State Of Affairs
When the Montreal Canadiens slid into the very final playoff spot last April not many people envisioned that the Habs would be squaring off with the Flyers in late May for a shot at the Cup.
Yet, there they were. Out-playing both the Capitals and Penguins en route to their date with the Flyers. It was by all means a Cinderella run, but was it all smoke and mirrors?
Given their regular season record from last year, many would easily say it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, ie. a whole bunch of luck, while most of those who followed the team closely were left baffled – unsure of which team to expect on the ice this season, the regular season Canadiens or the playoff Canadiens?
Regardless of which side of the fence your opinion falls on, the clear-cut reality was that there were still quite a few questions to be answered.
That said, 8 games into the Habs 2010-11 regular season schedule and it would seem that, from all appearances, they’re picking up right where they left off last May.
Although it’s far too early to begin wondering whether or not Montreal will be able to sustain this kind of play, what can be said is that the Habs are only doing themselves a favor by earning points in the early going.
With a record of 5-2-1, Montreal currently sits atop the Eastern Conference(as of 10/26/10) as well as the Northeast division with 11 points.
Interestingly enough, and for all of those who are wondering, no – the Canadiens are not finding success with the same players.
And therein lies the beauty of the Habs early season success.
They are getting strong play from alot of the question marks on their roster. Performances that have supplanted the output expected(yet not received) from key members of the team.
On top of the surprise start by the secondary scorers, the defense, penalty killing and goaltending have been excellent thus far, all without Andrei Markov.
While it’s going to be a long season for every team in the NHL, the Habs are in excellent shape as they continue to put ground between themselves and their rivals.
With 3 games in 4 nights this week the Canadiens are going to have their hands full. That said, although they have a large workload ahead of them, the Habs won’t be in the worst of shape as they will get their heavy lifter and top defenseman, Andrei Markov, back in the lineup(likely by Saturday).
Considering their hot start, and the fact they are getting their wins from(perhaps)unexpected sources, here’s a look at the Canadiens grades through 8 games.
A: Andrei Kostitsyn
- What is there to say about Andrei, other than he appears to be playing in “real time.” For the last two seasons, AK46 has been looked upon as the Habs burgeoning home-grown sniper. A former first round pick, there is no denying the grace, hands and shot that the large winger possesses, yet his knock has always been consistency. He’s shown flashes of brilliance(see 2007-08) yet has always dealt with major bouts of inconsistency. Now, even though 8 games is but a mere snapshot of a season, it certainly appears that Kostitsyn is for, all intents and purposes, coming into his own. Andrei leads the Canadiens in scoring with 5 goals(including 2 GWG) and 3 assists in 8 games and sits 22nd overall in the NHL, 3 spots ahead of Alex Ovechkin. There is definitely more to be expected from the sniper, especially consistently, yet he is – at the moment – the Canadiens top offensive performer and deserves his “A.”
A: Josh Gorges
- Much like Andrei Kostitsyn, if it weren’t for Josh Gorges exceptional play through 8 games, the Montreal Canadiens wouldn’t quite be in the spot they’re in right now. Gorges has been an absolute beast for the Canadiens so far, playing a team high 23:05 per game including not only his usual duties of penalty killing, but also – in the wake of Andrei Markov’s absence, significant power play minutes. The result of the power play time has led to Josh’s 1st power play goal in a Habs jersey in over 2 years as well as 4 even strength assists, the most on the Canadiens(tied with Plekanec and Subban). To think of how much better Josh can be once Andrei Markov returns makes one scratch their head, especially considering how great he has already been. Relative to making an impression, outside of Andrei Markov, there is no other player on this team that management must retain this summer than Josh Gorges.
A-: Carey Price
- The “A-” is merely because there is still some leeway in Carey’s game. Quite honestly, no one knew what to expect from Price out of the gates as one of the biggest concerns surrounding Montreal’s number 1 netminder was his consistency. With Jaro Halak out of the picture, the Habs had no choice but to embrace Price, yet the jury was still as to whether Carey would embrace the team back. Well, given the small body of work we have already witnessed, it’s safe to say that Carey is playing at a level that everyone had come to expect of him. As a former top 5 pick, there’s always going to be an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders, yet having gone through the thick and thin of growing up in the NHL(and not the AHL), he’s got experience and wisdom on his side. For a 23 year old to have 142 games of NHL experience already under his belt, well, it’s quite a feat, and considering the highs and lows he has experienced, it’s nice to see that young experience already paying off.
