MONTREAL, QC. — “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain and while there’s little supporting evidence, it does make for a good story.
The thing is we all like a good rags-to-riches story. So when we are told that two angels came down from the heavens to resurrect the Canadiens and that they can do no wrong, we want to believe. How often this season have we heard the phrase “everything he touches…” when referring to decisions made by the coach and general manager?
It makes for a compelling narrative. And who am I to inject a little truth-telling into the conversation?
Let’s be clear. Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien have had a major positive impact on the Canadiens. Much has been written about what they have done to restore the glory and culture of winning to the Habs. But must we accept the myth that they have a perfect record since their arrival in Montreal?
There is a strong case to be made that the Habs were more talented than their 28th place finish would indicate last season. Is it that Bergevin and Therrien simply have the luxury of following two of the most incompetent individuals in hockey and look good in their wake?
Is it the sole reason for their success? No. Of course not. But is it a factor? Perhaps.
This piece isn’t constructed to be a comprehensive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of our current hockey operations staff. There will be a time for that. Instead can we safely admit that a mistake or two has been made?
In telling the Cinderella story of this season, one of the warts that has been covered up is the Canadiens play in their own zone. Stellar goaltending combined with a potent, balanced attack has masked vulnerabilities on the back end.
The Habs top the league’s list of most 20-point players and 10-goal scorers. Montreal is one of only five teams in the league averaging more than three goals scored per game. Carey Price has been at the top of the league in wins and 5-on-5 goals against / save percentage all season.
Habs players are also found at the top of other category: giveaways by defensemen. Three of the top ten spots in the league are occupied by Canadiens. Does that sound like a statistic that will contribute to a fairy-tale ending this season?
So when the time came to shore up the defense at the trade deadline, Bergevin made his move acquiring Davis Drewiske from the Los Angeles Kings. In the four games played so far for Montreal, it is easy to understand why Drewiske spent 15 games this season as a healthy scratch watching from the press box; he has accumulated a minus-4 rating. In a limited role, Drewiske can be an injury fill-in and can play the penalty-kill but he is a defensive liability and offers no offense nor physical game.
It’s no longer a secret that Alexei Emelin is one of the premiere physical defensemen in the league finding himself in the top-5 in hits this season. While Bergevin couldn’t have predicted an injury to Emelin, he should have recognized that the Habs have only one other defenseman in the top-50 in hits; talk about putting all your eggs in one basket.
On Tuesday night, in the first game without Emelin in the lineup, just one of the Canadiens’ 21 hits was delivered by a defenseman. The Capitals were able to move with ease in the Montreal zone and were able to clog the front of the net without fear. Potential Habs playoff opponents were taking notes.
Now, don’t infer that there is any suggestion here that Bergevin should have unloaded prospects and high picks to go for a Cup run. Far from it. But was there a player available who could have filled the needs of the team better than Drewiske for a low pick? Absolutely.
Similarly, Michel Therrien is being promoted as a lock for the Jack Adams trophy for transforming the Canadiens from a ‘last to first’ team. While there is a case to be made, it’s also fair to recognize that this year’s success is also confirmation of the ineptness of the previous bench boss.
Let’s not forget that it’s been a handful of years since Therrien directed his last NHL team. During that time, his views of current members of the Canadiens were shaped while sitting on the L’Antichambre sofa. Is it plausible that his objectivity has been affected by marinating in the agenda-driven RDS environment?
At the very least, Therrien’s handling of centre Lars Eller has been curious. Eller is the complete package: a centre with size, good vision and hockey sense, strong on his skates, protects the puck well and very defensively responsible. In short, the type of player that Canadiens fans have been coveting for years.
So why is it that Eller has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Canadiens?
Of the of attributes listed above, the only one that Eller shares with David Desharnais is hockey sense. Something else both do well is dishing the disc, but otherwise Desharnais is easily knocked off the puck, is an average skater at best and is weak in the defensive zone. Despite being paired with the Canadiens top scorers from 2011-’12, Desharnais had a dreadful start to the season totalling just three goals, two assists and a minus-6 rating in 13 games.
Given the limited scope of his game, Desharnais must produce team-leading offensive numbers to maintain his ice-time and top linemates. Or have Michel Therrien as a coach.
Through valleys and rounded-peaks, Desharnais receives top-line minutes, power-play time and the best linemates the team has to offer. Meanwhile, Eller has had to be satisfied with the dregs when it comes to playing with the man advantage and endure a carousel of linemates. A spot on the wing with Eller has become the dumping ground for callups and fourth liners.
“The reason why we put [Gabriel] Dumont with Lars [Eller] and Alex [Galchenyuk] is because we didn’t want to touch the other lines.” — Michel Therrien
And some question Eller’s consistency.
- Max Pacioretty 78.6 (percent)
- Brendan Gallagher 55.6
- Erik Cole 32.8
Here are the corresponding numbers for Eller.
- Alex Galchenyuk 56.3
- Brandon Prust 33.6
- Colby Armstrong 26.6
Before you point to the struggles of Erik Cole this season, look at who occupies the third position on the next list. Colby Armstrong is a player who reminds us of another mistake by the general manager. But let’s continue on.
So with one centre blessed with an abundance of riches and the other having to make ends meet, one would expect a wide disparity in their contributions. Guess again.
Eller is one point behind Desharnais having played two fewer games and significantly less ice-time per game. Against the Capitals, at close to 20 minutes, Desharnais was given 46 percent more time on ice than Eller. Despite having scored two goals in the game, Therrien chose to sit Eller on the bench for the final minute in favor of Desharnais as the Canadiens attempted to tie the game.
Was that a mistake by the head coach?
The power-play statistics are even more startling. My colleague Robert Rice tweeted last night that the two centres each have five power-play points this season but Desharnais has a total of 105:58 in power-play time compared to Eller’s 21:59.
Therrien’s apparent stubborness must have something to do with Desharnais having superior faceoff numbers. Nope. The two have been within a percentage point or so of each other all season long.
If we drill deeper into advanced stats, we’re bound to find a reason. No again. Desharnais has the advantage of starting in the offensive zone 59 percent of the time compared to Eller’s 44 percent. And only Tomas Plekanec faces stronger opposition than Eller.
Through observational analysis and most every metric, Eller is outperforming Desharnais yet Therrien has not rewarded the young centre nor has he done anything — cutting ice-time, swapping linemates, assigning press-box duty — to kick-start No. 51.
All this flies in the face of the emotional tale that a home-grown, undrafted, diminutive player is the premiere centre of the Montreal Canadiens. But no less fictional than the general manager and coach have been walking on water and without blemish since arriving 11-months ago.
Heap praise on the duo for what they have accomplished so far in their tenure but be unafraid to identify their errors. Granted, it will make for a less interesting camp-fire story, but it will be far closer to the truth. And you will be far less likely to be labelled with that nasty “embellishment” tag.