2011-12 Montreal Canadiens: a Team on the Bubble
This despite depending on youngster Carey Price to carry a disproportionate load in net and season-long injuries to core defenseman Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges. Throw in an injury-shortened season by premier sniper Mike Cammalleri and half-point-a-game seasons by the mostly healthy top six (?) forwards Scott Gomez, Andrei Kostitsyn and Brian Gionta and it's hard to understand how the Canadiens made it into the playoffs as handily as they did.
Once in the playoffs they had a game effort in the series with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. They won the first two games in Boston and took the Bruins to seven games. Three of the Bruin wins came in overtime including Game 7.
The Canadiens have a line up this season that looks younger, but not necessarily better, than the team from last year. They will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs this year especially with improvements in personnel that seem to have occurred within their own division. Improvements in Buffalo and Toronto and the confidence that the Bruins have gained should make it difficult for Montreal to duplicate the 14-7-3 they managed in their own division last season.
This looks to be a season where every win will count.
The Canadiens are 1-2 so far this year. They will want and need to get every point they can. Carey Price looks to keep them in most games again this season. That might be enough to ensure a fifth straight season in the playoffs.
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The biggest question mark going in to last season was Carey Price.
The young goalie had the skills to be an NHL goalie, but it was unclear whether he had the mental toughness to be a first-tier NHL goalie playing in Montreal. His chill out speech that came after he was booed in an exhibition game last year didn't reassure too many fans, though they did chill out and were supportive during the early weeks of the new season.
Carey Price had a stellar season for the Canadiens last season. He set a franchise record by playing in 72 games. His .923 save percentage was sixth in the league among the goalies who played in at least half their team's games. His eight shutouts were the third-best total in the league behind Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas. His 2.35 goals against average was again among the league leaders (eighth).
Price gave the Canadiens top-quality goaltending. A team that was 21st in scoring last season (2.6 GPG) and gave up 31 shots per game against all last year (18th-worst in the league) needs great goaltending.
Price looks ready to provide it again. Any injury to Price this year would be a disaster for the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs have pulled in former Colorado starter Peter Budaj to be the backup this season, but Budaj's third-worst in the league .895 save percentage last year (among goalies who appeared in 41 games or more) fills no one with confidence.
The belief that he naturally will be better than the seldom-used Alex Auld, last year's backup goalie, seems to be half wishful thinking and half a confusing of games played with the ability to win games. The former starter had his best season in 2006-07 when he played in 57 games and managed a .905 save percentage. He has a career .901 save percentage in 242 NHL games. (Alex Auld has a career .905 save percentage in 224 games).
However you look at it, Montreal will live and die with Carey Price.
The defense will be the most reworked part of the Montreal Canadiens lineup.
Last season they picked up James Wisniewski, who restarted a faltering power play. Unlike a few point shot specialists the Canadiens have engaged in the past such as Sheldon Souray and Marc-Andre Bergeron, Wisniewski also played a credible defensive game. He helped fill the gap with both Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges down with early season-ending injuries.
Wisniewski put up 30 points in 43 games in Montreal and his 51 points for his season was the second-highest total on the team behind only Tomas Plekanec. Wisniewski now plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Also departed is the aged Roman Hamrlik who was signed by the Washington Capitals in the offseason. The veteran's time in Montreal had come and gone.
22-year-old P.K. Subban is being asked to be a top line defender in his second NHL season. The frenetic blueliner was great for Montreal last season, doing all he was asked to and more, a spark plug who gave the team a jump it hadn't had in years.
He had a good offensive season last year for Montreal and can expect even more power play time than last year when he was second only to the departed Wisniewski in power play minutes.
Subban will make mistakes, though usually he manages to skate or stickhandle his way out of trouble.
Hal Gill has returned for another year in Montreal. The immovable object has found himself a niche mentoring and covering for the meteoric Subban. Gill does what he does and doesn't stray far from the front of his own net. He is painfully slow and has trouble projecting his physical power because of it.
Jaroslav Spacek is back for the last year of his contract. At age 37 he's another player near the end of his career in Montreal. The veteran coughs up the puck more than you would like. His offense, 16 points in 59 games, no longer covers up for his defensive deficiencies.
He was injured in the Canadiens' second game this year and is likely to miss several games with that injury. Spacek is a defenseman who would be nice to replace with a better, younger defensive prospect already in the organization.
Andrei Markov still isn't skating. The man who was Montreal's premier defenseman and power play quarterback two years ago has been limited to 52 regular season games in the last two seasons. The Canadiens were—and still are—banking on Markov recovering from another devastating knee injury.
He has yet to skate with the team this season.
With Markov out indefinitely, Spacek hurt and early-season replacement Chris Campoli also injured, Montreal starts the season desperately searching for defensemen to fill the depth chart.
Swiss prospect Yannick Weber has gotten a few shots at making the club in Montreal. A mid-sized offensive defenseman, he looked to be playing as an extra forward in Jacques Martin's scheme. Injuries will likely see the puck mover with the big shot playing a regular role on defense.
