Saying the Montreal Canadiens lack a killer instinct would be an understatement at the halfway mark of this 2015-16 season. Nowadays, they just bite.
If the following report card would have been written up after the first quarter of the season—even the first third—it would have told a very different story, one of a team that had not lost in regulation to an Eastern Conference opponent in regulation until December.
Since that first defeat to the Washington Capitals, they’ve lost eight… and 13 overall, going 4-13 (23-17-3 on the season). Needless to say, the only thing that saves them and gives them ‘B’s all around is the fact that it includes that first quarter of the season, with the team still holding down a playoff spot currently, albeit just barely, in third position in the Atlantic Division.
Skaters – B
In a league in which analytics have determined that a good defense is a good offense, Montreal is doing about as well as should be expected, despite above-average play from their blue-liners.
Montreal’s defense has allowed just 27.7 shots allowed per game, which places them fourth in the league. However, the top five is almost a who’s who of underachieving teams (led by the Carolina Hurricanes of all teams).
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that four of those five are also tops in terms of Corsi for, with Montreal in fifth place, directing an impressive 53 percent of all five-on-five shot attempts at the opposition. It’s the quality of those shots that is troublesome, with the Canadiens only hitting three goals four times since the start of December. They get the ‘B’ grade because they have still scored the sixth-most goals with 120.
Call it what it is, if you like, the team finally falling back down to Earth after sporting an unsustainable shooting percentage of 12.1 that had Dale Weise of all people on pace for 40 goals 12 games into the season. Of note, he has since scored just five times… with just two in his last 20.
The good news is that shooting percentage has since dropped to league-average levels of nine percent, along with their PDO overall. So, the days of the team’s bad puck luck and not catching a break are theoretically over, meaning, after an early-season stretch during which the Canadiens could do no wrong, they have done as badly as humanly possible, and all is now right in the world, in terms of karma.
…And they didn’t have to sacrifice a small goat or nothing (just their place atop the standings).
Goaltending – B
Of course, with Mike Condon playing over his head on Saturday night in Montreal’s 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, it goes to show that the Canadiens are still having trouble pulling out wins when they’re getting the breaks, at least on one side of the ice.
The performance also reaffirms the theory that the Habs missed Brendan Gallagher more than Carey Price during their respective absences, which coincided with one another (with the latter still out until after the All-Star Game).
That isn’t to say Montreal’s goaltending has been great. In fact, between the start of Price’s second stint out of action this season and the Winter Classic, there’s an argument to be made it was disinctly below average. However, in 2016, Condon is sporting a sparkling .949 save percentage, leading some to hope he can rekindle some of the early-season magic that made him a potential Calder Memorial Trophy candidate.
No one’s realistically expecting Condon to continually deliver Price-caliber performances, but if he can indeed play similarly to the way he did when Price was out the first time this season (when he went 5-2-2), that should be enough. The fact is he hasn’t, at least up to now, leading to the mediocre grade.
With Gallagher back, logic dictates it’s only a matter of time before the Canadiens get back to at least that level of play and move up the standings once again. That is, unless it’s actually Weise who’s more critical to this team’s success than anyone gives him credit for.
Leadership – B
Max Pacioretty is not the problem. He’s just a (very minor) part of it.
He does wear the ‘C,’ but those who continually try to lay the blame for the team’s woes at his doorstep and insist the team made a mistake making him captain instead of P.K. Subban or Brendan Gallagher are conveniently forgetting that they wear letters as well.
At the end of the day, the ‘C’ does not carry with it magical powers that enables only Pacioretty to speak out between periods. For crying out loud, it’s not even so much as a talking stick during a misguided team-building exercise. The team is already built, people… and Pacioretty is but one man in the dressing room.
The ‘C’ is little more than a letter that gives him more of a right to confer with referees during the game. It’s more of a symbol than anything else and there’s really nothing preventing any other player from taking a leadership role on this team.
So, if one really feels the need to blame Pacioretty and only Pacioretty for the team’s struggles, they shouldn’t forget to give him sole credit for the team’s 9-0 start to the season, in which case it would all even out to the ‘B’ grade above.
Times are tough right now and Pacioretty’s success as a captain in his first season will justifiably or not be dictated by how well he steers the ship through this latest storm. However, if the boat is sinking, all a captain is really expected to do is ensure everyone’s safety jumping ship before potentially going down with it. His team-leading 17 goals conversely imply he’s doing anything but giving up.
He can only do so much on a ship with holes in it, in other words. That’s not his department.
Management – B
It wasn’t too long ago Michel Therrien could have been considered a realistic Jack Adams Award candidate, coaching a team that general manager Marc Bergevin expertly assembled. And, while few can blame either or for the injuries to Gallagher and Price, one would have realistically expected a better record than the 6-13-1 one the team has compiled since both initially went down in November.
While Bergevin has arguably wisely held off on making any big moves before both players return, trading away a potential game-breaking power forward in Zack Kassian when the offense has been struggling was questionable, especially considering the return in minor-league goalie Ben Scrivens.
Scrivens has looked all right in the crease, but his zero wins are nothing former-Habs goalie Dustin Tokarski couldn’t have provided. And too much has been of Scrivens’ experience, when he hasn’t so much as appeared in a playoff game during his just-five seasons in the NHL. Tokarski actually debuted two seasons before Scrivens and has one playoff round under his belt.
Tokarski is also three years younger, and, while the return the Habs got in exchange for him—a player the Habs weren’t going to play anyway—from the Anaheim Ducks was decent, a GM shouldn’t make trades just for the sake of doing so.
If Bergevin knew that Price would be out an extra month at the time of the Scrivens deal, one has to wonder if he truly believed the goalie if he was acquiring was capable of filling in for Price when he was unable to prevent opposing teams from doing the same to the Edmonton Oilers net.
The team essentially transformed Kassian into Max Friberg, which isn’t too bad. It’s just that a deal didn’t have to be made, not when the Habs had in Kassian a power forward who played the wing at which they are the weakest, a wing which Bergevin has spent the past few years trying to fill.
When Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau is bought out for not meshing with Therrien’s way of doing things and now finds himself on pace for a 20-goal season playing for the offense-starved Toronto Maple Leafs, it says something. When Alexander Semin is scratched almost indefinitely after the team’s first loss of the season despite generating scoring chances (albeit not points) it reinforces that something: Maybe Bergevin needs to assess his coaching talent instead of that of any player.
No, Therrien is likely not going to be fired, not during the season at least, after building up as much goodwill as he has up to now. But the inability of this team to so much as tread water over the last month is a real problem, one that cannot be fixed by Bergevin trying to acquire a Jonathan Drouin or Steven Stamkos, especially when the Tampa Bay Lightning are division rivals. That’s just not going to happen.
So, to a certain extent, Bergevin’s hands are tied. Actively trying to misdirect fans in regard to that fact by making small moves of little or no consequence isn’t going to break them free. On paper, this team, even with the injuries, should be doing better. It’s about time he instead look at some (paper) to find out why it isn’t.
Maybe the for-whatever-reason ever-changing lineup card as one suggestion?
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 covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.