So where were we?
Forget the losses to the Capitals and Wild. There was no way an injury depleted team like the Habs could keep up the pace they were on following their 7 game road trip, especially against teams like Washington who have revved up again (best 5 on 5 team in NHL) following a sluggish start (instead of flying out of the gate like a season ago only to crash (again) in the spring) and the clearly-for-real Wild.
At this time a year ago, with their MVP goalie down and out and the losses piling up like post-Christmas Visa card payments, we asked if the Habs cup was half full or half empty. When in fact, their season was already over. Shoddy goaltending, a leadership group that was ill prepared to deal with adversity and clearly kept waiting for help, a coaching staff that appeared incapable of fixing anything while becoming more morose by the day and a management group that appeared frozen by the reality of the situation, led to an unscheduled pit stop in hockey hell.
Lessons learned. They won’t get burned again.
- Carey Price. Picked up in September right where he left off last November. There’s some hand wringing going on right now because Price hasn’t been very good over the last six weeks – with an unsightly save percentage of under .900 But In his career Price has traditionally started strong, sagged a bit in December (.912) and January (.913) and bounced back strongly in February (.921) and March (.921). Yes, he’s allowing too many goals, especially blocker side. It’s called a slump. Bottom line? Among goalies who have played at least 20 games, Price’s 5 on 5 save percentage of .938 trails only Devan Dubnyk, Corey Crawford and Braden Holtby. Assuming Price eludes injury from a crease crashing forward he’ll be fine. But even Carey Price could use some help which we’ll get to later.
- Alexander Radulov. Best Habs forward since opening night. A true difference maker. A beast of a playmaker with his Jagr-like ability to hang onto the puck down low. It seems like his unshaven, toothless mug has been around for a lot longer than three and a half months. Some wonder about his staying power over the next 40 games. They think because the KHL schedule is shorter that he’s suddenly going to lose his size and strength? If anything, he might get stronger once his centre man returns.
- Max Pacioretty. Slow start – probably due to playing with an injury (as first reported by Mitch Gallo) but back on pace for a 35-40 goal season. So much more at ease on and off the ice. Fast learner.
- Shea Weber. Presence. It’s been awhile since the Habs have had a player whose strengths are obvious but who is also clearly more important than the ability to play his position well. You don’t get it in soundbites but it’s clearly something that resonates on the ice, in the room and around the NHL. In Dallas, Michel Therrien took a bench minor for arguing with a referee. There was a border line penalty call on the Habs in the second period which resulted in a Dallas power play goal, followed by a missed call on the Stars. The old Therrien emerged. On the ensuing penalty kill, during a stoppage deep in Montreal territory, an angry Weber was letting the zebra have it. Max Pacioretty could clearly be seen with a look of wonder and amusement on his face while he looked at Tomas Plekanec, as if to point out, “Can you believe what he’s saying and how he’s saying it?”. They don’t teach that in leadership class. Some wonder about the nasty streak. It’s there alright. Sure, he’s no Chris Pronger. But Weber’s more subtle. And he picks his spots while measuring the temperature of the game, like taking a couple of cross checking penalties in Toronto. There is no denying the Habs are a tougher team to play against this season. It starts here.
- Alex Galchenyuk. Terrific start in his first full season as a #1 centre. Was among the top scorers in the league and on pace for 30+ goals and 70+ points before he had his knee clipped by Anze Kopitar. Obvious great chemistry with Radulov made the pair, on many nights, unstoppable.
- Jeff Petry. This was the guy the Habs got out of hockey purgatory in Edmonton. Plus he’s raised his game a notch or two, already establishing a career high in goals. It seemingly took awhile for even his own coaching staff to finally get clued in to how good he is.
- Paul Byron. While some of his better known teammates struggled to put the puck in the net Byron emerged to become a real threat. When not utilizing his blazing speed to get open he can usually be found in front of the opponents’ net, often depositing loose pucks into it. Like Petry, Byron barely needed half a season to establish a career high in goals. Is he really a 20 goal scorer? We’re about to find out.
