Halfway Through the Schedule in 1st? Habs’ll take it.

by Jacob Saltiel
Tampa Bay Lightning v Montreal Canadiens

Hey Eastern Conference, Tell Me How My *ss Tastes
from habseyesontheprize.com

Pre-season Expectations:

– at least some improvement from their last place finish.

– more grit with the arrival of Prust, Armstrong, and Bouillon.

– explosive outbursts of rage, fury, and caustic understatement from the returning Michel Therrien.

– more juggling of the forward lines.

Since the pre-season, a quick survey of Bergevin’s GM moves includes:

– helping Gomez escape from his contract the way Joshua Jackson helped the whale over the wall (with as much pathos, hope, and relief for Habs fans as for viewers of that movie).

– making the aggressive move to include 2 rookies, Gallagher and the 18-year old Galchenyuk on the roster.

– winning a game of contract chicken with Pernell and his agent, keeping Subban signed for 2 years at a bargain.

– trading away the popular but struggling Cole for Michael Ryder and his expiring contract, somehow obtaining a 3rd draft pick from Dallas in the process.

Today, the Habs:

 are first overall in the eastern conference.

– have a top 3 offence in terms of goals scored

– have a top 3 +/- differential

– have the league leading defenceman in goals scored with 6, in PK Subban (whose done it in fewer games and fewer minutes played per game (21:10)  than his closest competition (Brian Campbell, 25:51/game and the recently injured Karlsson 27:03/game).

– are 9th in the league with 30 shots/game

– tied for 6th in the league with 27.2 shots allowed/ game.

– are grittier are and tougher to play against, led by the brilliant signing of Prust* and the rest of the grinders.

MARKET CORRECTION?

With the Bruins holding 3 games in hand on the division leading Canadiens, it’s unrealistic to expect the Habs to hang onto to that fancy rank in the standings.

Additionally, there are some troubling signs defensively for the Canadiens. Last year, they struggled because they couldn’t score goals, even if they had a relatively strong defence. This year, Price has looked occasionally shaky- especially recently when he gave up 11 goals** to the Penguins and Islanders- and the Montreal penalty kill is middle of the pack, ranked 14th in efficiency and 17th in terms of actual goals allowed.

Meanwhile, Bourque and Diaz are injured with concussions. Bourque’s solid play this year finally provided Plekanec with a reliable linemate who went to the net and opened up space. His absence means more line juggling by Therrien to try and balance the scoring behind the reliable Pacioretty-Desharnais tandem. Diaz  provided excellent service for Markov on the powerplay and didn’t seem to kill the team defensively on the 3rd pairing with Bouillon. His absence means the return of Kaberle- to Kaberle’s credit he hasn’t been a distraction given his subordinate status on the team- and now the call-up of Greg Pateryn with the injury to Weber.

Markov plays 24:31 a night, which is too much. At his age with his injury history, the possibility that he either wears down or gets injured is probable.

Keeping it Close

Those are the major concerns for the Habs. Of their 5 regulation losses this year, 2 have come against the much-improved Leafs, one of which was the opening night televised scrimmage. The other 3 were to Boston, Ottawa, and New York. Of those losses, three were 1-goal games, and the other two were regrettable blowouts. What this means is that the Canadiens keep games close, and take care of business against inferior competition. Sure, there’s been a troubling habit of blowing 3rd period leads, but this may be due to the schedule or the demands of Therrien’s tight-checking system.

In many ways, this season is similar to the Habs’ 1st overall finish in the East in 2007-2008. That year, traditional powers such as Philadelphia and Ottawa underachieved, while the conference in general was up for grabs with no dominant team. The Canadiens, solidly in the lottery the year before, improved significantly and perched atop the standings pyramid that spring. This year, the Bruins might be the best team in the conference, but other than that, there are no other elite teams. Pittsburgh’s amusingly shaky goaltending, surprisingly lacklustre Philly and New York teams, and the shockingly mediocre Southeast Division mean that the conference is up for grabs.

While the Canadiens may not finish in 1st, if they keep playing this way and keep playing Boston hard enough to make Julein cry in public, they may have one of the higher seeds in the conference at season’s end.

***

*Haters decried that Bergevin overpaid for Prust. In a very rigid sense he did, in that $2.5m/year for a grinder seems like a misprint. What people who make this argument miss, however, is that the Canadiens haven’t had anyone on their roster like Prust in… a while.

There have been energetic 3rd and 4th liners (Kostopolous, Begin), there’ve been big ones, (Moen), and scrappy ones (White), but no one with Prust’s defensive acumen, motor, and apparent fearlessness. For a team that had maybe two players who could throw their weight around last year (Moen and Emelin, White was mostly injured), the combination of Prust with Armstrong and White’s return to health gives Therrien options on the 3rd and 4th line that Martin and Carbonneau never had.

So, yes, Prust gets paid a lot for a grinder, but not much in comparison to the actual salary cap. At this point, his contract only looks bad in that one worries for Prust’s health over the next four years. Even if he doesn’t keep producing offence (an unreasonable expectation as people saw last year with Moen’s tale of two seasons), Prust makes the team better.

Replace him with Dumont or Leblanc or Blunden and the team is poorer.

**1 of the 12 scored against was an empty netter.

 

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