- He is confident and poised in his crease, cutting down angles he had trouble with last season. He has an “air” about him when he is between the pipes, a personality of sorts – an element that quietly disappeared from his game last season. He has also become better reflexively and visually – being now fully adjusted to the NHL’s style of play, he is quickly beginning to master the art of “looking through players.” He is also much more “heads-up” when handling and passing the puck to his team-mates. All in all to say that, as it stands, Carey’s reinvigorated play in goal for the Canadiens has left him tied for 1st in wins(5), 2nd in minutes played(485), 12th in GAA(2.23) and 21st in Save Percentage(%.918), definitely worthy of an “A-.”
B+: Tomas Plekanec
- Outside of Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec is easily the best player the Canadiens have drafted and developed since Saku Koivu. Having outgrown his days of inconsistent hockey, Tomas is the epitome of consistent, solid production. With 3 goals and 4 assists in 8 games, he’s not exactly ripping it up, but his two-way game has been exemplary. Averaging 20:15 worth of ice-time per game, Tomas is the only forward on the Canadiens to crack the 20 minute barrier. His play and production will only get better once his other linemate, Michael Cammalleri, begins scoring at a regular pace as well.
B+: Michael Cammalleri
- The leading goal scorer of the 2010 NHL playoffs is off to a rather quiet start with 3 goals and 3 assists in 7 games, yet his +7(tops on the Canadiens) cannot go without notice. Much like Plekanec, Michael is currently riding the red-hot coat-tails of their linemate Andrei Kostitsyn but it won’t be long before Cammalleri really catches fire. He has a laser for a shot and currently sits 2nd on the team with 30 shots, averaging over 4 per game. The key to Mike’s success will be extended time on the power play. He is one of the most dangerous players on the man advantage and can produce at a level the team hasn’t seen since the mid-90′s, yet his output will rely on how the coach decides to use him. Given that Jacques Martin is, and always has been, a defensive minded coach – it’s hard to see him giving Cammy too much extra time, yet it would certainly be in his and the team’s best interest. Regardless of his ice-time(19:02 per game), Cammy has been solid so far but will be looked upon for much more in the near future.
B: PK Subban
- The Habs rookie phenom has been nothing short of just that. Averaging 22:15 worth of ice-time through 8 games, tops among rookies and 2nd only to Josh Gorges on the Canadiens, PK Subban is already living up to his billing. Although he has already made quite a few mistakes and dealt with a few growing pains, he has proven that he tends to usually make up for his faults in spades. He is an aggressive and gifted skater and is slowly learning to pick his spots. PK’s brash and bubbly, and quite mouthy when on the ice, yet he has picked up right where he ledt off last spring in replacing Andrei Markov and helping the team get past opponents they likely wouldn’t have beaten in the past(when without Markov). Subban has 4 assists and is a +3 with 23 shots so far, all acceptable numbers that will likely only get alot better when Markov finally does return.\
B-: Roman Hamrlik
- A regular whipping boy in the media for his rather extravagant cap hit of over $5 million per season, Roman Hamrlik rarely ever receives the credit he deserves. Even though his offensive game has all but vanished over the last few seasons, he has proven to be an invaluable leader for the younger Dman as well as an excellent shutdown defender. He’s averaging 20:13 per game and has posted 2 assists through 6 games, as well as being on the plus side of the ledger at +1. Best of all, Hammer hasn’t had any lapses like fellow Czech defender, Jaroslav Spacek. With the imminent return of Andrei Markov, the entire defensive corps will get a giant boost, and in the case of Hamrlik and Spacek, more defined ice-time and role(ie. less minutes but better assignments).
C+: Benoit Pouliot
- Although Benny’s only managed 1 goal and 2 assists through 8 games, in relatively limited ice-time(12:20 per game), it hasn’t been for a lack of effort. His hustle has resulted in a team-leading 22 hits through 8 games and, although he has seen ice-time on every line but the Plekanec line, he has kept his head down and hustled each and every shift. He may not be ripping up like fellow wild-card Andrei Kostitsyn, but he is by no means playing poorly. As is the case with most talented players, it’s a confidence issue. With 1 goal now in the bank, Pouliot can continue build into the threat that made him a 4th overall pick in 2005. (*His physical game has been excellent and will be the key to unlocking his potential – if he continues to hit throw his weight around and skate hard, it will not be long before he sees more ice-time and better results.)
C+: Lars Eller
- The centerpiece of the Halak deal, Lars Eller hasn’t exactly been given the green light to reach his potential right off the bat, but that’s no reason to think that the Danish rookie hasn’t played well. Quite the contrary. Although he has had a slow start, only 1 assist and a -1 through 8 games, he is only averaging 10:07 of ice-time – the lowest of any Montreal player who has skated in all 8 games. In all fairness, and rather impressively, in the minimal ice-time Eller has gotten he has managed to pick up 11 hits. It’s too early to call for “Lars to go to Hamilton” and Martin & co. are doing their best to slowly work him in, yet if he can build on the assist he earned on Kostitsyn’s OT game winner versus Phoenix, much like Pouliot, the hard work will only lead to greater ice-time and results.
