Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec (left), Daniel Briere and Brian Gionta.
At 12-9-2, the Montreal Canadiens find themselves in playoff position just past the quarter mark of the 2013-14 season, which speaks to a successful start in a lot of ways.
For instance, with 102 man games lost through November 21 (fourth in the NHL), the Habs have been able to tread water despite key injuries to players like Max Pacioretty, Daniel Briere and Alexei Emelin.
In that respect, Habs fans should be grateful. Even if that playoff spot is currently eighth in the East, just four points up on the ninth-place New York Rangers.
However, delving a bit deeper, the Habs have much more to worry about than falling out of contention due to a Rangers team that has come on in recent games.
Namely, they have to worry about keeping in contention in spite of themselves.
The Habs obviously get a passing grade to this point, but they nonetheless have a few things they need to work on to ensure they reach the postseason. Here are the team’s marks for its coaching, offense, defense and goaltending so far this season.
Head coach Michel Therrien getting his 250th career win is definitely noteworthy, as is his team’s undeniably decent 12-9-2 record.
However, there are other, less-flattering factors that must be taken into consideration here.
For the record, I am not talking about his comb-over. That’s actually quite awesome in its outrageousness. I am actually referring to things that aren't as easily swept under the rug, like the subject of ice time given to players.
Defenseman P.K. Subban is the most significant player in question here, as his season-low 20:52 on the ice against the St. Louis Blues and general absence on the ice in key game situations has been a major focal point for the local and online media.
Therrien’s response to questions on the subject was none at all, which is not at all satisfactory.
That isn’t to say there is not a good explanation.
Because Therrien insists on stonewalling reporters, though, one has to at least consider the worst as a possibility—he is trying to drag down their Norris Trophy-winning defenseman’s value ahead of contract negotiations.
Despite the signs pointing to the contrary, there is not a bias against Subban.
For example, in that same game, Subban led the team in power-play ice time with 1:22. However, Hamilton Bulldogs call-up Martin St. Pierre was second on the team with 1:09.
So, no, Therrien clearly doesn’t hate Subban. He may just not know how to properly manage his players on the ice.
Phew. Crisis averted.
Therrien has admittedly led the team to very good special teams (although his assistants are responsible for a great deal of that success).
He was able to mitigate disaster with the team’s overall play not being adversely affected by injuries that started to pile up during training camp.
However, that isn’t saying much when the team was playing average hockey to begin with. Really, the Habs have been good, not great. Hence the B grade, which pretty much says the same about him.
Montreal Canadiens forward Daniel Briere celebrates a goal with captain Brian Gionta.
The Habs currently have the third-best power play in the league (23.9 percent), which is undeniably impressive. However, when the offense as a whole is scoring at a clip of just 2.61 goals per game, it means the team is scoring far less at five on five.
In fact, the Habs have scored just 35 times in 23 games at even strength (33 when playing at full strength and two when playing four-on-four hockey).
This is not nearly good enough, not when all seven teams below them in this category are also below them in the overall standings.
Thankfully, the offense seems to be picking up after a stretch during which the team got shut out twice and scored just 18 goals in 11 games.
Even if you take out the two shutouts that bookended the streak of futility, the Habs still scored just two goals per game over nine contests.
With 6-2 and 3-2 wins under their belts since then, the hope is that the Habs have rediscovered the scoring touch that enabled them to score more than three goals per game last season. But at this point that’s all it is—hope.
David Desharnais breaking out of his season-long scoring slump against the Washington Capitals is a good sign, as is Max Pacioretty’s hat trick against the Minnesota Wild. But those are just two games. For the offense to be considered a legitimate threat, the Habs need at least two lines going where once they had three.
As great as Lars Eller (13 points) and Alex Galchenyuk (16 points) have been, their line cannot shoulder the burden of providing all the offense for the length of the season.
Their line being the third line last year is indication as to just how far the Habs have to travel back to respectability.
Again, special teams carry the load as far as team defense is considered.
The Habs boast an 84.2 percent success rate on the penalty kill, good for ninth in the NHL. However, in terms of shots against, the team is only 20th best, allowing an average of 30.9 per game.
As recently as a week ago, the Habs led the league in blocked shots with 404 in 21 games according to canadiens.com. As great as that sounds, it means opposing teams are directing an average of over 50 shots per game at Montreal’s net, which points to a much bigger problem.
