After their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, the Montreal Canadiens entered this season expecting to compete for a playoff spot. Now three weeks into the season, I opened up my THW inbox to answer some questions I’ve been asked often this season.
It has become a common theme for the Canadiens to use catchphrases and buzzwords like “No excuses” or “character.” This season, buzzwords like “leadership” and “identity” are coming from the fans and media. The Canadiens still haven’t found their identity this season, evident by the questions directed at me for this mailbag.
Canadiens Power Play
The first question comes from Matthew:
Their power play ranks near the bottom of the NHL, so there’s a lot to improve on. First: zone entries. Even if the drop pass works to freeze defenders, the Habs end up dumping the puck in past them instead of gaining the zone with possession. This allows the defence to recover the puck or force an unnecessary one-on-one battle.
Second: the power play is too passive. Once they gain the zone, the Canadiens remain on the outside and rely too heavily on the point shots, like they used to with Shea Weber, but now they don’t have his legendary shot.
There are no easy solutions to this problem. However, looking back to when the Habs had a dangerous power play, Andrei Markov was the quarterback. They no longer have a top-pairing puck-mover like Morkov, so it wouldn’t hurt to try five forwards on the man advantage, including playmakers like Jonathan Drouin and Nick Suzuki. If they can use their vision, perhaps they can find ways to create cross-ice plays instead of relying on point shots and rebounds.
The next question comes all the way from Halifax, NS:
Hi Dave, thanks for the question.
Before the season began, I predicted the Canadiens would compete for a wild card playoff berth. However, that was with Joel Edmundson and Carey Price starting the season. Now, things are very different.
The Canadiens aren’t as bad as their 1-6 record implies. They have far too much skill to be this bad, but a lack of confidence, the loss of Price and Weber’s leadership, and a playoff hangover from a shortened offseason have all conspired against them to start the season.
I think the Habs should let the season play out. If they continue to struggle, they should allow the young players more playing time and increased responsibility. General manager Marc Bergevin should try to trade some contracts, like Ben Chiarot’s, to add more draft picks but also allow for more ice time to go to their younger players.
This was going to be a transition year for the club, but no one expected them to struggle this much. That being said, if there was a season to stumble and get a high draft pick, the very deep 2022 Draft class would provide the team with an excellent asset or two to help improve the club’s fortunes in the future.
Coaches, Players and Systems
This might be the toughest question of any THW mailbag:
This problem has many layers: coaching, game plan, inter-personal relations, managerial schemes and more. Now, a player advocating for themselves is admirable and even a sign of leadership and high hockey IQ. However, what is their approach? Do they ask questions, point out their own decision-making process and talk it out, or are they confrontational? If the former, then they are not a problem; if they are the latter, then it may be an issue.
It’s on the coach to find a way to take advantage of the skillset of each player on the team and find ways to maximize their positive impact on a game. Yet, sometimes there’s no perfect solution to fitting a player into a coach’s system, so both might have to compromise; the player to buy into the system and the coach to give leeway for the player to apply their style, all while minimizing the errors or deviations from the plan.
If the player has good communication skills, then they shouldn’t become a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. Also, all great teams have at least one player who can fill a role needed to win: grit, speed, defensive play, offensive skills. Not all players can do it all, but each can fill a role. A great coach finds a way to weaponize his roster and knows how to best to use his players.
A Big Trade
Next up, is JD Lagrange:
This has been a debate for some time. Do the Habs go after a big-name center or defenseman? Well, I have been saying for several seasons that the Canadiens need a top-four defenseman the most. There are a few reasons why.
First, the Canadiens’ power play, which has been an issue since Andrei Markov left. Bringing in a true play-making puck-moving defenseman could help solve that and finally give the team a quarterback on the blue line who can create passing lanes and get the puck to shooters like Mike Hoffman and Cole Caufield. Second, their offensive style is based on scoring off the rush, which is best created by a transition game. A puck-moving defenseman would help with puck retrieval in the defensive zone and could make an accurate pass to a forward already in motion on the breakout, creating odd-man rushes, especially if they have the mobility to jump into the play to add a fourth attacker on the rush.
While John Klingberg has those skills, the issue will be his next contract. If he reaches the open market as an unrestricted free agent this summer, he will ask for a contract comparable to Seth Jones and Dougie Hamilton’s. Adding a $9 million long-term contract may be too much for the Canadiens to handle in the short term. So, fans will have to hope Alexander Romanov can take a step forward or wait for Mattias Norlinder and Jordan Harris to make the jump to the NHL.
Few Habs fans are still hoping for a playoff berth this season, thanks to the team’s slow start. While the deck is stacked against them, the players will not quit. If they can rediscover the entertaining style they provided at the start of last season, they could find their way back into the playoff race or, at the very least, make the rest of the season fun to watch. That may be the best-case scenario as there are far too many unanswered questions that will hang over the team’s head the rest of the season, especially with a Bergevin in the final year of his contract with no indication from ownership what they intend to do or the next step in the retooling plan.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.