The Canadiens are living through the worst start to a season in more than 75 years. The difficult schedule, including a dreaded western trip to California, is not helping their cause.
While it is true they would have to face these obstacles at some point in the season, it may have been easier after building chemistry and momentum. Instead, the Habs were thrown into the deep end right away, and it would seem they left their water wings behind.
So what is really the issue? I covered some of this in a previous article. While the Habs have some of the lowest shooting percentage and below par save percentage in the NHL, it is more than just bad luck.
That said, the puck luck has been terrible this season. In my view, this stems from growing pains with a new system and new faces in the lineup. Early failures have produced a fragile team psyche with uncertainty creeping into every play. It appears that confidence is ready to collapse upon a bad play, and their momentum is gone instantly.
The contest versus the Anaheim Ducks on October 20th was a microcosm of the eight game Habs’ season.
The Canadiens came out flat, allowing three quick goals and were dominated 21-7 in shots in the first period. Let’s call them the Dr. Jekyll squad. Words were said during intermission such that the Mr. Hyde’s version of the team dominated the second period, outshooting the Ducks 30-10 while only scoring two goals on 16 scoring chances.
Ducks broadcast: #Habs had 3 scoring chances in the first period, 16 in the second, 19 total so far.
— All Habs (Canadiens) (@AllHabs) October 21, 2017
The wheels fell off the bus in the third period. A broken stick shot landed on the tape of an opponent who wired a one-timer for a 4-2 lead. It was a lucky bounce that ended up in the Habs net, sinking the entire team.
This highlights a basic issue that must be addressed: all too often this season, we see incomplete efforts. The first step to any problem is to admit the issue as Brendan Gallagher did in his post game interview.
“It’s our job to play 60 minutes there’s no excuse. That’s on us as a team, it’s on us as leaders. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and understand it’s not just going to happen for us.”
So what are the options to help alleviate the issues?
Let us begin with the players. Claude Julien‘s system doesn’t seem to fit well with Marc Bergevin‘s personnel selections. Julien employs a system that requires hard chargers going to the net on every forward line. There are too few players who play that style of game for Julien’s system to succeed. So barring wholesale changes to personnel, Julien will be forced to adjust his system to match the current roster.
A serious cause for concern is that team confidence seems fragile. The body language of the team changes following an opposition goal, players on the bench noticeably slump.
That type of defeatist attitude can infect a team. There is no easy solution to emerge from it. The players must look to themselves, demanding better as Gallagher mentioned.
At this point, team leaders are needed most. They not only have to lead by example but they also must hold teammates accountable. Without accountability, there can be no improvement.
To me, it is evident that there have been too many passengers on this ride. Is it that some players are looking to benefit from the hard work of a linemate?
During the California swing, Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw showed what hard work and buy-in to Julien’s system can do as they pushed possession and generated numerous scoring chances.
The pair simply needed the addition of higher-end talent to become consistently dangerous. Adding Max Pacioretty to the line during the second period of the Ducks game is what they needed.
More so for Pacioretty, as the change seemed to finally wake him up from his trance. He looked like the Pacioretty of old. It is something my All Habs Hockey Magazine colleague, Mathieu Chagnon, had predicted would occur if Pacioretty were paired with Danault.
Yet, as this season has so often shown us, the hockey gods giveth, and the also taketh away. Pacioretty had 10 shots on goal and 17 shot attempts, indicating that he was on his game against Anaheim. Yet, his best scoring opportunity truly demonstrates the Habs season.
Alone in the high slot, the puck landed on his stick for what is normally a quick one-timed snap shot that he scores on 99 times out of a 100. But this case, his shot sailed straight into the netting above the glass.
Another serious cause of concern has been the play of Carey Price. His save percentage of .885 is abberant. Price is the cornerstone of the franchise. While there are serious issues with the defense in front of him, he must shoulder some of the blame.
On the Ducks fifth goal, despite two breakdowns behind the net by the defenders, Price cheated on the play to move across the net. As he turned to make his movement, he lost sight of the puck. The reverse should have never happened with two Canadiens in the path but it gave an open look for a Ducks goal.
Price’s minor breakdowns are out of character for him. He must fight through the frustration and rediscover his normally impeccable form.
Sometimes hard work and skill is simply not enough. Sometimes a drastic measure is required to lift a team out of the fog.
So does Bergevin make a trade?
There is a loud chorus demanding the team add a puck moving defenceman from talk radio hosts and those on social media. Would the addition of a defenseman help the transition game? Yes. However, clearing the zone was a major issue against Anaheim but overall, the most glaring issue has been positioning.
In the game against the Ducks, the Habs had over 80 shot attempts, 51 shots and more than 20 scoring chances. Would a puck moving defenseman magically turn chances into a goal?
#Habs got 50 shots and at least 18 quality chances. Don't hand me the narrative they need a new PMD to generate offence.
— Blain Potvin (@Potsy_70) October 21, 2017
A top four defenseman would help in the Canadiens zone where the coverage has been abysmal. Puck retrieval and moving it out of their zone more quickly would also be improved.
A more impactful solution would be the addition of a true centerman. Jonathan Drouin has shown some excellent flair offensively, he has made some good defensive plays as well, yet his inexperience at the NHL level as a center is showing with him making some defensive misreads and lost faceoffs causing the team to chase the play.
Adding a center could also help on the offensive side forcing goaltenders to be honest and not key on the one shooter per line.
However, at this time of the season, it is highly unlikely any general manager would make such a major shakeup. Add in the fact that with the Canadiens in a seeming tailspin, the opposition GMs would rather throw Bergevin an anchor instead of the life preserver he needs. The players in that room are the ones that have to find the way out.
Fire the coach?
So if not a trade, then perhaps the age old tactic of firing a coach? In this case, it is nearly 100 per cent unlikely. This tactic was used last Valentine’s day. This leaves a shakeup of the assistant coaches, such as when Perry Pearn was fired early in the 2011-12 season. Seeing a coach leave due to a lack of effort by the players could be the impetus to shake the fog from the psyche. New faces and new voices may destabilize their comfort with mediocrity and put them back on track.
Choose a new captain?
Having Shea Weber in the lineup makes this a very real possibility. The former recipient of the Mark Messier award for leadership is well respected. He wore the ‘C’ in Nashville for several seasons prior to arriving in Montreal.
Yet, what happens to Pacioretty? Some feel this would lift pressure off the shoulders of the Habs top goal scorer. I feel this is true as he would have less to focus on. After the game against the Kings, Pacioretty said that he must lead by example.
“How can I tell the others to improve their play when I am the worst one out there.” — max pacioretty
However, it would be tough to handle a move like this especially in a market like Montreal. There would be reminders everywhere, it would add another layer of distraction.
A change in leadership can only occur following a trade of Pacioretty. This could provide multiple valuable assets in return, and would also provide a major wake up call to the dressing room.
Will Geoff Molson will fire the GM?
Putting aside any discussions of Bergevin’s abilities or his body of work, one glaring problem with that choice, GMs don’t score goals, make saves or impact the system of play. They don’t interact daily with players either.
That said, after six years, this is Bergevin’s roster. Prior to the season, Bergevin said that this year’s lineup most closely reflects his vision.
Still, if Bergevin is dismissed, there won’t be an immediate impact. It is unlikely to provide a sudden shock making the hearts of players beat with the desire to win again.
Any impact from replacing the general manager would likely not be felt until subsequent seasons.
There are many paths that can stop this ship from running aground and lead to steering it back out to sea. The issue is picking one and committing to it. Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.