- Andrei Markov. Was having such a strong season before his groin injury that it seemed only a matter of time before we heard that he’d be back for at least one more. The Benjamin Button of NHL defensemen.
- Phillip Danault. We knew he was a solid, smart player who would eventually settle in as the Habs #3 centre. But since the Galchenyuk injury he’s played like a star. Who knew he was this good? Is he really this good? Like Byron, we’re going to find out over the second half of the season.
- Andrew Shaw. Tremendous acquistion. Been there, done that character guy who plays everywhere while generating offense. But everybody already knew that, no? His concussion courtesy of Torrey Krug marked the first time in his NHL career that he missed a string of games because of an injury, which is kind of difficult to believe considering how he plays.
- Alexei Emelin. Best thing that happened to his game was being paired with Weber. But still not convinced the pairing should remain intact.
- Artturi Lehkonen. Poised for a strong second half, perhaps pushing himself into a more regular top 6 role. NHL rookies with more goals than Lehkonen? Auston Matthews, Patrick Laine, Jimmy Vesey and Anthony Mantha.
- Torrey Mitchell. Habs don’t get off to a great start without Torrey Mitchell. Just like a season ago.
- Nathan Beaulieu. Typically inconsistent…until he returned from an injury. Playing the best hockey of his career, at times getting more ice than any Montreal player. So why do I still think he might be dealt?
- Al Montoya. Just pretend that 10 goal game in Columbus didn’t happen.
- Brian Flynn. Perfect role/depth player for the modern NHL. Skates very well, plays all 3 forward positions, good on face offs. Excellent in shootouts. Really, how much better can they do for a 12th or 13th forward?
- Power Play. It’s been a constant re-working of the game plan from setting up Shea Weber (until opponents took the option away) to finding Alex Galchenyuk to giving more time to Jeff Petry (finally). There have been some dreadful moments. But, even without a couple of key elements, they appear to have finally found a comfort zone, moving into 7th in the NHL at over 22%.
- Michel Therrien. I thought his inability to find any solution to the historic collapse of a season ago while at the same time lashing out at his best player and others (hello there Gallo) for simply doing their jobs would cost him his. But clearly his boss meant it when he said “This (collpase) is on me.” Bringing in the respected, positive-thinking and eternally youthful Kirk Muller was a master stroke. It’s made Therrien a better coach. But then again, contrary to how many fans feel, he was already a very good coach. I’ve always defended the guy – until last winter. There’s been a lot of emphasis lately on how the Habs are not just winning but actually winning puck battles and the possession game. This is not new. They were in the same position a year ago. Until the calendar changed. And for those of you who have short memories let me remind you that the Habs controlled the play in their 2015 playoff loss to Tampa Bay, only to find themselves unable to finish off scoring chances, in part because of Ben Bishop but also because they simply weren’t good enough offensively. Maybe it’s the Muller effect but Therrien has clearly evolved to the point where he was willing to put an extra forward on the power play but even more striking was his willingness to change things up for 3 on 3 in overtime. He used to start the same three guys – Pacioretty, Plekanec and Weber while ignoring others whose speed is tailor made for the open ice. Several OT losses later he started Pacioretty with Danault and Petry as the lone defenseman. Presto. They started winning in overtime. It’s impossible to have a legit conversation about coach of the year without mentioning Michel Therrien.
