The Montreal Canadiens have started their All-Star Break with a week off before they host the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 8 when. This is the first entry in a series that focuses on the Canadiens’ positives – or highs -and negative – or lows.
This season, it’s too easy to focus on only the negative because everything has seemed to go that way. But there have been a few bright spots in the first half of the 2021-22 season. So, with that in mind, I will try to point out some positives and look at only a few negatives.
High Point – Canadiens Make a Shift in Philosophy
Coming off a Stanley Cup Final appearance, the team had one of the worst starts to a season in franchise history. Due to many factors, including contract issues and Marc Bergevin’s job fatigue, owner Geoff Molson eventually decided to fire his GM and bring in a fresh management team.
Molson hired former New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, who he felt was the best man to run the hockey department. To circumvent the self-imposed requirement that his GM must be bilingual, Molson named Gorton the executive vice president of hockey operations, giving him control of all hockey decisions, just as Bergevin had in his time there. For support and to cover his bases, Molson and Gorton then hired a bilingual GM in Kent Hughes. Together they have already introduced a new philosophy going forward.
“Starting with the analytics. I think we need to build that out better, to modernize it. I do believe in analytics and I think that the way the game has gone, I think it’s a big piece of information that you need to have, and so I would like to build out a staff. Player development, I think that they have a couple of gentlemen in place that are doing a good job. I think that we need more. The way the game has gone, the way these kids are, they need help in a lot of ways as soon as we draft them or sign them. I’d love to build that out a little better, too.”Jeff Gorton (from “Stu Cowen, New Canadiens boss will focus on player development, analytics,” Montreal Gazette, 3/12/21)
This one area will affect all the others, including drafting, development, coaching, and professional scouting. To rise above the limitations of the past regime and league parity, the organization needs a much sharper focus on analytics and will be able to give the Canadiens, one of the richest franchises in the NHL, a competitive advantage. There is no cap on how much they can spend on building this department or their developmental staff. This new approach should be the one positive from the season that will have the longest and greatest effect on the franchise.
Low Point – Canadiens are Living Murphy’s Law
Anything that could go wrong this season has gone wrong for the Canadiens. At one point, half of the players under contract were either on the COVID protocol list or suffering from one injury or another.
While having 24 players out of the lineup will affect any team, especially in the standings, these problems were compounded as much by who was lost as by how many. Without the core leadership group in captain Shea Weber, who has all but retired, Carey Price, and Paul Byron, there was no player in the room with the experience needed to refocus the players.
This is where an experienced head coach would be useful. Instead, the Canadiens have had to rely on rookie head coach Dominique Ducharme. In his first 82 games at the helm of an NHL team, he has a 23-45-14 record for a woeful .366 win percentage. This season, the Habs have allowed five goals or more 17 times, which stems from what some, including the players, believe is a lack of preparation, team play, and the coaching system overall.
“It’s frustrating. It’s the same things over and over. We’re not playing as a team. We’re not playing as a group. It’s like you’re searching to find where people are. It seems like there’s no structure out there.”-Jeff Petry (from “Pat Hickey, In the Habs’ Room: ‘We’re not playing as a team,’ frustrated Jeff Petry says,” Montreal Gazette, 15/12/21)
It’s also more than just losing. The team has been dominated on a nightly basis. With only eight wins in their first 44 games this season, the team will not climb out of the slump or provide fans with a more entertaining brand of hockey to watch unless Ducharme can find a way to get his lineup prepared, motivated, and put forth their best effort consistently.
Low Point – Jeff Petry
Has any player in recent memory had such a stunning drop in performance in just one season than Jeff Petry? In the four seasons before 2021-22, Petry has never produced less than 40 points, boasting a Corsi for percentage of over 53 (a positive rate of puck possession) while averaging 23 minutes of ice time per game. He was a key component of the Canadiens’ defense for several years, able to pick up the slack as the top defenceman when Weber missed time with injury a few seasons ago.
This season, Petry has been a shell of a player. He has been less willing to go into the corners to retrieve the puck, taking only 50 hits this season compared to 85 in 2020-21. His unwillingness to pay the price is also seen in fewer blocked shots, 31, down from 48 last season. His apathy reached its lowest point when he failed to act after his goaltender, Samuel Montembeault, got hit from behind by Edmonton Oilers forward Zach Kassian.
RDS has since reported that Petry has asked for a trade. It makes sense; he has played like someone who doesn’t want to be in this situation. Ultimately, if he does want to be traded, he has to find a way to focus and play to his abilities because otherwise, no team will want to add him to their roster, and Hughes will not sell an important piece of this team for what he considers below market value, especially when right-handed puck-moving defencemen are in high demand.
High Point – Laval Rocket
With call-ups, injuries, and roster upheaval, an NHL club often needs to poach from their minor league affiliates, and there’s a trickle-down effect that negatively impacts American Hockey League (AHL) teams. However, that hasn’t been the case in Laval, thanks to head coach Jean-Francois Houle. Despite losing all of his best players to NHL call-ups, he managed to ice a competitive team. He kept his players focused, motivated, and willing to buy into his team identity as a hard-working team focused on constant pressure in pursuit of puck possession or with possession.
In only his first season, his focus has the Laval Rocket ranked fourth in the North Division (as of Feb. 2) with a .571 winning percentage, which is very impressive considering his roster has mostly been built with ECHL call-ups supported by a handful of AHL veterans and led offensively by the Canadiens’ 2018 second-round pick, Jesse Ylonen.
More importantly, as those AHL regulars begin to return from Montreal, Houle has shown he can re-integrate them seamlessly; Laval has a 7-3 record in their last 10 games. This should give management a positive outlook for the Rocket – they will not only compete for a playoff position but should be able to win a round or two, which the Habs’ young prospects with valuable experience.
I could have included many, many, many negative points and maybe even one or two more positives. However, we all know that the Canadiens are on a path to the bottom of the standings. Fans can hope that some adjustments will be made to make them more competitive, or at the very least, more entertaining. In the meantime, we can focus on the future and what the new management team will provide; a short retooling plan or perhaps a long rebuild. Either way, Molson has rolled the dice, and now we will wait to see if the gamble comes up a winner.