Look for Weber to get a longer look as the other point man on the power play with Subban.
Steady defensive defenseman Josh Gorges is back this season from last year's nasty knee injury. A good defender, he is likely to be asked to be the Canadiens shut-down defenseman playing against every team's best offensive players. That seems a lot to ask of the competent Gorges, but at least he should give Montreal a lot of solid defensive minutes.
A couple of 25-year-old European veterans, Russian Alexei Emelin and Swiss-born Raphael Diaz, look to fill out the depth chart on defense for Montreal. The smaller Diaz moved ahead of the much anticipated Emelin on the early-season depth chart. The physical Emelin hasn't seemed to be up to NHL speed yet this season.
Right now these two are in the mix with Yannick Weber to be the bottom three defenseman behind Subban, Gill and Gorges.
This is not a defense to go to the playoffs with. Spacek, Markov and Campoli all have different dates for their returns, but really only Markov is likely to be an upgrade on the blue line.
Montreal needs another veteran defenseman to shore up the blue line. One who could run the power play if Weber doesn't work out might be a critical component to solidify the defensive corps.
Top Six Forwards
Montreal's biggest problem last season was the offense, especially five-on-five. They were 23rd in total goals scored with 213 and 26th in five-on-five goals scored with 137.
Their top six forwards this year are Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Erik Cole, Andrei Kostitsyn and/or Max Pacioretty.
Cammalleri and Plekanec are top-quality offensive players, Mike the sniper and Tomas the playmaker. They're quick, good with the puck and can make plays in tight. The worry with Cammalleri has been his health, and he's starting the year with a freak injury after he was cut in the leg with a skate the other night in Winnipeg.
Scott Gomez is coming off a career-worst seven goals and 31 assists. At age 31 with three years left on his $7 million-plus per year contract, he needs to produce or be pushed aside for another player.
Brian Gionta lead the Canadiens in goals scored with 29 last season. Forty-six points in 82 games isn't a good total for a top six NHL forward. With 404 points in 618 career games, he has averaged 54 points a complete season for his career. It is unlikely that at age 32 that a renaissance is nigh.
The Canadiens big offseason signing was the often injured power forward Erik Cole.
Cole is another shooter who joins a team of passers, so that in itself should help the offense. He played his first full 82-game season in the NHL last year for Carolina and managed 26 goals and 52 points there. The 33-year-old (this November 6th) has averaged 62 games a season in his 10-year NHL career. He could still manage 50 points in Montreal.
Montreal has to hope Cole and home-grown Max Pacioretty are ready to help the Canadiens score more five-on-five. Pacioretty looked like he'd made a step forward offensively last season before Zdeno Chara pushed him into the turn buckle. Hopefully he can score around two-thirds of a point a game with Montreal this season.
The talented Andrei Kostitsyn is likely in his last season and on the offensive bubble in Montreal.
He hasn't managed to equal the 53-point season he put together back in 2007-08. He shows flashes of brilliance and a willingness to shoot but he will have to score more to help the Habs and himself to a new lucrative contract for next season.
Bottom Six Forwards
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Travis Moen returns as Montreal's one veteran checking forward. He provides a physical presence that Montreal forwards generally have lacked.
Thirty-four-year-old Mathieu Darche has found himself a spot on the energy line. That will last as long as he can manage to supply that high level of effort.
Andrei Kostitsyn might find himself slipping back into the bottom six among Montreal's forwards and it's unlikely he will do himself or the Canadiens any good back there.
Lars Eller made a nice impact mostly on the fourth line last season. The 22-year-old Dane's early career in St. Louis was slowed by injury and he is starting this season injured. He and other young forwards Ryan White and Louis Leblanc will be unavailable early in the season.
David Desharnais had 22 points in 43 games last year for Les Habitants. With much less power play time and fewer minutes played per game he was still a better point-per-game player than Scott Gomez in 2010-11. Throw in his superior performance in the faceoff circle than Gomez last season and he is the likely replacement in the top six.
Desharnais at 25 has not really shown that he can be a top six NHL forward, but circumstance may put that chance in his way. At least he still has time to develop. Gomez is what he is.
The Canadiens let checking center Jeff Halpern go despite the fact he was their best center in the faceoff circle and the only one who won better than 50% of the time there.
The Habs appear to be hoping that young Andreas Engqvist can take over that role. Hopefully someone in Montreal can win faceoffs or it could be a long season. They may have to seek out a more veteran faceoff/defensive specialist as the season progresses.
The Canadiens' bottom six looks to be littered with prospects hoping to step forward. Aaron Palushaj has been called up from the AHL to help replace the injured Cammalleri. Palushaj led Hamilton in scoring last year and might be ready to play on the big club.
Montreal's bottom six should be interesting this year. Youngsters like Desharnais, Leblanc, Palushaj, Eller, and Engqvist all have the potential to develop and improve. Injuries and the movement of veterans out of town should afford them the opportunity to do so. Montreal needs some of these players to develop into NHL regulars, and in a best-case scenario challenge some flagging top-six talent for ice time.
Montreal is likely to require a quality checking center who can win faceoffs sooner rather than later.
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The last few years the Montreal Canadiens have lived and died with their goaltending and their power play. This season they seem to have the goaltending in place. Poor five-on-five play has made the power play essential for Montreal to score even the few goals they managed to last year.
Invariably a wicked point shot has anchored that power play.
Whether it has been Sheldon Souray or Mark Streit of Marc-Andre Bergeron or James Wisniewski, that point shot has been the difference between success and failure with the extra man for Montreal. During seasons they started without that asset, they struggled until midseason when a player like Bergeron or Wisniewski had to be added.
This season the plan probably was to run with Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban as the first-team point men. The slow recovery of Markov from injury has scuttled those plans. Yannick Weber looks to have the shot to work the point on the power play though he doesn't seem to have Jacques Martin's confidence, which will limit his ice time and opportunities.
If the power play struggles—and I expect it to early—Montreal will have trouble scoring.
The Canadiens had the seventh-most successful penalty kill last year, killing 84.4% of their penalties. That's good, because they lead the league by giving up 327 short-handed opportunities.
Montreal appears to be going with youth, enthusiasm, Travis Moen and Tomas Plekanec on the penalty kill. Carey Price of course is a huge boon to any penalty kill.
The penalty kill improved in 2010-11 just as the power play was worse than it had been the season before. Montreal would like to see both improve again. A dedicated checking center and a power play point shot to focus around would seem to be crucial elements needed for that to happen. Unless they are going to develop those internally, Montreal appears to lack both of those things.
I would expect the penalty kill and the power play to be worse this year if those gaps aren't filled.
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Three games into the new season Montreal is 1-2 and awash in injuries. Currently hurt are Andrei Markov, Mike Cammalleri, Chris Campoli, Jaroslav Spacek, Ryan White, Lars Eller, Louis Leblanc and Brendon Nash.
There does not seem to be a backlog of talent waiting in the wings, so the Canadiens will have to muddle through early in the 2011-12.
Division rivals Toronto and especially Buffalo look to have improved this season.
The Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins may suffer from a post-Cup hangover this year but they do have some young talented players like Tyler Seguin, who should be making a bigger, better contribution this season. Montreal feasted on Northeast division opponents last year. Aside from the rebuilding Ottawa Senators there don't seem to be a lot of hapless victims in the division this year.
Montreal hopes to improve offensively in five-on-five situations because of the addition of veteran power forward Erik Cole and the maturation of forward Max Pacioretty. The need for a legitimate and preferably large first-line center that has dogged Montreal for years still has to be addressed.
The rapid decline in Scott Gomez's offensive production could leave the Habs desperately seeking a center before the end of the year.
Youngsters Louis Leblanc and David Desharnais probably are not the long-term solution at center. Other teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Columbus Blue Jackets have addressed their needs at center through trades. The New York Rangers have picked up their first-line center (Brad Richards) through free agency. Montreal needs to find a way to plug that big gap in their lineup.
Of lesser concern is the Canadiens' need for a power play quarterback and a checking center who can win faceoffs. They may be able to fill the checking center role internally.
The Canadiens' goaltending seems set for the future with Carey Price in net.
They have spent a lot of draft choices accumulating defenseman and the hope has to be that the likes of last year's first-round pick Nathan Beaulieu, Yannick Weber, Alex Emelin and big man Jarred Tinordi can join P.K.Subban and veterans Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges to provide young, talented stability on the blue line for years to come.
The biggest problem in Montreal seems to be a dearth of young offensively talented forwards in the system. Former fifth-round pick Brendan Gallagher was the best-looking young offensive forward in the Canadiens' exhibition games this year. That's good for him, but troubling when considering the potential of the rest of Montreal's young forwards. Should the Canadiens falter badly, they could use a last-place regular season finish to help them draft some offensive talent up front.
The Canadiens look like they should be able to develop some checking forwards. Finn Joonas Nattinen and Swede Andreas Engqvist look like two of the most promising young checkers so far.
This season looks to be a tougher one for Montreal. Carey Price should keep them in most games, but growing pains among the young defense will keep things interesting. Unless Montreal can improve their even-strength offense and maintain or improve on their power play, they will not make the playoffs.
Montreal is likely to struggle just to finish eighth this year. They will probably hover around eighth to 10th all season—not a good spot for a team hoping to develop into a Stanley Cup contender.
I think in the end improvement from the Sabres, Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Hurricanes and Leafs will prove to be too much for this Montreal team. I look for them to finish ninth with Carolina as the most likely team to nose them out on the last night of the season.
A new power play quarterback or that first-line center I've been whining about could be the difference between eighth and ninth.
PREDICTION: Ninth in the EAST, Third in the NE