C+: Maxim Lapierre
- In similar fashion to the start of last season, Lapierre isn’t exactly being used in the same manner as he was during the playoffs. That said, in limited ice-time(12:30 per game) Lapierre has still managed to pick up 1 goal and 1 assist. Realistically, Max isn’t being used in the manner many expect him to thrive in(14-15 minutes per game – plenty of time on the penalty kill). Having played but 1:53 worth of hockey on the penalty kill through 8 games, it’s clear that the coaching staff is still not willing to use Max’s speed and tenacity to the team’s advantage. That said, given his limited role thus far he has performed quite well. He still needs to produce more offense, but it will be hard to ask that of him until he gets a greater role.
C+: Alex Picard
- The second coming of M-A Bergeron he is not. Picard is proving to be a great low-cost pickup who has shown a marked improvement over the Canadiens 7th defenseman from last season, as well as a better overall game on offense. At the same as being an upgrade over Bergeron(although he lacks the cannon MAB has), Picard has also managed to unseed Ryan O’Byrne. Now, while this level of play may not last – as Alex will certainly be the first person scratched when #79 returns, it’s certainly nice to see some early season results from the team’s projected 7th/8th defenseman.
C+: Ryan O’Byrne
- As mentioned above, Ryan has unfortunately been unseeded by Alex Picard as the team’s 7th defenseman and as a result has lost out on valuable minutes he could have used to further his development during Markov’s absence. His status as a healthy scratch aside, in the games that Ryan has played in he hasn’t been terrible. Through 3 games played, O’Byrne is averaging a touch under 15 minutes of ice while throwing 11 hits and blocking 5 shots. Not terrible by any means, yet considering the limited amount of game action he has seen so far, it’s relatively safe to say that O’Byrne is sitting on the outside looking in. If given the chance to get more ice-time he will need to continue playing physically, but that may not be all that likely as, if there’s an injury, O’Byrne still may not crack the lineup. Whatever ends up happening, despite some decent play in the early going, chances are Ryan may find himself out of town sooner than later.
C: Jeff Halpern
- Signed during the very late stages of this summer’s UFA period, literally right before training camp, Jeff Halpern has played fairly well for one of the few new faces on the team. The veteran centerman/winger has picked up where Glen Metropolit and Dominic Moore left off last season with 2 goals and 1 assist through 8 games, including 5 hits and 10 blocked shots. Halpern has been an excellent addition to the Habs deep core of leaders all while skating 12:55 a game. Although he is not likely to exceed his current role, he will be counted on to push young players like Maxim Lapierre and Dustin Boyd.
C: Dustin Boyd
- The end result of what was “The Wild & Twisted Tale of Sergei Kostitsyn,” Boyd has been a pleasant surprise, despite being a healthy scratch in the last two games. Through the 6 games that Dustin has skated for the Canadiens, he has averaged 10:58 worth of ice-time with only 1 goal. Upon reflection, it may not seem like Dustin has been all that great, yet like Maxim Lapierre, given his limited role through the early stages of the season, his presence has been a positive one. It will take awhile for the 24 year old center to adjust to his team-mates and the style of play in the Eastern Conference, but he will. In the meantime, he needs to get better on the draw and play with more of a physical edge. While the team has won 2 in a row with him in the press box, Boyd will be looked upon as a very important player down the road as his role develops with the team.
C: Tom Pyatt
- The only real reason Tom didn’t make it into the minus category is because of the fact that hes been tossed around the lineup like a ragdoll. Averaging 12:37 a game and a -2 through 7 games, Pyatt hasn’t exactly been one of the team’s bright spots, yet has thrived in his role as a regular penalty killer. Tom averages 2:12 per game shorthanded and has established himself thanks to his speed. Like some of the other younger/developing players on the team’s 3rd and 4th lines, Pyatt has a greater upside than he has shown but will only get more ice-time if he takes advantage of his opportunities. Although he’s had his shots on the Gomez/Gionta line there’s a good chance he’s taken the penalty killing role many thought Lapierre would earn(…perhaps then Lappy should be given a shot with Gomez/Gionta?). Either way, thanks to Tom’s short-handed expertise, he finds himself on the plus side of the column.
