The 2017-18 NHL season for the Canadiens began with questions about how their identity would translate onto the ice. Parts of this new identity include a familiar coach implementing a different system and several new additions. Many assumed that the Canadiens were still good enough to make the playoffs.
It’s still early, but a record of 1-3-1 has left doubts in the minds of a rabid fan base about the post-season. So what is ailing the Canadiens? This is a team with a solid core group that presently sits near the bottom of the league in the standings.
Let us begin how Marc Bergevin has assembled this team, from the net out.
Carey Price recently signed an eight-year, $84 million contract extension that will not kick in until the 2018-19 season. Fans breathed a deep sigh of relief when the deal was announced.
There were a few that grumbled for tying up that kind of money but a quick look around the league tells you that it is the going rate for elite players. There’s no question that Price has been one of the biggest bargains for many years. And at 30-years-old, he is in the prime years for a goaltender.
When the regular season began, Price stole two points in Buffalo with a superb 43-save performance. Then, in my opinion, he began to slide.
The Canadiens record of 1-3-1 is shared by Price, having started every game this season. He currently has 3.45 goals against average and a save percentage of .885 which are well below career averages.
Coach Julien’s new defensive scheme is a work in progress for both Canadiens defense and forwards. Shots against are averaging just 28 per game while the Habs sit third in the league averaging 37.8 shots per game. But it both cases, shot quality is an issue: giving up too many high-quality scoring chances and taking too many shots from the perimeter.
Carey Price: I thought we played our best game. If I was better, we'd have been on the other side of the score.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) October 15, 2017
Price, being a leader on the team, stepped up to shoulder the blame, both deserved and not. I expect him to lead by example during the western road trip, returning to his regular form.
With respect to allowing too many high percentage opportunities, the Canadiens defense has had issues with adjusting to zone coverage, clearing the high slot and cutting off cross- ice passes.
Is the team defence just too old, too slow, and too ordinary?
Jordie Benn and Jeff Petry have had issues all season handling the puck and being guilty of giveaways. While Petry has begun to improve, Benn continues to struggle.
Mark Streit was acquired in the off-season to stabilize the third pair. His two-game return proved he could not do the job and will mutually terminate his contract.
Despite a horrendous camp, Brandon Davidson has stepped in for Streit and played a simple and effective game. David Schlemko is still recovering from a hand injury, and the young Victor Mete has thus far proven himself to be a solid, mobile, top-four defender.
— Blain Potvin (@Potsy_70) October 15, 2017
While there are still improvements to be made at defence, I don’t believe that they are a major cause of concern.
Goals have been a rare commodity despite the Canadiens being one of the top teams in shots on goal per game. This yields a horrendously low shooting percentage. It’s possible that it is nothing more than some bad “puck luck” that should improve.
The Habs have controlled possession and driven the play at a high rate overall in this early point of the season. Claude Julien feels they have been doing enough to earn wins and said so in his post-game press conference on Saturday night.
— Blain Potvin (@Potsy_70) October 15, 2017
Alex Galchenyuk has begun to come out of his slump. He began Saturday’s game on the fourth line, but spent considerable time playing on the top line and on the power-play. It would seem Julien appreciated his ability to step up his effort after being called upon this week. Galchenyuk’s skill-set will be sorely needed to provide depth scoring.
Other young forwards such as Artturi Lehkonen and Charles Hudon have played much better than their stats lines suggest.
On the other end of the spectrum, Max Pacioretty has been eerily quiet on the scoresheet. He is at his best when shooting in large volume. He hasn’t been as confident to do so preferring to pass more than he should. He needs to start becoming greedier, especially now that he is paired with a playmaker like Jonathan Drouin.
The main issue at forward is the center depth. Drouin has been creative offensively scoring his first goal of the season on Saturday. His Achilles heel thus far has been his faceoff percentage of 45.8. Defensively, his line has been on the ice for more goals against at 5-on-5 than any other trio on the team.
Further down the depth chart, we find Phillip Danault and Tomas Plekanec. Both are defensively responsible, but in the case of Danault, his offence hasn’t been there.
The largest upgrade offensively that can occur without any changes in the roster will come from the power-play. Shut out in the first four games, the Canadiens power-play is just 1-for-16.
Julien has moved back to two defencemen on the first wave of the power-play, placing Mete to the left of Shea Weber. The change has not yet produced any goals after one game. It will be something to watch on the western road trip.
Bergevin has proven that he is not afraid to make a big trade to improve the team but history suggests that a major move won’t come early in the season. However, with the farm team having NHL-capable players available at every position, it is very likely Bergevin will audition a few to see if help is available internally first.
The Canadiens are a team built with depth, but do not boast a lot of star power. For the Habs to have success, those stars have to be aligned, and playing at their best. If they aren’t, the team stumbles. The opposition best have been their best, while the Canadiens have not.
There is confidence that chemistry can be generated, that Price will return to world beater form and that the forwards will score more. The fear is that it will not happen soon enough, leaving the Canadiens deep in a hole having to fight their way back into the playoff picture.