TORONTO, ON. — When comparing the 2012-13 and 2014-15 Montreal Canadiens rosters, one would assume that they would be playing a similar offensive-possession conducive system to the one head coach Michel Therrien implemented during his first season back with the organization, however the Canadiens, despite the plethora of talent on the roster play a risk-free style, one that is built to eliminate any risk in the defensive and neutral zones. Coach Therrien reverted to his chip and chase style after the 2013 playoffs where his team was shown an early first round exit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. When simply looking at the NHL standings, one would assume that the Canadiens are one of the best teams in the league, however that is not the entire story. In this piece, I will provide a look at the issues, transformation, progression and regression (in some ways) of the Canadiens over the last three years.
Looking at the roster GM Marc Bergevin inherited when he took over as GM in the summer of 2012, three key players were already in place, star goaltender Carey Price, star rearguard P.K. Subban and breakout winger Max Pacioretty. Since then the team has had a hard time finding top right-handed defensive depth behind Subban (until the 2014-15 trade deadline), a top center and scoring depth. In the first season for the new management team, Bergevin shipped aging winger Erik Cole out to Dallas for UFA-to-be Michael Ryder, he brought in Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and defenceman Francis Bouillon, three players in which helped gain the Canadiens a new identity.
Scoring after the 2012-13 season has been a bit of an issue for the Canadiens until Bergevin swooped in at the last second to steal Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders for a middling prospect and a second round pick. Vanek really helped shape the Canadiens offensive attack until they met Henrik Lundqvist in the Eastern Conference Finals. Vanek later walked as a UFA.
Going into the 2014-15 season, the Canadiens had moved on from Daniel Briere, they brought in forward P.A. Parenteau from the Colorado Avalanche. Parenteau had a tough season and ended up being bought-out later signing with the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Along with Parenteau the Canadiens brought in coveted 22-year-old UFA Jiri Sekac from the KHL. The rookie was in and out of Therrien’s dog house for the majority of his time here, later shipped off to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for hard-nosed winger Devante Smith-Pelly in a hockey trade that was essentially a swap of skill for grit. Both players slipped below expectations of their new clubs, ending up as healthy scratches at times. The Canadiens still struggled to get much offense outside of sniper Max Pacioretty.
The Canadiens roster now bodes the likes of seven-time 20-goal scorer Alexander Semin, hard-nosed but skilled winger Zack Kassian and the potential for a youngster to make the team out of training camp. However, as the 2015-16 season is to go, the Canadiens are now deeper on paper and have quite the plethora of players who can chip in offensively more regularly then the bottom-6 did last season.
Over the last three seasons, the Montreal Canadiens have had two 100 point seasons leading to division championships and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Goaltender Carey Price with the help of goaltending coach Stephan Waite has reached his full potential and is now the best goaltender in the world, confirmed by his Olympic Gold Medal, and multiple NHL awards including the league MVP (Hart) and the league’s best goaltender (Vezina). Max Pacioretty has evolved into a fantastic two-way threat with the guidance of Michel Therrien and his natural progression as a goal-scorer and Tomas Plekanec continues to be one of the top two-way centers in the NHL.
Coming off an early first round exit the Canadiens made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013-14 however lost the series 4-2 to Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, an exciting feat for Canadiens fans to see considering it was their longest post-season run since hoisting the Stanley Cup for a 24th time in 1993, the Canadiens have a lot going for them which included a 2014-15 campaign where no significant injuries to key players halted the Canadiens before succumbing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
Looking at the standings, the Canadiens didn’t exactly regress by finishing second in the Eastern Conference only to the New York Rangers, however this feat was greatly helped singlehandedly at times by netminder Carey Price. If not for Price, the Canadiens would have likely been a playoff bubble team. Some even question whether or not the Canadiens would have even been fighting for a playoff spot without Price playing otherworldly at times this past season. The Canadiens defied the odds this past season as they were truthfully a team that were lucky to score one goal a game only to be saved countless times by Carey Price covering up defensive lapses. The Canadiens were in the bottom third of the NHL when it came to advanced stats measurements. If P.K. Subban was shutdown by the opposition, the powerplay was powerless once again. The penalty kill faltered at the wrong times and th team left Price hung out to dry multiple times a game.
The Canadiens were notorious this past season for being outshot, sometimes even at a 2:1 ratio. If it weren’t for Carey Price’s superstar performances, the Canadiens would have been in trouble and would likely have faced a game 7 vs the Senators after being up 3-0 in that series.
Issues The Team Faces:
Some issues are bigger than others when it comes to a winning hockey team. One player may mask a lot of things for a period of time or the team may succumb to those issues during an “off season” (2011-12.)
The Canadiens face quite a few issues going into the 2015-16 season, the biggest one being their number 1 center. When looking at championship teams, what do they all have in common? Well they all have a fantastic 1-2 punch down the middle of the ice: Chicago has Toews-Teravainen, Los Angeles has Kopitar-Carter, Boston has Bergeron-Krejci, the list goes on and on. Well the Canadiens have had a tandem of David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec as 1-2 for the past 3 ½ seasons now. The pair of Desharnais-Plekanec simply isn’t working.
Desharnais, the diminutive playmaking forward has incredible vision. He is constantly stapled to Max Pacioretty’s side in every offensive situation. Obviously Desharnais’ size is also a bit of an issue. However, his two biggest issues are that he becomes quite predictable in the offensive zone by looking for Pacioretty and his constant overuse despite mediocre numbers for his position.
Tomas Plekanec is fine as the 2C in Montreal. He gets tough defensive assignments along with Lars Eller and Torrey Mitchell. The Canadiens have all the tools for a potential very good, lethal top 6. Coach Therrien has the options within the personnel of the organization if he decides to shake things up from the past few seasons.
Another pressing issue is the style that Canadiens play. They’re a smaller stature team which likes to counter-attack off the rush due to their speed and skill. However over the past two seasons, they have been playing a much bigger, grinding game which essentially is the opposite direction to championship caliber teams like the Blackhawks and Lightning. The Canadiens rely far too much on goaltender Carey Price to save their bacon after defensive breakdowns. And the breakout is heavily flawed considering the forwards are usually either at the red line or opposing blue line flying the zone which leaves the defense no real option to create a structured breakout.
Perhaps arguably the biggest issue is the sometimes disconnect between head coach Michel Therrien and general manager Marc Bergevin regarding player usage and the direction provided to new acquisitions. As mentioned when Marc Bergevin swooped in to pick up skilled winger Jiri Sekac, Sekac showed great potential to become a top-6 forward however coach Therrien scratched the 22-year old for the likes of Travis Moen and Rene Bourque. Sekac was later dealt for Devante Smith-Pelly who better fit the direction that the coach wanted: a grinding, defense first, low risk team.
This wasn’t the first time that Therrien demoted a skilled player to the fourth line later to have him moved out by Bergevin. It happened with the likes of Thomas Vanek, Daniel Briere, P.A. Parenteau and even Michael Ryder in his second stint with the Canadiens.
This summer Bergevin signed goal scorer Alexander Semin to a one-year $1.1M deal saying that he wants Semin to play his skilled game. It will be interesting to see how the sniper works under defensive coach Therrien. Will Alexander Semin become another skilled forward who becomes a casualty under the current regime or will he get back to being the goal-scoring forward he was, not too many years ago?