Montreal Canadiens' 5 Biggest Needs Ahead of the Olympic Break
As the Sochi Olympics approach, the Montreal Canadiens are clearly in dire need of some rest, coincidentally enough just like they were heading into the holiday break.
If fans can remember, the Habs had just embarrassingly lost to the Florida Panthers 2-1 in early December when head coach Michel Therrien infamously told the Canadian Press that, “This team is drained.”
Then, after getting an entire week off, they went out and lost to the Panthers again…by two more goals.
However, this time is clearly different, even if only because in 13 games prior to Christmas, the Habs were 8-4-1. In the 13 games since, they are 5-6-2 and currently mired in a three-game losing streak, during which they’ve given up 14 goals and scored just five.
Really, when you think about it, it's quite possible they've actually been resting this entire time, pointing to something else being the problem.
I mean, when goaltender Carey Price, one of the few bright spots this year, has given up four or more goals in four straight games—despite playing well—something is clearly wrong. More accurately, many things are.
Aside from the obvious necessity to right the ship, here are the Habs’ five biggest needs ahead of the Olympic break.
5. Every Single Hab to Medal
While there will be a total of eight Habs representing six different countries in Sochi, making it impossible for each to medal, look at it another way: There will be eight different Habs going to Sochi, making it virtually impossible for the team to get that aforementioned much-needed rest.
At least this way, the Habs get a much-needed confidence boost instead. With Canada (Price, P.K. Subban) and Russia (Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin) each featuring the most Habs with two apiece, maybe a Russia-Canada final is a worthwhile compromise.
As for the bronze, let’s just say Peter Budaj of Slovakia can use a big win. Excluding two relief appearances, he, like the rest of the team, has lost three straight games.
4. A Roster Shake-Up
While a move made out of desperation is rarely the answer, the Habs can definitely stand to shed some deadweight.
That would include players like Daniel Briere and Rene Bourque, both of whom have appeared in trade rumors in the recent past.
According to RDS, hockey insider Pierre LeBrun has even confirmed what everyone with a pulse could have guessed, that general manager Marc Bergevin would be happy to be rid of Bourque’s $3.33 million cap hit.
Losing it is easier said than done, considering Bourque was recently a healthy scratch and has just eight points in 38 games this year. However, one of his goals did come in his return to the lineup against the Pittsburgh Penguins on a tally assisted by Briere in a 5-1 loss.
That Bourque and Briere were arguably the Habs’ two best players that game meanwhile serves as all the more confirmation that something is horribly wrong with the team—that or the end of the world is nigh.
3. More Power to the Power Play
To put it bluntly, the Habs’ power play is horrible right now. To put it metaphorically, even Star Trek’s Scotty would have a hard time giving ‘er more power. Granted, he always seemed to have trouble doing just that on the show, but he always managed to get the Enterprise out of a jam somehow. The Habs’ man advantage needs a similar miracle.
At first glance, Montreal’s power play isn’t so bad. The Habs are 11th in the league with a decent 19.4 percent. However, it’s been caught in a downward spiral for the longest time. Over the 13 games since the Christmas break, the Habs are a pathetic six for 45. That’s 13.3 percent.
When you rank 29th in scoring five-on-five (74), barring a drastic overhaul at even strength, you need to be scoring regularly with the man advantage. If you're not, well, you end up a team that is actually lucky to be just 5-6-2 since Christmas.
Part of the Habs’ problems stem from their inability to find an alternative strategy to setting up Subban for a one-timer. He’s got a cannon for a shot, but if the other team sees it coming, they can make the necessary adjustments to avoid being scored upon.
Of course, if the Habs’ coaching staff can’t realize Francis Bouillon does not belong on the power play, it doesn’t exactly bode well for them figuring out and fixing what’s wrong there or, really, anywhere else.
2. More from P.K. Subban
It’s tough to ask more from Subban, because the reigning Norris Trophy winner is just one man. It’s also tough mainly because he’s now getting paired with the likes of Douglas Murray, and he’s a much bigger, slower man that could bring down the Titanic. Yes, I’m comparing Murray to an iceberg.
With Carey Price playing legitimately well despite his recent record, the Habs need their other big star to pick it up a notch. Subban is relied upon at both ends of the ice. And with the Habs struggling at both ends, it stands to reason the Habs need more from Subban.
It’s unfortunately not as simple as just putting him out every second shift like the Minnesota Wild does Ryan Suter. While Subban’s been decent, he just hasn’t been as good as last season.
To a certain degree, it’s not like it’s his fault. It’s unfair for anyone to expect Subban to win the Norris a second consecutive time when no one has accomplished the feat since Nicklas Lidstrom did six years ago.
However, last season, Subban was practically a point-per-game player with 38 points in 42 games. This year, he has 36 in 51 games, including just three in his last nine games. Last year, he was plus-12 in plus/minus. This year? Just plus-five.
The advanced stats aren’t all that impressive either…
1. A New System
Subban’s struggles are actually quite representative of those of the team as a whole, indicating the need for widespread systemic change in order to salvage the season.
While the Habs are 27-19-5 and third in the Atlantic Division, they’re free falling and tied with the fourth-place, wild-card Toronto Maple Leafs in points. The Philadelphia Flyers, who are currently ninth in the Eastern Conference, are now just three points back of the Habs.
Using Subban as an example, last season his Corsi For rating (the percentage of shot attempts by the Habs when he’s on the ice relative to those by the opposition) was 56.5 percent. This year, it’s 50.3 percent, which is a huge drop-off.
Last year, as a whole, the Habs were seventh in the league at 52.8 percent. This season, they’re 26th with 46.9 percent.
On the plus side, they lead the league by a wide margin with 497 blocked shots, meaning many of those shots aren’t getting through, but that’s the thing about silver linings: You need your head up in the clouds to be able to see them.
Any system based on shot-blocking is doomed to failure in the long run. All it does is mean the opposition has the puck more than you do and translate into greater potential for injury.
Whether this means Therrien needs to go or can change his strategy midway through the season is up for debate. He does have the benefit of a decent record, and firing a coach whose team is currently holding down a playoff spot is almost unheard of. Conversely, waiting too long can mean the difference between going far this postseason and missing it altogether.
One need only look to the Habs’ 2-1 overtime victory against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks earlier this month as proof that they are capable of being a great team.
Unfortunately, since that win, the Habs have lost four of five, with the sole victory being the 5-4 overtime thriller against Ottawa, during which the Habs got outshot 44-23 and were by all accounts incredibly lucky to escape with two points.
The bottom line is the Habs are not a bad team, but they are playing like one. And something—anything—needs to change, fast. If they are still sleeping, they need to wake up now.