Like every other team, the Montreal Canadiens need their best players to be their best players. Unfortunately, No. 1 goalie Carey Price is out and captain Shea Weber is as good as retired, begging the question who are the Habs’ best players now?
Well, Nick Suzuki’s gotten the memo, but it’s not enough, as other key players on this team have failed to pick up the slack up to now in 2021-22, leading to one of the worst starts in franchise history. Ultimately on a team that has prided itself on staying competitive without superstar talent, it’s up to everyone to pull their weight. These five Habs haven’t:
5. Chris Wideman
Chris Wideman’s obviously back in the NHL after a two-year hiatus, the last of which took him all the way to the Kontinental Hockey League. However, now that he’s back, it doesn’t mean he’s necessarily staying for good, with the Habs having signed him to a mere one-year deal, after which he’ll be an unrestricted free agent once again.
So, Wideman’s not just playing for his next contract, but an NHL contract in general. With just two points in 10 games so far, he likely needs to show more, especially considering the opportunity he’s been granted. It’s not just that WIdeman’s back in the NHL, but that he’s been played regularly for all intents and purposes when he had initially been envisioned as the Habs’ seventh defenseman.
Wideman’s role possibly changes once Joel Edmundson returns from injury, but he’s also been given the most power-play ice time per game among the team’s defensemen through 14 games (2:52). On a team lacking offensively capable defenseman, he could quite possibly stay dressed. Possibly.
However, at the end of the day, the team’s power play is a woefully inadequate 12.8%. Both it and Wideman need to show more.
4. Joel Armia
At the other end of spectrum, Joel Armia is no longer playing for a contract. The 28-year-old winger re-signed this past summer, earning a cap hit of $3.4 million for each of the next four seasons… a well-earned raised from the $2.6 million he had earned in each of the last two campaigns, during which he scored a respectable 44 points and 23 goals in 99 games. He’s not exactly close to that same pace in 2021-22, though. Far from it.
In fact, the generally versatile winger has just a single assist this season. Armia does admittedly contribute in other ways and it’s entirely conceivable the Habs would come to miss him in a similar (but admittedly much smaller) vein as they now do Phillip Danault. However, when you pay a guy $3.4 million on average you expect some semblance of output.
Granted, Armia has played the most this season on a line with Artturi Lehkonen and Jake Evans, who are each about as well-known for their finishing ability as they are for their two-man boy band (which they obviously don’t have, but, if they did, it would probably be called something to the effect of Two Hot to Handle a Stick).
All due respect of course to Evans and Lehkonen. They’re workhorses and so is Armia, but, when you’re spending a third of your time playing with other, more offensively gifted players, you’d expect Armia to catch some points like he would a contact high at the very least.
3. Christian Dvorak
Admittedly, one of those offensively gifted players is Christian Dvorak, who hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations, himself. To be fair, the five points he has through 14 games would put him on pace for 30 points, which is just slightly lower than the 39 he’s averaged over 82 games up to this point. However, coming off a 17-goal, 31-point 56-game campaign with the Arizona Coyotes last season, fans had hoped for something more from the 25-year-old.
In retrospect, and, in all honesty, in real time, it was unrealistic to assume Dvorak’s production would jump by leaps and bounds leaving the Coyotes for the Canadiens. It’s not like the Canadiens were an offensive powerhouse past the first 10 games last season. So, any insinuation he was a missing piece to the puzzle was wishful thinking fanned by the fact general manager Marc Bergevin gave up a first-round pick (plus) to get him. That was too much.
Dvorak can still be a core piece into the long term on this team, but not at this scoring rate, not at his $4.45 million cap hit for each of the next four seasons. He’ll never be worth the two picks Bergevin gave up to get him, even if the first ends up being the Carolina Hurricanes’ and comes late in the opening round, but he does have the potential to be a legitimate second-line center.
He still has some ways to go, considering his line with Josh Anderson and Jonathan Drouin has been the most consistently deployed by head coach Dominique Ducharme, so there is some chemistry there. Still, while Drouin is the team’s second-leading scorer, none of the three have really lit it up, Dvorak the least of all. So, he needs to put in some work. If only it were still the preseason.
2. Brendan Gallagher
Under normal circumstances, Brendan Gallagher is good for 30 goals per season. If he keeps up his current pace, with two markers in 13 games, he’d be lucky to hit half that amount, with the net-front presence personified totaling just five points overall in the first year of his new six-year, $39 million deal. Needless to say, the early returns just haven’t been there.
It’s of course not all on Gallagher. Over the offseason he lost the other two members of what had been the team’s top line for the last few seasons in Danault and Tomas Tatar. He’s since struggled to find a home, getting the most ice time with Nick Suzuki and Mike Hoffman. Playing with the team’s leading scorer in Suzuki hasn’t gone horrible for Gallagher, but he’s still searching for somewhat of a spark offensively. He most recently lined up beside Dvorak and Anderson with Drouin injured. So, it begins again, his quest to get going.
Of course, the intangibles Gallagher brings to the table as a leader on a team largely bereft of them offset the lack of production to a degree. Then again, when the Habs are struggling like they are, one gets the sense there’s a connection there. Gallagher suddenly scoring more won’t solve everything, but it would be a start. He needs somewhat of a fresh one.
1. Jeff Petry
In the shadow of Weber no more, Jeff Petry has struggled to produce as the Habs’ new, official No. 1 defenseman to put it lightly. He has just two assists so far, technically getting outscored by every other Canadiens defenseman up to this point, with Wideman and Romanov having lone goals to complement their single assists.
To add insult to injury, as mentioned earlier in this piece, it’s Wideman, not Petry, who has gotten the most ice time per game on the power play among d-men, albeit by a single second. Simply put, Petry just hasn’t looked like himself, especially not the version that scored 42 points in 55 games last season en route to receiving a few James Norris Memorial Trophy votes.
It’s worth noting Petry is 34. So, if decline were to come for him, it would be around this time. However, up to now, he has seemingly gotten better with age, with many just assuming the unlikely career trajectory would continue, especially with his projected increase in ice time with Weber injured.
Ultimately, the opposite has come true, with Petry feeling increased pressure without Weber around (from ‘Jeff Petry a de gros patins a chausser,’ Journal de Montreal, Nov. 3, 2021). On the plus side, reaching the playoffs is unrealistic at this stage, so the pressure should be easing in some respects. However, there is no disputing the Canadiens need more of a mobile defense in the best of times and their best puck-mover failing to find his game to start the season? It put the team as a whole behind the eight ball quick. Right now the outlook’s not so good.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.