More Grit, But Will There Be More Wins? – Montreal Canadiens Season Preview

by Jacob Saltiel
Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens

One of these is not like the others…
from HabsEyesOnthePrize.com

The Montreal Canadiens (2012)-2013

Last year, Montreal’s biggest problem was two-fold, but limited mainly to the forwards: scoring and grit. Defensively, the Canadiens were one of the better teams in the conference and had an elite penalty kill.

What to expect from the team this year? This post will cover three and a half items:

1. Observations from the intra-squad scrimmage.

2. The Coaching and Special Teams.

3. The Forwards

4. The Defence and a Conclusion.

So let’s get to it!

1. Observations from the Intra-Squad Scrimmage

Bob Gainey’s Stare had eyes in the stands Thursday night watching some fairly disjointed hockey.

Some observations:

Gorges played his usual game. At some points, it looked like he might get hurt from playing so hard, particularly when he cut across the net to break up a Pacioretty rush, piling himself, Price, Pacioretty, and Markov onto one another and dislodging the net. It would have been a good play, if not for the fact that the heap of humanity in the blue ice represented more than $20m of the Habs’ salary cap and 4 of the team’s core players.

Rene Bourque turned on the jets, made a little dangle, then roofed a puck back-hand on Budaj. Let’s see him do that about 20 times this season.

– Markov’s passing terrifies his opponents, who spent all night giving him room and trying to limit his passing angle instead of forechecking him.

Galchenyuk (who survived the cuts Friday morning) barely got onto the puck all night. Near the end of the 2nd period, he implicated himself in the play a couple of times, but never looked confident with the puck, nor could he get open for Lars Eller to dish to him. In 5 games, he’s back on the bus.

-Speaking of Eller, he looked great. Using his size, reach, and speed to battle for pucks and get around defenders, if he can do this against actual NHL teams, he’ll have a fantastic year.

-The ColeDesharnais-Pacioretty line looks to be in mid-season form, even if they were competing against half of an NHL team.

Brendan Gallagher (who also survived the cuts Friday morning) plays a pesky game. Several times he dug right into the goalie crease, and spent much of the game harassing players up and down the ice.

– Gritty players, like Armstrong, Moen, White, and Prust didn’t particularly stand out, which is a good thing. If they had, you’d be reading a post on the terribly unlucky injury to Markov in a pre-season intra-squad scrimmage.

2. Therrien Returns, Windows Rattle

It’s difficult to tell what effect a coach has on a team from the fan’s perspective. You can depend on this though: if the team skates around as if controlled by children playing NHL 2012, the coach is extremely bad.

One area in which one can most easily perceive the effect of coaching is special teams, since special teams require discipline and creativity from the coaching staff to succeed.

The young Michel Therrien had more in common with an active volcano than a professorial director of X’s and O’s. In Pittsburgh, his finals runner-up performance was probably overshadowed by a broadside he fired at his own team in the media.

Regardless of what kind of coach Therrien is, let’s see where he has work to do this upcoming year.

Since Kirk Muller showed up and through the Martin years, the Canadiens have alternated between having an elite (top5) powerplay or an elite penalty kill. All statistics are from NHL.com.

In 2007-2008, the Canadiens led the NHL in powerplay goals (90) and % (24.1). Ignoring powerplay % as a stat, since goals determine the outcome of games and there are no trophies for efficient use of powerplay time, let’s look at each year since:

2008-2009: 36 goals, 4th

2009-2010: 32 goals, 5th

2010-2011: 28 goals, 7th

2011-2012: 18, 24th (Muller left the organization before this season)

For a team that wins a lot of close games because they don’t score a ton of goals, that drop in powerplay production hurt.

Over the same time, the penalty kill has allowed this many goals per season:

2007-2008: 28, 8th

2008-2009: 37, 20th

2009-2010: 27, 12th

2010-2011: 24, 10th  (1st in PK%!)

2011-2012: 18, 5th (2 in PK%!)

Highlighting the disparity between % and rank in goals allowed shows just how penalty-prone the Canadiens are as a team. While the penalty kill itself is in good shape, what the Canadiens really need to do is to take fewer penalties, and hence let in fewer goals on penalty kill.

The return of Markov gives Therrien an extra weapon to improve the powerplay, especially if he can get the parts around him, Kaberle, and eventually Subban to work cohesively.

On the penalty kill, the greatest improvement might cause in scaring the holy hell out of his players to cut down on their penalty minutes, giving penalty killers Plekanec and Gorges more time at 5-on-5. Last year the Canadiens spent 521 minutes and 26 seconds killing penalties. That was the most time spenton the PK in the entire league and, were the penalties strung together consecutively, represents 8.6 entire games in the box. That’s more than 10% of the season down a player, and that needs to change.

3. Up front the Canadiens didn’t have enough scoring outside of the excellent top-line of PaciorettyDesharnaisCole, and Plekanec. The bottom-two lines were composed of either young, over-matched offensive players (PalushajLeblancEller), or cheap players without easily definable NHL skills (NokelainenBlundenDarche) and the ineffective Rene Bourque. Taken together, the third and fourth lines were neither capable of producing consistent offence, checking the other team’s top lines effectively, nor even intimidating the other team with hitting. This placed undue strain on the top-2 lines to score, defend, play special teams, and more or less win the games on their own.

The return of White and Moen from injuries, along with the additions of Prust and Armstrong* easily address this problem. With a 3rd and 4th line that can contribute defence and grit, there should be more productive seasons for players like Eller while lightening the minutes-load on the top-line and Plekanec.

Having said that, Cole has a history of injuries and losing him for any length of time could hurt the team’s already poor offence, and Plekanec and Gionta still need another player to line up with who can score goals and open up space for them.

4. Backend

The defence was covered largely in The Thin Blue Line: Canadiens D, 2013but here’s a verdict:

The team doesn’t score enough to run and gun, therefore they’ll be in the business of grinding out close games. To do that, they’ll need to dramatically cut down on penalties, and capitalize on their powerplay opportunities to prop up their even-strength scoring.

In short, if Markov can run the powerplay again and Subban signs a flarning contract and improves his overall game, the Canadiens might be able to win just enough games to get in to the playoffs as a 6, 7, or 8 seed, but if there’s any regression from the top-2 lines in the form of mediocre play or injury and if the Habs continue to take hours of penalty minutes… well, you saw what happened last year.

***

*Although Armstrong’s a candidate for reinjuring himself, since he seems to be made out of papier-mache.

One Trackback to “More Grit, But Will There Be More Wins? – Montreal Canadiens Season Preview”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: