A quarter of the season has been completed and it would be hard to tell that the Canadiens were 14-4-2 judging by some on social media. After last season’s collapse, it would seem that many fans have not reset their feelings as the league did when every team began at zeros to start the new season. That collapse may have shaken those fans to the core causing them to have difficulty moving on. And that has caused doom and gloom to permeate large regions of Habs nation.
To borrow a famous line from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t Panic.” The Canadiens, as the roster stands after 20 games into the 2016-17 NHL season, are a playoff team. The team is playing .500 hockey with newly signed backup Al Montoya, and is nearly perfect with all-world phenom Carey Price.
Add in a motivated Shea Weber and a top line center named Alex Galchenyuk scoring at a point per game pace and the main building blocks for success are in place. Also, the team finally boasts depth with several quality bottom six forwards and an excellent second pairing on defense that can produce points and compete with any team.
However, there are areas for concern.
Galchenyuk’s faceoff percentage is an abysmal 40 per cent, not ideal for a top line center. It is likely the reason he has averaged close to 16 minutes per game rather than 19 minutes per game logged by the four players who are ahead of him in the scoring race.
Several players have auditioned for the role of second line center unsuccessfully. And that role comes with the responsibility of helping Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher out of their uncharacteristic slow starts. The lack of production from these two has left the Galchenyuk and Alex Radulov pairing as the main weapon and target of opposing defenses. This has lessened the impact expected from depth scoring.
Having multiple lines providing depth scoring seems to be the chosen model for the Canadiens this season as seen with Chicago and Pittsburgh. Pacioretty provided Arpon Basu of NHL.com this view of that plan.
This model could work in Montreal if not for an entire line of top six forwards experiencing production slumps such as Thomas Plekanec, Pacioretty and Gallagher. Keep in mind that the Canadiens sit in third place for goals scored in the NHL this season on pace for 259 goals for (which would be a significant increase from 221 goals for last season.)
However, this lack of production from half of the top six is a concern. Pacioretty is still producing points but not at his usual pace and has dropped off in his typical level of shots on goal. Plekanec is playing solid defensively, yet is simply not generating any offence, and Gallagher is playing his signature style, yet seems snake-bitten.
The solution for this lack of offensive output is pointing heavily to the trade market. And no, that does not mean trading Pacioretty or Gallagher. That means adding to the current roster and not subtracting from the top six. Marc Bergevin is rumored to be very active in search for more offensive help and with several top 60 picks in the next two drafts and quality NHL ready prospects, he has the ammunition needed to pull the trigger on such a deal.
While adding any quality scoring veteran will help, an upgrade on the current rotating system of second line center with the addition of a proven top six player would help much more as this would likely involve bringing in a center that could re-invigorate both Pacioretty and Gallagher. In the meantime the expected return of Artturi Lehkonen will help add more scoring depth.
The other area of concern is on defense, specifically on the left side in the top four. It is an area that Marc Bergevin has also been rumored to be on the hunt to upgrade. There is a need to add a top four capable puck-moving defenseman to pair with Shea Weber and to ease the workload on Andrei Markov.
The hope, at the start of the season, was for Nathan Beaulieu to be able to step into that role, yet his inconsistent play has left him playing on the third pairing with a rotating door of partners. And now, Beaulieu is out indefinitely with an undisclosed upper body injury after blocking a shot against Ottawa. After a strong showing in the AHL, Mark Barberio received the call up. While he is more consistent than Beaulieu, he is purely a third-pairing defenseman.
The Montreal Canadiens continue to coast along near or at the top of the NHL rankings in points, wins, goals for, goals against and power play percentage. While there is a need to improve on face-offs and penalty killing units, it isn’t necessary to rush any trade. The solid start to the season has afforded management the cushion to find the right fit in a trade rather than to make a move in a state of panic.
The team, as constructed now, is able to weather the recent storm of inconsistency and remain relevant in the playoff picture. Keeping perspective, this season’s 14-4-2 record after 20 games is identical to last season’s record at the same mark. The difference in enthusiasm from last year to this year seems to be the lingering effects from the collapse experienced last season. However the odds of that repeating itself are slim.
There will be roster moves, and that could reassure some fans. The rumours indicate that Bergevin has identified the needs of the team and is looking to have them met as soon as possible. That points to the Canadiens management team being “all in.” After all, hockey is a business and playoff wins mean more profit.
Bold moves are required to bring in any missing pieces that can win this team those last five or six playoff wins. And no GM has made any bolder moves than Bergevin has recently. So stay strong Habs fans, enjoy the effort the players are providing. This team is still a good team, and it is only going to improve.
So long and thanks for all the fish.