Are the Canadiens this Bad?

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By Jacob Saltiel, Special to All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — Watching the Canadiens these last few games has been a lot like the beginning of FUBAR .  Whereas Dean was only subjected to a  “six minute watch-through” (only part of the quote fit to print) Habs fans have had to endure the full 180 minutes. Is this the new normal? Were games one through 40 played by frauds? Is this some sort of psychological aftereffect from a clandestine playoff clinching party last week? Did Marc Bergevin supply the Canadiens a Grey Goose fountain that Carey Price and Peter Budaj had to jump into as a bonus? Whatever it is, Mt. Therrien has erupted. The suck knob seems to be broken right off at 11.

Cause and Effect

Here are some theories as to what’s happening:

1) Tactical Adjustments

Wednesday on L’Emission D’aujourd’hui (Antichambre), for Habs coach Guy Carbonneau made the excellent point that 30 games into the season, rival coaches have enough game tape and enough assistant coaches to watch it to adjust to Therrien’s system. This usually occurs a few times over the course of an 82-game schedule, as the coaching game is a constant action-reaction  to what others are doing around the league. If, indeed, this is what’s happened, it’s quite concerning given how devastatingly the defensive part of the Canadiens’ game has been unlocked. It’s one thing for teams to gain a tactical advantage, it’s quite another to get scored on 18 times in three games. Them’s some crooked numbers. So, it’s Therrien’s job to adjust here, but he’s handcuffed a little by some slyly important injuries.

2) Injuries and Minutes Distribution

The Canadiens have been lucky that none of their most talented players have suffered serious injuries this years, but that doesn’t mean that injuries haven’t affected their play. Quite simply, the injuries to effective role players has diminished Therrien’s ability to distribute his minutes in a balanced way throughout the lineup.

Montreal Canadiens v Florida PanthersColby Armstrong, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin and Brandon Prust* have all missed time recently. Those are all complementary players, but three of them comprise most of the team’s grit, and all of them provide competent minutes. As discussed earlier here, the Canadiens on-paper improvement from last year to this year has to do with competent role players at the bottom of the roster on offence and defence. Last year, the third and fourth lines of the Canadiens offered little resistance, organization, or even posed a scoring threat to other teams, and were pretty much liabilities every time they stepped on the ice. With Armstrong and Prust out or diminished, Jeff Halpern, Alex Galchenyuk, and Gabriel Dumont are all playing in the 8-12 minute range usually reserved for fourth liners.

While Galchenyuk’s goal scoring in limited time is encouraging, Therrien doesn’t trust him in defensive situations.  Davis Drewiske, meanwhile, was the Kings’ seventh defenceman for a reason, and only played 10 minutes last night against the Lightning. Giving more minutes to the players that remain on the top three lines and top two pairings (few of whom offer much hitting/grit) tires them out late in the game. Andrei Markov is still playing more than 24 minutes a night, and his legs, being made of ball bearings and wooden-panelling, is catching up with him defensively even if he’s still an effective power-play leader. Francis Bouillon, meanwhile, at 18 minutes a night, should be giving a couple of those minutes away to a more competent defensemen, but Josh Gorges, P.K. Subban, and Markov are already playing about as much as they can.

Meanwhile, enter Yannick Weber. Yes, that Yannick Weber. And if that doesn’t clarify the problems these ‘minor’ injuries cause, then this whole section is lost on you. ‘WHY CAN’T THEY PLAY SUBBAN FORTY MINUTES AN EVENING?’ you may ask.

3) The Goaltenders Suck

Price and Budaj sure haven’t looked good while playing starter-backup merry-go-round, but then many goals seem to be off of odd-man rushes and funny bounces caused by the Canadiens scrambling wildly in their own zone. Price, though generally quite good, isn’t unknown to let in the occasional beach ball. While tempting to pin it all on him and his Ned Flanders-branded backup, the fact is the Canadiens haven’t given up more than 30 shots in any of the three games they got stomped in. So, uh, blame away! Other than an absurd 17 shots against in the first period of that Philly game, it’s been 28, 28, and 29 shots against, which is neither good nor bad.

messihelmet2But wait, the number of shots in these cases is a lot less important than the quality of shots. Where the Canadiens were usually able to keep chances low in the first 80 percent of the season, they’ve proven incapable of letting other teams barge in on their goalies recently. Likely, the Canadiens have been playing worse, and the goalies, unaccustomed to being assailed by plenty of high-percentage shots, are having trouble channeling their inner Halaks just now. Goaltending statistics are a function of team play, so it’s difficult to parse out just how much of this slide is because of the goalies spontaneously turning into a Santa Claus and giving away gifts and how much of it is the team in front of them. Give Price and Budaj a pass here, for now.

4) Toronto, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh are not in the Southeast Division

There’s a fascinating toggle on the NHL.com standings page. If you click on “VS EAST” you can see each team’s record by division. For the Canadiens, these results are particularly interesting, since it indicates that they’re pretty much unstoppable against the farm-club populated Southeast, and a .500 team against all other competition. This lends a lot of weight to the argument that some have put forward that the Canadiens, while a solid team, aren’t Cup contenders. The invitations to Southeast teams not named Washington have been lost in the mail, and the Canadiens will likely have to play teams that have NHL players on their NHL rosters. True, the Flyers aren’t in the playoffs right now, but they’ve been pummeled by their strong division (PENGUIN WARNING and Strong Island) to the tune of a 5-10-1 record.

This isn’t the first time the Canadiens have been on the wrong end of some crooked numbers this season either. Everyone remembers the beatdown in Toronto, but the Habs also got smoked by the Senators 5-1, the Islanders 6-3, and not so long ago 5-3 to the Flyers in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. So, sure, the Canadiens can take care of business against the weak teams, but they’re still in tight against the stronger teams in the conference. Given the number of one-goal games they’ve been a part of this year (21, or half their schedule), their record has a lot to do with fortuitous bounces and keeping the games close.

So What?

The Canadiens probably aren’t as lousy as this last stretch of hockey they’ve played, but neither are they the team that challenged all season for first in the Eastern conference. It was only a year ago that they finished dead last in the Eastern conference. While some improvement was expected with the return from injury of a couple of players, there’s a reason no one had the Canadiens picked to win the Cup or their division at the beginning of the season. While the improvement has been great to watch as a fan this year, that it depends on the arrival of young and developing players** means that the Canadiens are more likely to be in serious contention in years to come. This year they’re playing with house money. That’s right, playing – not contending – playing.

***

*Prust’s been playing through an injury and you can pretty much bet that once the season ends will be labeled for off-season surgery. There’s no news report to confirm this, but the fact that he fights so much and has gone down holding the same shoulder two to three times this season can’t be good.

**Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Eller, and cameos from Tinordi, Dumont, and Beaulieu.