All Habs Mailbag: Subban, Pacioretty, Markov, Diaz, Special Teams, Bulldogs

By Robert Rice, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON — The All Habs Mailbag is as popular as ever! This is the place to send in your questions about all things Montreal Canadiens.

Then check every Thursday to read the answers to the most popular or poignant questions about the Habs. Keep in mind that we will discuss the entire Canadiens organization so questions about prospects and roster players are equally welcome!

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So, let’s open the All Habs mailbag!

All Habs Mailbag (week ending January 31st, 2013)


With PK Subban signed, do you play him top pairing or put him with Francis Bouillon on the bottom pairing and earn his way up?

I would think to start with, Subban will play on the 3rd defensive pair with Bouillon on his first game back. This will allow Therrien to evaluate Subban against softer matchups and see how quickly he can shift into an NHL pace. Provided Subban doesn’t show much rust (and he is not historically a bad starter) it shouldn’t be difficult for him to start pairing with his 2011-12 partner Josh Gorges. Subban is a much stronger player on even-strength than Raphael Diaz and can drive puck possession to help generate more offensive opportunities. Given time, with PK’s youth and talent it will not be long before he is one of the 20 minute plus defencemen on the team, rather than Bouillon who is piling up a lot of minutes right now for a player his age. This would allow Diaz to shift to the Bouillon pairing as well, which would allow him easier minutes as he does have trouble sometimes in even-strength play.


With Max Pacioretty’s injury, who do you think is the best candidate to replace him?

With Max Pacioretty out, the Canadiens find themselves a bit stuck. Pacioretty and Rene Bourque were the Canadiens only viable Top-6 capable left wingers in the organization. Given that Bourque has found life with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, it is hard to reassign him to just try and restart the David Desharnais line just as he is getting going. The team seems a bit limited by options, as the Lars Eller experiment on wing is going about as well as it ever does, not at all. The alternatives aren’t that attractive, with Travis Moen and Brandon Prust being the other natural left wings in the organization. Moen gives his best effort, but he has no real offensive instincts while Prust has found a home with the rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Given that there is no able left wing talent in Hamilton either that could be considered NHL ready, the team may just have to struggle through for the time being.

The more radical consideration however could be taken to try David Desharnais at the left wing position and place Lars Eller at centre with Erik Cole keeping at the right wing. This would free Desharnais of some of the focus he draws as his line’s lead puck carrier and allow Eller, who is a superior player when it comes to holding puck possession to work from his natural position and help complete more offensive-zone entries while maintaining possession, a facet of the game that Desharnais often has trouble with, especially on the road.


Who have you been most impressed with on the Habs roster to date?

I would have to name Andrei Markov. Many people spoke that Markov returning at even 80 per cent of his previous form would be a boon to Montreal, but so far Markov looks much closer to his pre-injury form than was previously thought possible. It is something to consider that with the retirement of living legend Nicklas Lidstrom, Markov is now arguably the best power play quarterback in the National Hockey League. With four goals and four assists in eight games and operating a power play that is clicking at a 27.3 per cent efficiency. While naturally such numbers can’t continue, Markov is off to a better start than anyone expected and it is a good sign the veteran rearguard will be able to keep the Canadiens stable this season.



Will Raphael Diaz be given the chance to excel (1st PP, lots of TOI) with the resigning of P.K. Subban?

I think Raphael Diaz will continue to work the 1st power play unit with Andrei Markov until the pairing stops working of it is own accord or one of the two is injured. With 16 points between the two players, it is hard to argue to break them up, even with the return of P.K. Subban. As per ice time, it is a bit harsh for Diaz but Subban is his superior and will take over his position with Josh Gorges as soon as Michel Therrien deems he is up to speed, which should not take long. Diaz will likely average around 15-18 minutes a game depending upon the number of power plays drawn as that will be where he gains extra ice time. It is no slight against Diaz as he is doing a fine job, but he does not possess the more complete game that Subban does.



With P.K. Subban back, who do you think should sit out to make room for him?

Tomas Kaberle and it is not a close discussion. He has been Montreal’s worst defencemen in each game of this season and for all his talk about being fitter, no one can quite seem to tell what the difference between “unfit” and “fit” Kaberle is aside from what year it is on the calendar. Kaberle seems to be right at the end of his career and his being bought out this summer seems a certainty at this point if Montreal can not find a way to massage his stats and find a willing trade partner with an underachieving pro scouting department.

I am not sure if it is a case of him hitting the twilight of his career rather abruptly, which does happen to a lot of players in their mid-30s or he has just lost his passion since being traded from Toronto. There are cases where players wrap themselves up emotionally playing for a team they spent their entire career on, and lose something when they leave it. Regardless, barring injury Kaberle should expect to watch the rest of the Canadiens season from the press box.



Are the Habs overachieving right now?

Given the small sample size of the season, it is difficult to say. The Canadiens have done well exploiting a set of weaker teams to generate their wins but have so far struggled against division opponents that know them best. The Canadiens special teams are showing up as the notable difference though in their last three games however, for better and worse. Certain players are overachieving and others are underachieving so that is arguably a wash for offensive production, but the special teams seem to be the key factor. 50 per cent of the team’s goal scoring is being generated from the power play and 46.7 per cent of their goals against are coming from their penalty killing issues.

At present, the team is supping on a power play that just would not have afforded them the same results in the last several years. The Canadiens are currently drawing 5.5 power play opportunities per game, the last time they enjoyed an average similar to this it was the 2005-2006 season, famous for over-active officials that created the highest-scoring season of the decade by far. Given that many power play opportunities per game, the Canadiens 27.3 per cent efficiency on the power play is giving them massive dividends. Compared against last year when the team was drawing a mere 3.67 opportunities per game, the team even running at a 27.3 per cent efficiency would have scored six power play goals to date rather than nine. This result would likely mean at least one more loss considering the team edging one-goal wins against New Jersey and Winnipeg, scoring three power play goals over those two games including the game-winner in both contests. One can imagine there will be a directive by the league in near future to relax the officiating, as the trend following the over-active officials of the 2005-2006 season was a steady decline in penalty kills from 2005 to 2012. When the penalty call crunch happens, Montreal can still maintain one of the better power play units in the NHL with both Andrei Markov and the imminent return of P.K. Subban but they will just have fewer opportunities to do it. The team can’t rely on the PP for 50 per cent of their offensive output and even strength scoring will have to reach at least 60 per cent of team scoring to maintain an honest position in the playoff spots.

On the other hand, the Canadiens penalty kill is starting to become a serious underachiever which is notably affecting the team’s results, especially their 2nd-period collapse against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night. The unit is operating at a rather poor efficiency of 78.1 per cent, when in the previous two seasons the team operated one of the finest penalty killing units in the NHL. The penalty kill is missing PK Subban, who emerged as one of the team’s best penalty killing defencemen last season but at present, the configuration seems rather disjointed and missing the effectiveness that was seen under the much-debated Jacques Martin regime. While the man had his critics (this writer among them) you could not deny the man knew how to run a penalty kill. Granted if the crackdown on overactive officiating happens, this will benefit the Canadiens penalty killers but the issue at hand currently is that the Canadiens have only gone one game without allowing a power play goal.

Of notable concern is that Montreal is about to hit a crunch though that will truly test the mettle of their team. While they have just finished one back-to-back series, they have another with Buffalo and Ottawa on the 2nd and 3rd of February, another against Boston and Buffalo on the 6th and 7th and another game on the 9th against Toronto. In a schedule that has them playing 5 games in 7 nights, Montreal faces no one but division rivals. If the team can not keep up with the demands of this schedule, it could easily dull all the positive feelings that have been generated over their first 6 games and put them in an uphill battle for a playoff spot for the rest of the season. The Canadiens are fortunate enough that four of these five games are at home though which should help them in the area of planning in-game matchups and rest between games.

Who is next in line to crack the big club from Hamilton – full time, not call up?

 It will depend on whether a spot opens on defence or at the forward position. Amongst forwards, Louis Leblanc’s skills I would say hold him as the next logical candidate, but with a caveat. Leblanc will need to work out his ankle injury that still appears to be dogging him looking to his sub par statistical output compared to his rookie output in pro hockey. If he can overcome the issue, he is likely the next forward to get the call, based on his offensive skills and the team’s need to boost scoring depth as the current loss of Max Pacioretty has the team scrambling a bit to balance out the scoring lineup. If Leblanc were healthy, he could have had a temporary assignment with the Canadiens while auditioning for a full-time spot when spaces open up next season.

If the need comes to defence, Jarred Tinordi appears the most NHL-ready of his brethren in Hamilton. The 6’6” shutdown defender is showing an impressive acclimation to the pro level so far in the AHL and could arguably be ready to try out for a spot with the Canadiens in the 2013-14 season. Tinordi still has some work to do in regards to filling out his frame and improving what puck skills he has, but at present the 2010 1st-round pick appears to be the next defencemen to graduate out of the Canadiens farm system.

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Rick is the Editor-in-Chief, lead contributor, and owner of the All Habs network of websites. His mission is to build a community of Canadiens fans who are informed, engaged and connected. He is the vision behind all four sites within the network - All Habs, Habs Tweetup, We Are Canadiens, and The Montreal Forum - and is responsible for the design and layout of each. In concert with the strong belief that "Habs fans are everywhere!", Rick is pleased that people use All Habs as a conduit to find and connect with other Habs fans worldwide. He is also proud that Habs Tweetups have allowed fans to meet in person and develop long lasting friendships.

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