The Montreal Canadiens hit the All-Star break on a low after mailing in their final two games, but that shouldn’t take away from some very encouraging signs shown in the first half of the season.
The Habs had a lot of stars that aligned for them on their way to finishing last season with the best record in the Eastern Conference. The injury bug steered clear from the team completely, the power play was lethal and the team’s speed forced opponents into taking a lot of penalties. It all made for an entertaining year, but the Canadiens second round playoff ouster showed it was a bit of a house of cards.
If one of those aspects were taken away from them – in the case of last year’s playoffs, it was the lethal nature of the power play – the team’s warts would be exposed, and that’s exactly what the Philadelphia Flyers did.
This year, the only thing that has remained for the Canadiens is their ability to draw penalties with their speed, with the power play remaining a work in progress and injuries taking a significant toll. Yet, despite losing those two advantages from last year, the Canadiens have not tumbled, have not shown they are fragile.
This is a team that relies on its 5-on-5 play to win games instead of the power play, a team with the depth necessary to absorb injuries and slumps. In short, it’s a team that’s better built to succeed in the spring.
But does that mean the Canadiens are contenders? That they should be dreaming of a centennial Stanley Cup celebration? Not yet.
For that to become a reality, two things need to happen. First, general manager Bob Gainey needs to add a top-four defenceman, preferably one that can quarterback a power play and move the puck up ice quickly. While the defence to date has been sound and even excelled in the absence of Mike Komisarek, an elite team needs to be better than simply passable on the back end.
Gainey doesn’t necessarily need to hit a home run like grabbing Jay Bouwmeester or Tomas Kaberle at the deadline, but he needs to find someone who can play 20 minutes a night on Roman Hamrlik’s right side and provide a jolt of offence when needed. Andrei Markov is having a fantastic season and enters the All-Star break second in the league among defencemen with 37 points. But the next highest scoring Habs blueliner is Hamrlik with 15 points, tied for 63rd among the league’s defencemen. That’s a problem that needs to be fixed because to me it shows that the defence, aside from Markov, is not getting the puck to forwards in a position to score off the rush. For a team with the Canadiens speed up front, it’s not utilizing the talent available to its fullest potential.
The second need for the Canadiens in the second half is the emergence of an elite scorer, and that can come from one of two places. The first is Alex Kovalev, who aside from a horrendous two games this week has played pretty well this season, he just doesn’t have the numbers to show for it. I believe he will improve his production in the second half, but he likely won’t score at the same pace as last year.
That means Andrei Kostitsyn has to fill the role of the team’s elite scorer, something he’s already begun doing of late. His five-game goal streak recently was a glimpse of what he can offer and he needs to continue to show off his tremendous talent on a more consistent basis. He has the best shot on the team, and head coach Guy Carbonneau considers it one of the best in the league, yet Kostitsyn will play some games where he shoots everything in sight and others where he refuses to shoot altogether. So far he has 98 shots on goal in 42 games, and that’s not nearly enough. If he starts getting more pucks on net consistently he’ll become a far more dangerous player, one the Canadiens could ride on a second half surge toward the playoffs.
The Canadiens are in good position to make that second half run, but I don’t think the team as it’s made up right now can be considered a legitimate Cup contender. But with another strong defenceman and the emergence of a scoring star from within, they could become one very quickly.
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