- Marc Bergevin. If Max Pacioretty had a year that warranted criticism as “the worst captain in Canadiens history” then surely Bergevin’s 2015-16 season could rank as the worst of any GM in team history – and that includes the wicked and weird Pierre Gauthier. Seriously. It was downright embarrassing – Zack Kassian, Alex Semin, Ben Scrivens, Lucas Lessio, Stefan Matteau, Victor Bartley, John Scott. No wonder he tried hiding behind a full beard. While the jury was still out on Bergevin as a GM there was a fairly strong level of belief that he knew what he was doing and would be able to solve problems. But then Carey Price got injured and Bergevin’s colourful world turned dark. He was at his best with his “buck stops here” moment when pressed about his coach’s job security. By that point, he had likely already “taken a knee” (as Pierre LeBrun put it) and began prepping for this year. He had a short summer to get his act back together. The “holy shit” moment of June 29 was his long awaited legacy move. Even if he manages in the NHL for another two decades, Bergevin will not make a bigger trade than P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. That wasn’t just a star for star deal. It was a complete culture change. An acknowledgement that the leadership core wasn’t strong enough. But Bergevin didn’t stop there. He clearly wanted to move a frustrating player he inherited – Lars Eller – in exchange for someone with a lot more grit. So he brought in a Stanley Cup winner he knows very well. Some grumbled about the contract he gave to Andrew Shaw but is anybody prepared to suggest after watching him play that Shaw isn’t worth it? And we haven’t hit the playoffs yet. To avoid the possibility of another inexperienced goaltender being asked to carry the load should Price get hurt, Bergevin signed perhaps the NHL’s best backup (as we strictly define it) in Al Montoya. And then there was Alexander Radulov. Outside of the rejuvenated Eric Staal in Minnesota, Radulov was the best free agent signing of the summer. Talent, passion, smarts, impact, leadership. It’s all been there from Radulov, much to the surprise of many long time NHL observers and to the dismay of Nashville GM David Poile who knew what he had but couldn’t live with the growing pains. Marc Bergevin needed to work his ass off to make up for a debacle of a season. He did just that. But that work is far from over. He’s poised to pounce on an impact forward and, at the very least, a solid depth defenseman in the mold of a Mike Weaver. And he looks a lot better clean shaven.
- Tomas Plekanec. It was almost sad watching a dispirited Plekanec barely skate his way through the first half of the season. An inability to finish scoring chances is one thing. But an inability and just plain disinterest to finish checks is an indication of something beyond a prolonged slump. Plekanec cares alright. It just looked, on many nights, that he didn’t care enough. Suddenly, at the halfway point, there are real signs of life. Four points in four games and goals in three straight. Did somebody kick him in the ass? Did the emergence of Danault force him to re-examine his game? Did the HNIC report about a possible trade kick him into gear? Was he just pacing himself after an early start at the World Cup? Or, is this late spurt just a mirage? So many questions. Six weeks until the trade deadline might provide an answer or two.
- Brendan Gallagher. The opposite of Plekanec. Was still the hardest working guy on the ice. But just couldn’t score. Gallagher is better than 6 goals in 39 games. He has to be. Maybe he was about to turn things around offensively because every other aspect of his game was strong. But now we won’t know until very late in the season. But there is actually a positive spin to his latest broken hand, assuming of course that there is no lingering structural damage that might affect his ability to shoot pucks – he’ll be very well rested by playoff time. If Markov is Benjamin Button than Gallagher is Edward Scissorhands.
- David Desharnais. Can he reboot his career – or what’s left of it – as a left winger?
- Daniel Carr. I expected a lot more. There’s a lot to like about Carr – his hustle, his competitiveness, his play down low. The Habs have been patient with him, no doubt waiting to see more of the player we saw a year ago before his season all but ended with a leg injury. But he’s running out of time.
- Injuries. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, not after using 45 players last year. They’re up to 32 players this season. And as important as some of these injured players are – Galchenyuk, Markov, Gallagher, Shaw – Carey Price has remained healthy (although he’s played like a replacement player since December). The good news is that Galchenyuk, Shaw and Markov are about set to return. The bad news is that somebody else will soon go down. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to see it coming.
- Penalty Kill. God awful. Who’s in charge here? How is it that Carey Price’s save percentage while the Habs are shorthanded is .850 – or 36th among NHL goalies with at least 12 games played? What’s happened to Montreal’s aggressive approach on the PK? Instead we see four players in a box, barely moving, waving their sticks back and forth, while opponents easily find open space and free shooting lanes. It doesn’t matter who your goalie is when you allow as many high quality shots as the Habs do. They’ve sunk to 23rd in the NHL on the PK at 78.6%. Yet nothing changes.
- .892 – Carey Price’s save percentage since December 1. Yet look at the standings. He’ll get it together. Perhaps as early as Montreal’s next home game against the NY Rangers. Price’s lifetime record against New York is 12-5-1, 1.74, .943.