The Montreal Canadiens have enjoyed a tremendous start to the 2016-17 National Hockey League season. They sit first in the league with an 11-1-1 record and look to continue their hot streak into November. Casual NHL fans would look at what they’ve done so far and not think twice about the quality of the team. However, those that follow the Canadiens see a glaring issue.
Simply, the Habs are the same old Habs. Even with the new faces and new coaching systems, they still hide behind the play of Carey Price. Now before we go further, if any team in professional hockey loses their starting goaltender to injury, it will negatively affect the entire team. The problem with the Montreal Canadiens last year was that they relied entirely on the play of their goaltender which ultimately sunk their season. This year it doesn’t look much different as the same traits keep showing up despite the impressive record.
If you are going to contend for or win a Stanley Cup you need to be able to win as a team. In the NHL you can’t hide behind your goaltender for 82 games and convince yourselves that you are a good hockey team. Unfortunately, it seems the Canadiens are beginning to believe just that and it’s a problem.
The Story So Far
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the Canadiens are a flawed hockey team. Even with their record-setting start to the year, there are holes on the roster. Night in and night out Price bails them out of ridiculously lopsided shot totals and poor play to register two points. The unsettling part about it is that they are starting to think this type of play is normal.
In a post-game press conference earlier this season, Price laid it out in black and white. Nathan Beaulieu insisted to reporters that the Habs needed that “wake up call” after a horrendous showing in a 3-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks. Price followed with a fitting response, “I’m pretty awake”. When you have an all-world goaltender it covers up deficiencies and when that happens, they begin to believe they’re moving along without a hitch. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s been that way for the past few seasons.
In other news, it’s almost like Carey Price is the key to a lot of the Canadiens’ success. Someone should have realized this sooner.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) November 5, 2016
Early-season returns on Al Montoya look promising, that’s overlooking the 10-0 team debacle that occurred in Columbus. However, it looks like the Canadiens still don’t have confidence playing in front of anyone but Price. Personally, I would play Montoya until the Habs learned how to win without their MVP goalie and I would do this because I think there is a big lesson to learn here. Through any given season teams will face adversity, it’s how they deal with it that will decide what kind of hockey team they are. It’s crucial that the players and coaches collectively change their approach to games before it’s too late to fix.
Even though the Habs have their issues, through the first 13 games there are positives. Alexander Radulov and Shea Weber look like the real deal and their play is encouraging. Jeff Petry looks to have stepped up and the fourth line has exceeded expectations. Sadly, these positives, in the end, will be for not if they can’t correct their negatives.
Despite their remarkable record, you can’t anoint the Canadiens the best team in the NHL. They don’t have the right players or the right mindset as we sit here today but the best part about this situation is that it’s still early in the season. If they have Stanley Cup aspirations they need to clean things up and luckily for them there’s time.
What Needs to Improve
We could go on and on about the many improvements that could be made to the Canadiens that would help take the load off Price. However, since they are 11-1-1, we can’t start picking at every little aspect of the roster. What we can point out are the two areas that need the biggest makeovers.
Firstly, the center ice position needs to be improved. In my opinion, the 2016 Habs will not win a Stanley Cup with Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais as their numbers two and three centermen. Both players lack size, offensive ability and presence, not to mention that one will be a free agent next season and the other is extremely overpaid and presumably will be exposed for the expansion draft.
The Canadiens need to be in the market for a second line centerman. Now, what it will take to get one from a team that is out of contention by February is tough to tell. If a team takes on the contract of Plekanec as part of a deal, they would have to be comfortable with it and have the ability to shield him for the expansion draft. If Plekanec is left out of a possible deal, he could slide into the third line slot pending a trade for a second line center. Plekanec in a third line role would work out for the rest of the season, as he is better suited to be a shutdown, defensive centerman. However, he and Desharnais should not occupy two of the four center positions on the roster leading up to the trade deadline.
Habs have been outshot 161-91 over their past four games and have won three of them.
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) November 9, 2016
Secondly, the Canadiens need another defenseman. Right now, they have four players with average level speed and two of those four are on the other side of 30. Other than the young Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn, there isn’t anyone else that can use their legs effectively in the defensive zone.
Heading into the playoffs, Weber and Andre Markov can’t continue to log heavy minutes. If they stay on this path, the two will be worn out by March. The key for Marc Bergevin will be to find a top-four defenseman that can take the load off of those two and move the puck out of the defensive zone efficiently.
As we move deeper and deeper into the 2016-17 season, I expect some of these changes to happen. For too long the Canadiens have hidden behind Price and have been incapable of getting the job done as a team.
If the Habs want to contend for a Stanley Cup there needs to be improvements made both on the offensive and defensive side of the puck. I can tell you now, if Bergevin goes into the playoffs with this roster, they won’t be able to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup over their head in celebration.
Unlike years past, I think the management team knows they have a chance to do something special with a goaltender like Price. It might not happen until the trade deadline but have faith Canadiens fans. There’s not much else you can do.
Nick Guido is a Montreal Canadiens Contributor for The Hockey Writers. You can Follow him on Twitter @nickguidoTHW for his articles, opinions and general Habs talk.