Marc Bergevin, Michel Therrien (Photo by Journal de Montreal)
Marc Bergevin, Michel Therrien (Photo by Journal de Montreal)

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.

Transformation:

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.

Progression:

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.

Regression:

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?

  • Bart

    I’ve said it before,and I’ll say it again…the issue is MT! I do notbelieve he is responsible for the elite standings in which the Habs have found themselves. I credit Carey Price for that; he has not only saved the Habs bacon time and again, but MT’s! I believe a good team plays to its strengthes, not the coach’s preconceived notions. MT has not allowed them to do that. Yes, he has made them a more disciplined team, and that is to be commended. However, they are a very fast, creative, and skilled set of players….THAT they have not been allowed to show. Rather the opposite. Whatever creativity and skill exists has been squashed for the sake of Therrien’s so-called defensive, grinding system. They aren’t really built for that!! Consider PK, Sekac, Galchenyuk, Eller, Andrighetto….all of whom have had their creativity and confidence squelched by a bull-headed coach. Oh yes, as MT has it, Galchenyuk is more comfortable on the wing….so now, I can return my teacher’s pet, DD, back to 1srC. Or, as MB put it, he did play on the wing in junior! Give me a break! He started out in Midget as a center, and dominTed! So, MB, stop covering your coach’s ass….or he will be your undoing!

    • yoshii47

      Bart….the year Pitts fired MT and hired Bylsma they won the cup. He dump on the team and said they couldn’t play defence. Mtl will NEVER win a cup with this guy behind the bench.

      • Bart

        Totally agree.

      • jd

        You both nailed it. Just look at how Sekac was traded for DSP. MB is building this team in one direction (skill and speed) and MT continues to call it grinding and trying to play it that way. The sooner MT goes the better it will be for this team who can’t possibly like the way they are being coached or played.

    • The style they played has to change, they relied on Price far too much, I think this year will be very telling regarding the entire coaching staff’s future in Montreal.

  • MB seems to be solidly behind MT much to the chagrin of the haters out there. LOL

    • Bart

      Then, perhaps, it’s time to consider replacing both of them. However, if the Habs falter again this year, I sincerely doubt MB will have MT’s back.

      • Keep dreaming!! LMAO

        • Bart

          Don’t think it’s a dream, Norm. If this team falters badly, the heat under MB and MT will increase exponentially. My assumption is that MB has a survival instinct. If not this crowd can turn like no one else, and the man who can do no wrong will become the man who can do no right. Count on it.

          • With the improvements on D and up front by MB I hardly think this team will falter. I believe another top 2 finish in the East is likely and an appearance in the ECF as well. MT will be safe.

          • It’s a tough thing to figure out, I thought after the season that Dan Lacroix, the special teams coach would have been eliminated from the picture however he wasn’t, I believe that MB and co, may have a little too much loyalty towards the staff even if some things struggle, it’s time for regular season success to translate into a deep playoff and cup run with Subban, Price, Pacioretty all in their prime.

    • yoshii47

      Norm…what’s MB supposed to do…dump all over the coach he hired? Of course he’s going to support him.

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  • John Turgeon

    Good read… MT has pretty much relied on the vets on this team to carry most if not all of the offensive load. Limiting the growth of the young talent that they have. Now MB has added a offensive player with something to prove. I can see Semin sitting in the press box as much as playing. He is not the type of player that he likes. Kassian on the other hand will get every chance to play. My biggest problem with this team is not using Chucky at center. He is exactly what this team needs, using him on the wing is just wrong. I think the writing is on the wall for MT. I hope like hell they get things right with the PP.

    • Thank you! I agree however I do think that MB will give MT an ultimatum regarding Semin, especially if he even shows flashes and doesn’t produce as much as they hope.

  • Fil

    wouldt it be great to steal malcom subban and bergeron from boston in some big package deal – send fucale/tokarski, a young center (eller?) to replace and a couple picks, maybe tinordi.

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