In ranking the Montreal Canadiens of 2010-2011, I tried to take more than just the statistics into consideration.
I disregarded the skaters who played only a handful of games, but there is little doubt that the abundance of injuries directly impacted the team’s overall performance.
The basis of the final grade is naturally in keeping with the numbers the team posted, but there were intangibles I felt that played into those stats and sought to clarify as well.
In the end, this is merely my opinion, formed after watching every single one of the Habs' 82 regular season games and all seven of the playoff games.
From left to right: Brian Gionta, PK Subban, Tomas Plekanec, Michael Cammalleri
Offensively, Montreal experienced major problems last season. The Habs struggled to produce at even strength, finishing the season at an abysmal 26th and ranked 23rd in number of goals scored.
Once Max Pacioretty was called up from the Hamilton Bulldogs farm team in mid-December, the second line’s offensive woes seemed to vanish, but reverted back to ineffective sputtering when Pacioretty was sidelined with a broken neck in early March.
The Canadiens finished the season without a single 30-goal scorer amongst its forwards. Captain Brian Gionta led the team with 29, but Michael Cammalleri was injured more than once and produced a scant 19. Centerman Scott Gomez had his single worst career season, contributing only seven goals and 31 assists.
Fellow pivot Tomas Plekanec had the best numbers of all the centers, recording his fifth straight year of 20-plus goals. His 22 was second only to Gionta, and Andrei Kostitsyn, who was shuffled around regularly, still contributed 20 goals to round out the top three scorers on the team.
There has been no great secret around the fact that Montreal’s forwards are smaller in stature as a group than a lot of teams, especially division rivals. Without big bodies to drive the net hard, the smaller snipers were often times reduced to low percentage perimeter shots.
Conclusion: Too many injuries, streaky and small forwards and ever persistent problems with even strength scoring plagued the team all season.
Defenders Hall Gill, PK Subban and goaltender Carey Price
By the end of the season, Montreal went through 13 defensemen. For grading purposes, I’ve omitted Andrei Markov, Ryan O’Byrne and Brendan Nash, who played only seven, three and two games respectively for the Habs. There simply wasn’t enough data to render a fair assessment of these three when taking into account the blueline as a whole.
For the second year in a row, Markov got his season cut brutally short versus the Carolina Hurricanes on November 10. The assistant captain is used to quarterback Montreal’s power play, and his vision and hockey sense are unrivaled amongst his fellow blueliners. He’s fast and offers a stabilizing presence, and losing him early in the season was a serious blow both offensively and defensively for the Habs.
Meanwhile fellow defender Josh Gorges had just come off a good season where he had morphed into a shot-blocking, stalwart and reliable blueliner. Like Markov, he is considered part of the Habs leadership core, and losing Gorges in December was also a blow to the team.
Former NY Islander James Wisniewski and Montreal rookies PK Subban and Yannick Weber were called upon to provide puck movement and quarterback the PP. The controversial Subban was less effective as a defender at the beginning of the season, but seemed to settle more comfortably into his role once paired with veteran Hal Gill who played a mentorship role.
In terms of points, Subban was fifth overall on the team, scoring 14 goals which tied him with Max Pacioretty who played 40 less games. He logged more minutes on average than any other defender in the league save Ryan Suter.
Brent Sopel and Paul Mara were acquired to provide some stability and support and to relieve Roman Hamrlik, who, along with Jaroslav Spacek, played long minutes that seemed to drain them by March.
Conclusion: Along with Subban’s solid rookie season, the team’s adherence to their coach’s system means Montreal’s defense is often times better than the sum of its parts.
For the Montreal Canadiens to even reach the playoffs at all required some spectacular goaltending, and this is really the only area in which the team did not struggle.
Carey Price, who had lost his position to former backup Jaroslav Halak the season before, played an incredible 72 games for the Habs, starting 70 of them. He finished the season tied first in wins with 38.
Despite the heavy workload, Price boasted a solid .923 save percentage and 2.35 GAA, good enough for seventh and 10th respectively. He posted eight shutouts, third overall in the league during the regular season.
Price’s strong numbers continued into the Habs' abbreviated postseason as well.
Meanwhile, backup Alex Auld posted respectable numbers and provided Price with some mentorship and support.
Conclusion: Faced with enormous fan and media pressure since the start of the season, Price was clearly the backbone to a team that spent much of the season mired in offensive struggles and injured defensemen.
Tomas Plekanec battling Jordan Staal
While Montreal struggled to score at even strength, their special teams more often than not got the job done.
At 19.7 percent, the team’s power play produced 57 goals for the season, good enough for seventh overall. Meanwhile, the penalty killers allowed 51 goals, for a respectable 84.4 percent and again seventh overall. The team managed to contribute five shorthanded goals, but also surrendered six of their own.
The Habs ranked 17th overall for power play opportunities, but spent more time short handed than any other team in the league last season, tied only with Colorado.
Conclusion: The Canadiens special teams were at times the only reason they saw victory.
For a team that struggled pitifully to score at even strength and lost three key players to season-ending injury, it’s somewhat surprising that the 2010-2011 edition of the Montreal Canadiens still managed to make the playoffs.
The Habs posted a .585 winning percentage last season. Solid defense, excellent goaltending and effective special teams made the difference in getting them to the playoffs but could not carry them far enough.
Two years ago, the Montreal Canadiens went on a Cinderella run as injured players like Markov and Cammalleri returned to action in time to help power them past the surprised Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. This past season, they did not enjoy a healthy squad and got bounced in the first round.
Conclusion: Last year's Canadiens were only slightly above their usual .500 bubble team mark.
Now that the summer has arrived and with some cap space finally cleared, Gauthier has taken steps to try to address some of the team’s more pressing issues.
Erik Cole, a big net-crashing winger has been acquired via free agency, and will likely play somewhere on the top two lines. Max Pacioretty has apparently made a full recovery and both power forwards should be able to create some much needed time and space around the net for their smaller linemates to work their magic.
On the blueline Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges are reported to have made full recoveries and are expected to be back. It remains to be seen whether they will be as effective as they were before.
Alexei Yemelin has finally been brought over from the KHL and should help bring some size and toughness to the defense. The 6 ft 2 in 223 lb defender is reportedly more defensive than offensive with his game, but he makes a good first pass and is a hard hitter who enjoys strong physical play.
Sophomore blueliners Subban and Yannick Weber will add some offensive support to Markov on the back end, both possessing good cannons to help out on the power play. Gill and Spacek will also return, and the four veterans should work well with their young counterparts to build a much better wall around Price’s net this coming season.
The Canadiens do possess a bit more depth to fall back on this year when it comes to offense, but defensively there is little in the pipeline and throughout the summer that is something I expect Gauthier to address.
To experience any real degree of success this coming season the Canadiens will have to avoid major long-term injury to any of its key players, let alone three at a time. While their power play and penalty killing numbers have been consistent for a few years now, it’s important the team drastically improves its ability to score five-on-five and overall number of goals which should happen with Cole and Pacioretty.
I expect the Habs will make the playoffs next season. How far they will go clearly depends not on the mental focus, drive or commitment of the team, but on the physical health of its players.