and he’s a sound third line center, allowing to move Monahan up or possibly Newhook back to the wing if they decide.

Will the Canadiens miss Kirby Dach? Of course they will. They will miss his size and he seemed to be coming along nicely. But you cannot miss potential. Looking at what he has brought in the past, it’s not like they’re going without a point-per-game player here… and they have options. So please, stop dramatizing everything and throwing the towel after two games… it’s ridiculous.

This and That

☞ In a recent interview, Canadiens’ GM Kent Hughes said wanting to add star talent to his line-up. Looking at the current roster, it seems like he could be referring to finding a suitable right-winger for his top line, to play alongside Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. The team started with Josh Anderson on that line, and he has played pretty well. They might try Rafaël Harvey-Pinard there as well, but neither is a perfect fit for a NHL top line.

☞ One of the trading chips that the Canadiens might have is a young quality defenseman and a goaltender. The Habs’ brass decided to keep prospect Cayden Primeau with the big club, afraid to lose him on waivers. But keeping three goalies is far from ideal. For one, there are only two nets in practice so one of them has to share. But mostly, I am a strong believer that for a young player’s development, he needs to play. Keeping Primeau in the press box eating hot dogs is detrimental to the player and the team.

☞ It is painful to see Brendan Gallagher so far this season. He is the least utilized forward by coach St-Louis, averaging 11:22 minutes of ice time in two games. A leader, and one of the highest paid forwards on the team, Gally needs to find his game and do it sooner rather than later. Fans and media are already starting to show their discontent and it will easily become a target if he can’t turn things around. It’s very unfortunate as no one wants to produce and help his team more than Gallagher himself. It’s in his DNA.

☞ I was looking at the stats’ sheet after two games and I was rather surprised to see that only Arber Xhekaj has had less ice time than Kaiden Guhle amongst defensemen. Granted, the margin isn’t huge between him (18:14), Jordan Harris (18:29) and Johnathan Kovacevic (18:52) but it is still surprising. Of course, we expect Mike Matheson to lead (25:37) and David Savard to be over 20 minutes (23:13), but Guhle should be a solid third, with close to 20 minutes as well, no? We know that he’s been hit hard a couple of times this season, so is he nursing a minor injury? Or is the coaching staff trying to teach him to better protect himself?

☞ It was great seeing Tanner Pearson score his first goal of the season, on a hard wrist shot from a good distance. Living in BC, I’m well aware of how difficult of a season it’s been for Tanner in Vancouver last year, suffering complication from his surgery. He’s the ultimate team player, a good quality veteran and a very good hockey player. Here’s hoping that he can continue his progression, as it takes a while to find your timing after such a long layoff.