C: Mathieu Darche
- Considering the body of work Darche has provided through 8 games of the regular season, it’s rather hard to equate a grade to his efforts yet in the 7:32 that Mathieu has averaged in each of the 4 games he’s played in, his hustle has certainly been noticed. As the 13th forward, Darche is the team’s utility man, but he’s very happy in his role and works very hard when called upon, so until he contributes in a negative way he will remain a plus.
C-: Scott Gomez
- The highest paid player on the Montreal Canadiens, there are inherent expectations that have followed Scott Gomez through his career as a Hab. As the team has rolled through the first 8 games of the season, Scott has failed to contribute on a regular basis. Along with linemate Brian Gionta, Gomez simply seems to be snake-bit. The slow start shouldn’t be anything to worry about as #11′s talents will eventually override the cold streaks, but his 1 goal and 2 assists certainly aren’t anything to brag about. He has averaged 18:26 per game and is even with 1 game winning goal, but it’s not nearly enough. Fortunately, while Scott has struggled in the early going, the Habs have not. Hopefully the team’s positive/winning ways will snap him out of it – the sooner the better.
C-: Brian Gionta
- The Canadiens new captain hasn’t exactly been the lightning rod/game-breaker he was at the start of last season, but it’s not for a lack of trying as Brian Gionta has taken 32 shots through 8 games. That said, 1 goal on 32 shots is a rough start to the season for Brian and the 2 points and +/- of 0 are equally as troublesome. Fortunately, like in the case of Scott Gomez, Brian’s slow start has been masked by the team’s winning 5 wins. The fiery speedster hasn’t been a negative in every respect as both he and Gomez have played well on the penalty kill(which is currently the best in the NHL), yet the need for more offense from two of their most important players cannot be denied. Until they start hitting the score sheet with regularity, these two will remain in the minus column.
C-: Travis Moen
- While he has been one of the many options that Jacques Martin has tried on the struggling Gomez/Gionta line, Travis Moen has managed to struggle in his own right. Although he is not looked upon for offense, he is certainly counted on for his physical game and with an average of 1 hit per game, Moen simply isn’t doing a good enough job. Especially when speedster and expected goal scorer Benoit Pouliot has nearly triple that amount. In Travis’ defense though, he averages a mere 10:37 a game and has seen some minor but regular time on the penalty kill. In the end, he simply needs to step up his physical play to rejoin the vast majority of his teammates who sit on the plus side of the column.
C-: Hal Gill
- Another Habs playoff hero, Hal Gill hasn’t exactly been a negative in the same fashion as the other players in this column, yet his -4 through 8 games is the worst on the team. Add his 0 points to the -4 and it sort of looks like Hal has been brutal for the Habs yet like the rest of his fellow “minuses” Hal’s rough start has been masked by the team’s overall strong play. Gill averages the most minutes on the penalty kill(3:50 per game) and 3rd most minutes on the Canadiens(21:17 per game) with 9 hits and 13 blocked shots. Like with the rest of the Habs defensemen, once Markov returns, Gill’s minutes and role with the team will become easier and more specified.
D+: Jaroslav Spacek
- Through the team’s first 8 games it would seem that Jaro Spacek has had the roughest go of all the Habs. Averaging well above what he should normally be playing at 20:45 per game, including 1:52 per game on the penalty kill, Spacek simply seems to have been a bit over-extended to start off the season. In his defense, the team has been in need of making up for the minutes that Markov would normally skate and have tabbed Spacek to account for some of that difference, yet that is truly his downfall. Like his fellow Czech defender and Habs vet, Roman Hamrlik, Spacek is in need of more refined minutes. He is an excellent shutdown defender and should be played as such so, until he can return to his rightful role, it seems like Spacek has been the hardest hit by Markov’s absence.
E: Alex Auld
- Alex has yet to start a regular season game in a Canadiens uniform so he cannot receive a grade as of yet.
E: Andrei Markov
- The very sorely missed “X” factor, Andrei Markov’s return will mark the return of a healthy roster and team’s most important player. Markov is the power play quarterback who can eat upwards of 30 minutes a night. He is one of the best defensemen in the NHL and for the Habs to have done as well as they have without him, it’s rather remarkable. As with Auld, Andrei has yet to play therefore cannot be graded, yet one thing I can say with certainty; upon his return all players will resume their proper roles and the team will begin to focus on improving their special teams. From all accounts, Markov will likely play his first game this Saturday against the Florida Panthers.
With the first set of grades in what will be a very long season now in the books, I urge you to follow suit and provide your own.
The Canadiens play 3 times in the next 4 nights(2 home, 1 away) and have an excellent opportunity to further their lead in both the division and the conference. With some strong performances from the guys in the minus column as well as the imminent return of Andrei Markov, there’s no doubt that the Canadiens can set themselves up for a very successful season with a strong October.