In terms of the hockey calendar, we’re figuratively sitting on New Year’s eve. Each team is ready to start fresh with their fans hoping that measures have been taken to bring home a Cup by season’s end.
Let’s look at five ways that the Montreal Canadiens can improve to avoid the disappointment of last season.
1. Be more disciplined
The Canadiens completed the 2016-17 season in 15th place with 759 penalty minutes (PIM). The majority of those minutes were minor penalties (277). The more time spent short-handed adds more time on ice (TOI) for the team’s top defenders. ‘Harder minutes’ can lead to fatigue that can wear on a team late in the season.
Minimizing minor penalties where a player was tired, ill-prepared, or improperly positioned will add quality minutes to the Canadiens core group allowing them to dictate the pace and style of the game instead of having to read and react to the opposition.
2. Improve special teams
The Habs worked very hard between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons on special teams.
The Canadiens improved their power-play (PP) from an NHL ranked 25th overall producing at a rate of 16.2 percent in 2015-16, to move up 12 spots to become 13th in the NHL scoring at a 19.7 percent rate last season. It is a dramatic improvement, but one that still needs to built upon.
Andrei Markov has left to command a power-play in the KHL. Where does this leave Montreal? For the first time in 16 seasons, the Canadiens’ power-play will have a new quarterback leading the troops. Jonathan Drouin will be first in line to fill the void. His experience in junior hockey with Halifax and contributing to the NHL’s sixth-ranked power-play in Tampa Bay should be a valuable tool for coach Claude Julien.
The real work in improving the power-play will involve making the second wave a more effective unit. Will Jakub Jerebek, Mark Streit, David Schlemko step in to quarterback this unit?
With respect to penalty-killing, the Canadiens were the NHL’s 12th ranked unit at 81.9 percent efficiency in 2015-16. Essentially the Canadiens remained at this position in 2016-17 with a 14th place ranking at 81.1 percent.
The Habs top penalty-killing unit is anchored by Shea Weber. He had a several partners last season. This year expect to see newly-acquired Karl Alzner, a stalwart for the Capitals’ seventh ranked penalty-killers, next to Weber.
As with the power-play, the penalty-kill will need to find a leader for the second wave. Jordie Benn stands to be the choice this coming season, yet you can expect a rotating cast to start the season.
Special teams play a large role for every team in the NHL. The Canadiens must have a power-play and penalty-kill that can make a difference in games. Adding the Canadiens penalty-kill and power-play percentages yielded a value of 100.8 last season. In comparison, the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins had a combined special teams percentage of 102.9 during the 2016-17 regular season. I would like to see the Habs increase their score to one of the best in the league which is approaching 107.
3. Improve team consistency
When the Canadiens are committed and working together, they can dominate games and prove that they belong in the top tier of NHL teams. While it hasn’t always been the case, last season the Canadiens won the games that they were expected to win. Montreal had a record below .500 versus just two of the fourteen non-playoff teams, namely the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes.
It is crucial that the Canadiens continue to maintain focus against teams below them in the standings. In past seasons, points have been lost to so-called inferior teams.
Montreal needs to find a way to deliver the same level of performance against teams from the Western Conference. In eight games against some of the best teams in the West (Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis and San Jose), the Canadiens managed just one point total last season.
4. Upgrade scoring
On paper, having added a dynamic offensive player in Jonathan Drouin, should improve scoring. It remains to be seen the offsetting effect of losing offensive talent like Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov, Nathan Beaulieu and Mikhail Sergachev.
Yet, the larger concern will be to increase production from the remaining members of the Canadiens roster. After offensively subpar seasons from players such as Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and Tomas Plekanec, Julien must employ methods to improve on their offensive output of last season.
Gallagher will need to find a way to continue playing his style without concern for further serious injuries to his reconstructed hand. Has the injury healed and has he regained full strength and mobility? Will his summer training return him to being a 20 to 25 goal scorer?
Galchenyuk has been able to increase his points per game average every season he has played in the NHL. Can he maintain his production making the move to centre or find a way to be as productive playing his style on the wing?
As for Plekanec, the days of 50+ point seasons for him are in the past. He will need to continue to be a stalwart defensively at center while trying to produce more than 35 points.
Incremental improvements may add 15 to 20 goals to the 221 goals scored last year. Yet, that may prove to be too little for a long playoff run. The only surefire way to achieve significant improvement offensively is to add a fresh face to the Canadiens top six.
5. Lean on leadership
Carey Price, Shea Weber and Max Pacioretty consistently show why they are mentioned in discussions about the top five players at each position in the NHL every year. This must be repeated again this year for the Canadiens to maintain their regular season success. For Montreal to be a Cup contender, their high level of performance must continue throughout the playoffs.
Price and Weber continued their All-Star performances against the Rangers in last year’s playoffs. However, Pacioretty, despite leading the team in shots, shots from the slot, scoring chances, and ice-time for forwards, simply couldn’t find the twine. His inability to finish was a major factor in a lack of scoring, as the Habs managed just 11 goals in the 6 games leading to a first round exit.
Pacioretty will need to find a way to improve on his career 0.5 points points per game production in the playoffs. This is where the addition of a high-end playmaking centre could make a big difference.
To reach the ultimate goal, the Canadiens will need improvements in all of the areas discussed above in the regular season and through the playoffs. The question is has Marc Bergevin done enough in the off-season to deliver what is expected by loyal Montreal fans?