As terribly as the Habs have played they are only eight points out of a playoff spot following the Super Bowl weekend. It’s not to say they can close the gap and leapfrog the five teams between them and the playoff position, because the chances of that happening are next to zero.
Yet the reality in a cap league is that parity will cause teams to slide if they do not adapt each season. As of February 5, 2018, there are seven teams firmly in the playoffs that were not there the year before, meaning nearly half of the 2018 playoff picture will have a distinctly different look than 10 months ago.
With this in mind, a team must continually make positive moves or be left behind. In my opinion, despite their slide from Atlantic division champion to also-ran, the current Canadiens are only a few pieces away from being a serious contender again. This is likely why Marc Bergevin terms the task ahead as a “reset” rather than a full rebuild.
For the reset to be successful it must have the right pieces put in place between now and the next training camp. More importantly, a foundation for next season must be laid down immediately.
It is time to build for next season. It’s my contention that the current edition of the Canadiens isn’t as bad as some would have us believe. However, it isn’t exactly losing because of bad luck either. This team has holes.
One of the largest issues is the inability of developing their youth. Another is that the Canadiens do not consistently play to their potential. This falls squarely on Claude Julien and his coaching staff.
Julien will be tasked with the development of the NHL rookies. This is one of his main roles the rest of this season.
For me, Victor Mete has been a revelation. His mobility and puck-moving skills have shown him to be an NHL player already. He has deficiencies in his game such as his shot and difficulties playing against larger, more aggressive forwards. Both of those traits can be worked on but he needs more time on ice in those situations to be able to improve.
Nikita Scherbak is another NHL rookie who shows promise of becoming an impactful player. In his first seven NHL games, he has a goal and two assists in very limited ice time.
Scherbak has a large frame and high-end offensive skills. Many had the 22-year-old written off at the beginning of this season. However, in his third season in the professional ranks, he seems to have begun to piece together what he needs to translate his skills into the NHL game.
Julien had this to say about Scherbak after the 5-2 win against Anaheim on Super Bowl weekend, “I liked [Scherbak’s] game,” said Julien in French. “I think he’s a guy who improved his skating a lot from last year. The speed, the pace of his game is a lot better. I liked the fact that he played well in all aspects of the game, he back-checked well, was alert. All the same, he was patient on the goal from Morrow. I saw a guy who has a pretty decent brain for the game of hockey and I’m very satisfied with his game.”
“I saw a guy who has a pretty decent brain for the game of hockey and I’m very satisfied with his game.” — Claude Julien
Julien will need to place these young players in key top four and top six roles in more situations and learn to live with errors as he provides the guidance so that they will improve.
Julien must also instill a winning attitude in the Canadiens dressing room despite the many loses that may happen. This is perhaps the coach’s most important job in the reset, as Bergevin sells off key veteran players leading up to the February trade deadline.
Losing games will frequently happen. The key is not to be completely outplayed when they do, and if possible, win a few close, hard fought games versus top opposition to help build confidence. Yet how can that be achieved?
There is no question that there isn’t enough talent to win games at this time of the season. The goal is to get the remaining players to play the right way consistently. To do this Julien will have to ignore his tendency to ride the veterans and penalize younger players for errors. He must find a way to allow players to learn from their experiences.
Julien must ensure that his team is well-prepared and starts each game with energy. They must follow Brendan Gallagher’s example, working hard each shift and demonstrating a resilient attitude.
Not everything falls on Julien. It is the responsibility of each player to do the work, to be coachable and bring a lunch pail attitude to the rink every day. Losses will happen, but it must be due to a lack of talent not a lack of effort. Losing will not be fun, but this is how a winning attitude can be created in a down season.
Some of the attention must be placed at the AHL level to ensure that the franchise can finally rely on a steady stream of capable NHL players. A successful farm system can provide two players per season.
Larry Carriere recently took over from Marc Bergevin officially as the GM of the AHL system. This was a good move, allowing an Assistant GM to focus on building a winner while giving player development more attention.
Building a winning environment while losing more games than you win is a difficult task. It is an exercise that is done in every successful franchise. Individual grow is key. Bergevin and his staff must put the proper foundation in place.
The question is, will they be able to do so, and will Bergevin be able to provide the proper pieces to make next year a successful one. If they can, the reset would have been worth taking a step back this season. If he cannot, there will be no surprise if there is a repeat of this season’s problems and wholesale changes were to follow.