Solutions to Montreal Canadiens' Biggest Problems Early in 2013-14
The Montreal Canadiens are off to a 7-5 start and haven't had any problems too big to overcome so far in 2013-14.
Every team is faced with adversity throughout the season, and the good teams are the ones who deal with it best. The Habs have done well in dealing with the issues they've faced already this season.
They're far from perfect, however, and there is plenty to be done to help the team get better as the NHL season heads toward November.
Here are some solutions to the Montreal Canadiens' biggest problems early in 2013-14.
Problem: Injuries and More Injuries
The Montreal Canadiens training staff has been far too busy early on in the 2013-14 season. No less than six roster players are currently on the shelf, even taking into account Douglas Murray's return against the New York Rangers October 28.
The forwards have undoubtedly been hit the hardest.
Team sniper Max Pacioretty injured his hamstring October 15 and will miss three weeks, according to NHL.com. Newly acquired Daniel Briere suffered a concussion October 19 and is out indefinitely. Power forward Brandon Prust hurt is shoulder the same day and will miss about a month. Enforcer George Parros was knocked out by the ice opening night and is nearing a return.
That brings us to the defense, where Alexei Emelin is still recovering from last season's knee surgery, and Davis Drewiske will be gone for the better part of the season.
When it comes to filling the void caused by injuries, there are two possible solutions: either general manager Marc Bergevin makes some trades or the organization's depth players have to step up and help the team win games.
Seeing as the calendar hasn't even reached November yet, it's far too early to panic. There is no need for Bergevin to trade away the Canadiens' promising youth because of a couple early-season injuries.
It will therefore be up to youngsters like Michael Bournival, Louis Leblanc, Patrick Holland and Michael Blunden to step in and show they're ready to compete in the NHL. Injuries create opportunities, and for the aforementioned youngsters who were expected to play most of the season in the AHL, that chance is now.
The Canadiens sit second in the Atlantic Division after 12 games, so they've done an impressive job of dealing with injuries so far. It will be up to the youth of the organization to help keep the team in the win column over the next few weeks.
Problem: A Recent Lack of Offense
After a hot start offensively, the Canadiens' scoring numbers have fallen drastically in the past few games.
Through seven games, the Canadiens were averaging 3.57 goals per game. Over their last five contests, that number has dropped to exactly two.
Lars Eller hasn't scored in seven games. P.K. Subban hasn't found the net in six straight. Andrei Markov's goalless streak has reached five. David Desharnais has yet to score this season.
Injuries have obviously taken their toll on the offense, but the team still needs to find a way to produce more.
With the absence of Pacioretty and Briere, team's have been able to focus all their efforts on shutting down Eller, Subban and Markov.
Others need to find a way to help out. Tomas Plekanec has stepped up with five goals in his last six games. Now it's time Desharnais does the same.
Only eight months ago, the Canadiens thought Desharnais was their No. 1 center of the future, signing him to a four-year, $14 million contract. Things haven't gone according to plan. Desharnais' mediocre play has had him demoted. He's now centering the third line and has a grand total of one point in 12 games.
Granted, he has played pretty well as a third-line center. He's winning faceoffs at a 56.4 percent clip and is skating hard both ways. But that's not what he was signed to do.
He was re-signed to provide offense, and it's time Desharnais does just that. With all the injuries up front, the Canadiens need him to step up and start putting the puck in the net.
Problem: Too Many Penalties
Despite some offseason moves made to improve their toughness, the Montreal Canadiens are still not a physical hockey team. In fact, they've been outhit in each and every game this season, as Mike Boone at Hockey Inside/Out points out.
Yet they take a lot of penalties night in and night out. Far too many.
A quick look at the NHL.com team stat page shows that Montreal has taken 70 penalties in just 12 games this season. That's the highest number in the NHL.
Yes, the Montreal Canadiens lead the league in penalties taken so far in the 2013-14 season.
Thankfully, their penalty-killing has held up to date. They currently sit eighth in the NHL, killing off 84 percent of all penalties. A huge improvement from last year's 79.8 percent.
They can't expect it to last, however, if they continue to take more penalties than all other teams in the league.
The Canadiens are a speed team, but when they stop skating and start using their sticks to play defense, they get into penalty trouble.
Look at their October 28 game versus the New York Rangers. The Habs took six minor penalties. Of the six, two were for tripping, one was for hooking and one for slashing. That's four stick infractions, all of which came from trying to play defense without skating.
The Habs are faster than most teams they play, and they need to let their speed help them out on defense. Referees in today's NHL will make a call every time a player stops moving his feet and reaches in with his stick.
The penalty problem has not hurt the Canadiens yet, but it surely will if they continue to average 5.8 penalties per game. That number needs to drop quickly.
Problem: Giving Up Too Many Shots
The Montreal Canadiens have gotten excellent goaltending to start the 2013-14 season.
Workhorse Carey Price is 5-5, but his stats are better than his record indicates. He owns a 2.12 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage through 10 games.
Backup Peter Budaj has been spectacular in the two games he has played. The veteran Slovak is 2-0 with a 0.50 GAA and a .982 save percentage. He has made the most of his limited time and recently posted a shutout in Montreal's latest win against the New York Rangers on October 28.
The Canadiens are 7-5 on the season, but there's no guessing as to how ugly their record would be if these two goalies weren't playing so well.
As a team, the Habs are giving up 32.3 shots per game. That's just too many. In contrast, the Minnesota Wild are surrendering just 23.54 shots per game to lead the league.
The Canadiens can't expect their goalies to be this good all year. Everyone has their slumps, and the Habs are going to have to find a way to limit the amount of rubber being fired at their netminders.
The Canadiens obviously know they're giving up too many shots against and are working to fix the problem. The game against the Rangers was a step in the right direction.
Budaj gave Price the night off and was spectacular between the pipes, but his teammates deserve some credit, too.
The Canadiens' backup goalie stopped all 27 shots sent his way. What did the Habs do to help out? Well, as a team, they blocked 28.
The Rangers fired 55 shots toward the Montreal net, and the Montreal skaters stopped more than half of them. That's one way to solve a shots-against problem.
But that was against the New York Rangers, and without Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, well, they're just not a very good hockey team.
In addition to the shot-blocking, the Canadiens will need to tighten up defensively moving forward if they hope to keep the shots against down. They're allowing far too many chances and relying on their goalies to bail them out time and time again.
Perhaps the return of Douglas Murray will help shape up a defense corps that has been missing one link all season. More realistically, Alexei Emelin should help when he returns in a month or so.