The Canadiens have reached the quarter mark and expectations are high after a successful start to the season. The Habs currently sit in a playoff spot, albeit the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference standings with an 11-7-4 record. So far so good for a team that many predicted to be on the outside looking in.
The additions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar during the offseason, the changes behind the bench, and the team’s new style of play based on speed, quick transitions, and puck possession, has translated into better offense, and the Habs rank eighth in the league with 72 goals for.
It hasn’t been all positive for the Canadiens. Injuries have slowly piled up, which have tested the team’s depth; their defensive zone coverage and power play have struggled mightily, and Carey Price has been sub-par since the beginning of the season. Having said that, here are five takeaways from the Habs season so far:
1) Max Domi on Fire
When the Canadiens acquired Domi in a 0ne-for-one deal that sent fan-favourite Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes, the trade looked terrible at first glance. Giving away a former third-overall pick who scored 30 goals for a winger who had trouble finding the back of the net in two of his first three NHL seasons seemed like a significant loss for Bergevin and co.
Six months later, this trade has been better than anyone could’ve expected. Domi has been tearing it up since the start of the season. He is tied for ninth in league scoring with 26 points and is on an 11-game point streak with six goals and 15 points during this stretch, including 17 points in his last 18 games. He’s shattering records in his first season as a Canadien.
Max Domi's 24 points are the most by a #Habs player thru the first 20 games played with the franchise since the 1919-20 season.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) November 18, 2018
He has elevated his game to a new level, which is surprising considering he’s playing at centre after playing on the wing for most of his time with the Coyotes. His energetic style has been a boost for his linemates Jonathan Drouin and Andrew Shaw, who have benefitted from Domi’s presence. It’s unlikely that he will keep up a 99-point pace, however, it’s nice to see a Habs player in the top 10 in league scoring.
2) Power Play Woes
The Canadiens’ power play continues to be a cause for concern. It ranks 28th in the league with a 13.8 per cent efficiency, only scoring 11 goals this season. The Habs have drawn their fair share of penalties with 80 power play opportunities, which is tied for second in the NHL.
They’re getting enough looks on the power play to generate scoring chances, however, the execution has been lacking with the personnel they have in place right now. Shea Weber’s presence is sorely missed, not only on the defensive side of the game but on the power play as well.
His deadly one-timer from the point could change their power play misfortunes and his presence alone will add a different dimension to the man advantage, as he can draw the opposition’s penalty killers to him, opening up more space down low.
Weber can add a boost to the power play, but he can’t fix all their problems. The Canadiens have issues setting up their power play in large part because they lose the first faceoff. They seem to be chasing the puck down the ice and having to reset and enter the zone. Adding Philip Danault over the past two games has helped them set up on the man advantage and find some rhythm which is essential to maintain possession in the offensive zone and generate more scoring chances.
3) Leading the Way 5 on 5
Did anyone predict that the Habs would lead the league in 5 on 5 scoring a quarter of the way into the season? They are at the top of the leaderboard with 54 goals scored, that’s right 54. They are averaging 3.2 goals-per-game which is incredible considering they finished at the bottom last season, averaging only 2.5 goals-per-game.
The Canadiens are scoring at an impressive rate, due in large part to adjustments made by Claude Julien and his coaching staff. The team is playing an up-tempo, possession-driven game that caters to how the roster is constructed. Players like Domi, Tatar, Drouin, and Brendan Gallagher, have thrived in the early stages of the season because they are using their speed through the neutral zone to back up the opposing team’s defence. They are putting constant pressure on the opposition, winning more loose puck battles and 50-50 pucks, something that was rare last season.
The contribution from the blue line is another reason why the team’s 5 0n 5 play has improved considerably. The defensemen are transitioning the puck quickly up the ice, using the middle of the ice more and making fewer lateral passes to their partner. The defence has also been more active in joining the rush this season, creating a four-man unit that enters the offensive zone and makes the attack more dangerous.
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4) Defense Core Issues
The Canadiens are at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes defense. They rank 28th in the league in goals against with 75. The simple reason for such difference between the offence and defence is the number of minutes some defensemen are getting without Weber in the lineup.
Jordie Benn and David Schlemko average around 20 minutes a game, Xavier Ouellet averages 17 minutes, while Victor Mete gets around 15 minutes a night. These four defensemen on any other team would be third-pairing or rotation players. They are playing minutes they can’t handle. Jeff Petry has done an admirable job trying to fill the top-pairing minutes left by Weber, leading the way with 17 points, however, it takes a heavy toll playing that many minutes.
The construction of the defence core is poor. The Canadiens don’t have enough top-end talent to alleviate the pressure on Petry. Mike Reilly and Noah Juulsen have been bright spots, but they too have been inconsistent this season. Bergevin will need to address this area of concern if he wants his team to earn a playoff spot.
5) Winning Without Price or Weber
The Canadiens’ recent adage has been,”they will only go as far as Carey will bring them.” It’s true that for many years, the Habs have been an average team that relied on Price to bail them out and steal victories. It’s safe to say, that hasn’t been the case this season.
Besides an impressive 3-0 shutout at the Garden in Boston on Oct.27, Price has been below average in seven of his nine starts since then. Price hasn’t made excuses for his poor play, he knows he has to better and he can be. Even though the Canadiens have been able to stay in a playoff position despite Price’s performance, they know that he needs to get his game on track in order to maintain their good start.
What’s even more impressive is that the Canadiens are succeeding without Weber, who hasn’t played a single game this season due to off-season knee surgery. He is expected to return soon, which is an added bonus to the team. He will be a welcomed addition to the blue line with his leadership and ability to shut down the opposition’s best players.
The Habs have been entertaining to watch since the beginning of the season. The offence has been potent, their quick-strike to start games has been impressive, and their resiliency to fight back when down by a couple of goals has been fun to watch. Let’s hope that the first quarter of the season is an indication of good things to come for the rest of the year.