If teams are able to get off 50 shots per game, that means you’re not in control of the puck for a great deal of time.
Shot blocking is a lot like hitting in that way. You’re not allowed to hit opponents if they don’t have the puck, meaning the more hits you have the less likely you are to win over a long period of time.
Thankfully, the Habs have just 426 hits in 23 games this season, which works out to 18.5 hits per game. So, the Habs are averaging about one hit per player per game—or about as much as Rene Bourque, and if there’s one player you’d like to clone and ice a complete of team of…it’s not Rene Bourque.
The bottom line is shot blocking, while useful, should never be key to a team’s defense.
While it is like hitting, at least when you are hitting the opposition you’re hurting them. Shot blocking, as Michael Bournival showed against the Washington Capitals, risks injury to your own players.
Obviously, the team’s defense here is not completely responsible for the poor possession numbers.
The team as a whole is, so one can make an argument that the defense is simply making lemonade out of the lemons it has been given.
If we’re basing grades purely on results, though, no one can discredit a goals-against average of just 2.04, good for second-best in the league. So, a B+ it is, even if the team’s defensemen had to essentially copy off the team’s goalies to get it—and copy wrong, by the way, seeing as Carey Price and Peter Budaj deserve an A+.
There are no two ways about it—Montreal’s goaltending has been incredible this season.
Price may not be in the top five in any one statistical category of significance (except shots against and number of total masks, but that first one really isn’t something to brag about and I don’t think people really care about the latter), but his .935 save percentage and 2.05 GAA are nevertheless sparkling.
Meanwhile, backup Peter Budaj has been zen-like in his demeanor in the crease.
His 1.58 GAA and .942 save percentage through five games are just as stellar (if not more so) as Price.
Considering he was once a starter himself, he at least must be turning to some deeply spiritual belief system to deal with the fact that no matter how well he plays, he’ll still appear in less than 20 games this season.
The truth of the matter is Price has been unflappable and generally better, even if the stats are slightly skewed in Budaj’s direction for now.
From All-Star Game nods to huge contracts, Price has been given things too often on a silver platter based on his potential. But much like in 2010-11, he’s been doing all the taking—especially goals away from opponents.
He may not be in line for a Vezina Trophy this year if the goalies ahead of him keep up their incredible work, but he can at least enter the discussion. Even if it's only because he has been the Habs’ best player by far and deserving of consideration for the Hart Memorial Trophy.
That may be a sign that the Habs may not do much damage in the playoffs, if they even make them. The truly successful teams need more than just great goaltending to advance as the Habs proved against the Boston Bruins in the first round three seasons ago.
Still, as last lines of defense go, Montreal’s is rock solid.
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj and forward Ryan White celebrate a victory over the Washington Capitals.
The Habs are not a great team, but they are a good one.
While they still have the potential to win the Atlantic Division in the weaker Eastern Conference, the key word there is “weaker”.
Whereas the 12-9-2 Habs have the sixth-best record in the East, they wouldn’t make the playoffs, even under last year’s traditional seeding system, were they in the West.
To their credit, the Habs are 6-6-1 against Western teams.
But all that means is they are mediocre against tough competition. That doesn’t inspire confidence for the stretch run. Neither do advanced stats that indicate the Habs can consider themselves lucky to simply be in the second wild card position.
As mentioned previously, Montreal’s goaltending has been great. But the real question is can it withstand the rigors of a full 82-game schedule? If it does, is there any long-term success to be had by a team that relies on above-average goaltending to get wins?
That’s what made last year’s Northeast Division-champion Habs so intriguing. They accomplished what they did without having to lean on Price or Budaj.
Sure, the team’s goaltending was good up until the final month of the season, but the team was winning because of solid play at both ends of the ice. One can make an argument that the Habs haven’t even been playing well in any one end, let alone two.
Until the Habs plug up a defense that is largely smoke and mirrors and start scoring consistently, no one can say for certain that this team has what it takes to be successful.
With early-season injuries out of the way, the Canadiens are at least in a position to do some damage and move up the standings.
Everyone knows how good this team can be. It goes without saying, but fans will have a better idea of just how good this team actually is—or isn’t—by the start of 2014.