The Montreal Canadiens’ season has been extremely disappointing. The team started very promisingly, winning each of their first nine games. Unfortunately, the momentum didn’t carry through the entire season. Since mid-November, it hasn’t been pretty. The Habs have fallen close to the bottom of the NHL standings in a year where nothing has seemed to go their way. With such a horrific season almost in the books, let’s take a look at five things the Habs and their management must do so that this season is quickly forgotten.
1: Relieve the Coaching Staff of Their Duties
We might as well jump right into it. When a professional sports team underperforms for an extended period of time, there is a need for change. Usually, when a team posts a consistent losing record, the coaching staff feel the heat. Sometimes, the coaches are even fired. Throughout this year, the Habs’ coaching staff haven’t done much to help bring this team out of their slide. While this disaster of a season isn’t fully their fault, they haven’t proven to be the solution to the team’s problems. Sure, the Habs have dealt with their fair share of injuries recently, but the coaching staff’s job is to do the best that they can with the lineup that they’re given. This season simply hasn’t been good enough.
So why hasn’t there been a change to the coaching staff? Well, only General Manager, Marc Bergevin can answer that. Much of the Habs’ fan base (and likely a few players) would have welcomed a coaching change at some point during the season, though it hasn’t come. Some players have gone on record saying that they have faith in their coaching staff, but when the results aren’t showing, faith just doesn’t cut it. Normally some would have sympathy for the coaches, since they’ve dealt with so many key injuries. Though the injuries have hindered the team, the more concerning issues are the ones that don’t involve injured players.
Sure, losing Carey Price for the majority of the season takes a heck of a toll on the team, but that isn’t an excuse for mis-managing talent like Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk had to wait for injuries to force the coaches to give him the ice-time that he rightfully deserves. Since getting the promotion to the first line, his production has greatly increased. Why did it take this long to put him up there? Well, once again, the answers can only come from within the organization. How about the lack of power-play success? This consistent issue goes all the way back to a few seasons ago. The Habs’ coaching staff haven’t been able to run a consistently dangerous power-play — no matter who is in the lineup. Yes, the team could use some additional offensive firepower, but with players like the aforementioned Galchenyuk, Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban and Brendan Gallagher playing PP minutes, there is no reason for this lack of success. The Habs’ power-play is currently 24th in the NHL.
Much of the criticism that surrounds the team falls on head coach, Michel Therrien’s shoulders. While this is in-part merited, the rest of the coaching staff should be taking part of the blame too. Assistant coaches Dan Lacroix, Clément Jodoin and J.J. Daigneault should be feeling the heat too. Daigneault and Lacroix have alternated working with the power-play over the last two seasons, though they have shown similar end results. Despite a more successful overall season last year, the Habs’ power-play finished at 25th in the league.
Michel Therrien says, "First time I've seen that."… His team has allowed 11 shorthanded goals this season. 11. 2nd-most in the NHL.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) March 20, 2016
As was mentioned, much of the blame should fall on the shoulders of head coach Therrien, though clearing out the entire coaching staff (minus the goalie coach, Stéphane Waite) could prove to be a much-needed culture change in the Habs locker room. While this won’t solve all the team’s problems, it’ll be a start.
2: Revamp the ‘System’
The second thing that the team must do this offseason is revamp the implemented system. This goes hand in hand with changing up the coaching staff. The team must tailor their system to the players on their roster, rather than making the players fit the system. With a healthy group, the current coaching staff structure the team to play a more offensively minded game, while they rely on superhero-like goaltending from Price. This would be all well and good if the team was more offensively gifted. In the Habs’ roster, there are only a few legitimate offensive threats. The result of the players being forced to fit said system, is that players like Lars Eller, who would be more fit for a bottom-six defensive role, are relied upon to score goals. The new system must fit the Habs’ strengths, even if it means playing defensive hockey. Though it may be less exciting to watch, it’s better to see the team win than be in the bottom of the league standings playing a system that doesn’t suit the roster.
3: Create Cap Flexibility
The Canadiens, like many teams, have a few contracts that they’d like to get rid of. Players like Alexei Emelin and David Desharnais simply get paid too much for their amount of contribution. The Habs have a few needs that should be addressed in the near future, but unfortunately, they don’t have much cap room to work with. One of these needs is acquiring some kind of scoring help in their top-six. This will be further discussed in the next section.
Emelin, a defenceman, normally played on the Habs’ second defensive pairing with Jeff Petry. When the team was still doing well, young up and comer, Nathan Beaulieu began overtaking Emelin on the depth chart. Since then, injuries have made the lineup very inconsistent. If the roster is the same at the beginning of next season, assuming everyone is healthy, Beaulieu will likely be playing on the second pairing in place of Emelin. But the roster shouldn’t be the same. Emelin, who will in all likelihood be a third pairing defenceman next season, shouldn’t be making over $4 million. The team could easily find someone to play in the same role at a cheaper price, and in consequence, free up some salary to address other needs. In fact, the team has already found a suitable replacement. Defenceman Mark Barberio has proven that he can play full-time NHL minutes, and that he’d be a great, more inexpensive replacement for Emelin.
As for Desharnais, much of the same applies. The forward isn’t a natural scorer, and he seems to have lost his place within the lineup with the influx of young talent (despite currently being injured). His $3.5 million salary could be used to address other team needs, and allow younger, more deserving players to find their permanent spot within the lineup. Rather than paying the forward $3.5 million to play on the third line, let’s let someone like Daniel Carr take the roster spot while earning a lot less.
In order to create this valuable cap flexibility, G.M. Bergevin will have to find a way to unload some contracts like the two that were just discussed. This won’t be easy, though these players still have some (little, but some) value around the league. If Bergevin is to create some kind of financial flexibility for the organization this offseason, let’s call it a win.
4: Acquire a Scorer
Much of what was said in section 3 was to make room for a top-six free agent scorer. There are a few top-six scorers that the Habs could look to sign on or after July 1st. Scoring was one of the many issues that the Habs had this season, and while acquiring a top-six forward won’t completely solve their problems, it’ll help bring some hope back to a depleted lineup. The Canadiens have scored an average of 2.56 goals per game this season through 73 games. For reference, this can be compared to the first place Washington Capitals, who have scored an average of 3.14 goals per game through 71 games. The Habs could use a scoring boost, and adding a top-six scorer could be just what they need. Which player should the Habs target? There are a few notable options. Click here for my list of five potential offseason targets for the team.
If the Habs are to sign a free agent scorer this offseason, they should be ready to pay upwards of $5 million per season. If they are to free themselves of the Desharnais and Emelin contracts that were discussed above, they’d save themselves just over $7.5 million. The alternative for the team would be to trade for a scorer that is still under contract, though G.M. Bergevin has said that these deals are quite difficult to get done.
5: Thank the Fans
After the fiasco that was the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens season, the organization should seriously take a moment to properly thank their loyal fans. The team has let down one of the most passionate fan bases in the world. While the Habs did so poorly, the majority of fans stuck by and continued tuning into games. The Canadiens management should make thanking their fans part of the to-do list for the offseason, since the team really didn’t deliver this season. Fans still paid whatever the costly ticket prices were to go see their favourite team play, even though the chances of witnessing a loss were pretty high. Though Habs fans may not want to be, they’ll be patient as they await a bounce back season in 2016-17.
2015-16 Masterton Trophy winner is… Habs fans.
— Andrew Berkshire (@AndrewBerkshire) March 15, 2016
(The Bill Masterton Trophy is “awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”)