State of the Habs, Part 9 – Games 34-39: Emergence of the Core

0
61
Galchenyuk and Eller have been good individually, but there chemistry has delighted Hab fans much of the season. (PHOTO: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

State of the Habs is an 11-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs’ season into 4- to 6-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.

See Previous Segments:
Part 1 (Games 1-4: 3-1-0, “The Boys are Back in Town”)
Part 2 (Games 5-8: 3-1-0, “Rinse and Repeat”)
Part 3 (Games 9-12: 1-2-1, “The Plot Thickens”)
Part 4 (Games 13-16: 4-0-0, “Perfection”)
Part 5 (Games 17-20: 2-0-2, “And the Streak Goes On”)
Part 6 (Games 21-24: 2-1-1, “No Defense, No Problem”)
Part 7 (Games 25-28: 4-0-0, “The Kids are Alright”)
Part 8 (Games 29-34: 2-2-1, “Regression to a Mean”)

Overview – Game Segment 9/11 (Games 34-39)

Season Last Six Games
Record 25-8-5 4-2-0
Goal Differential +28 +7
Leading Scorer Ryder (16-16-32) Subban (0-8-8)
Hot (L6 GP) Ryder (4-1-5)
Cold (L6 GP) Gallagher (1-1-2)

 

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON – Playoff hockey is on the verge of returning to Montreal. With a win against the Buffalo Sabres or an overtime/shootout loss combined with a Winnipeg Jets loss, the Canadiens will clinch a post-season berth, ensuring that spring flowers will be blooming red, white, and blue all across the city once more.

Drewiske has looked like a reasonable bottom pair d-man. Nothing less, nothing more. (PHOTO: Montreal Gazette)
Drewiske has looked like a reasonable bottom pair d-man. Nothing more, nothing less. (PHOTO: Montreal Gazette)

The home stretch hasn’t always been easy or pretty, nor was the long day of waiting as other Eastern Conference contenders loaded up for playoff runs. But what matters most are the results on ice, and despite the team’s 2-2-0 record since deadline day, they’ve been in the game for all four meetings and outduelled the Jaromir Jagr-enhanced Boston Bruins in a big Saturday night tilt at the Bell Centre.

The one near-deadline transaction Marc Bergevin did make is proving critical. The addition of Davis Drewiske may not have been a huge upgrade over the rookies auditioned in the number six defenseman slot, but it was a critical depth play to avoid two rookies being in the line-up in case of an injury. Is Drewiske an equivalent to Alexei Emelin? Absolutely not. But he ensures size, defensive ability, and (at least some) experience remains on the blueline, and all that for the bargain price of a fifth round draft choice. He is also a player who can be easily sat if/when Raphael Diaz returns should the rookie in the line-up outplay him. And while he didn’t play, he was along for the ride as the Los Angeles Kings captured last year’s Stanley Cup, and thus while a young player himself, may be able to impart what some of that experience was like onto the team’s rookies.

A picture of the standings as of Thursday, April 11th (via NHL.com):

standapr11

 

The Positives

It’s about time people stop talking about a “hot stretch” for Lars Eller and see that most of the inconsistencies have been worked out of his game. It is a misnomer to say that he was playing poorly until a healthy scratch turned things around for him. People seem to have forgotten the healthy scratch came in games TWO and THREE of this season, and must realize that it has truly been a full breakout year. There is no contest as to who has been more useful to the Canadiens this season between Eller and David Desharnais; the numbers speak for themselves as Eller sits with just one point fewer than Desharnais on the season, with the former having played two fewer games, far fewer minutes, and with less talented wingers, while the latter benefits from being flanked by the team’s top offensive talents, isn’t nearly as well-rounded in his game, and has received roughly five times the amount of powerplay minutes. Desharnais and his linemates should no longer be the go-to unit when the Habs need a goal; on a night where the Eller line is clicking – like against the Washington Capitals – it should be them out with the man advantage or in the final minute.

Galchenyuk and Eller have been good individually, but there chemistry has delighted Hab fans much of the season. (PHOTO: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)
Galchenyuk and Eller have been good individually, but their chemistry has delighted Hab fans much of the season. (PHOTO: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

Speaking of Eller’s linemates, Alex Galchenyuk‘s play and production became less noticeable for a stretch midseason, a typical phenomenon for a young rookie. He has roared back with a vengeance however, with an evident change in his play since the middle of this segment when he was moved to centre against the Winnipeg Jets. Shifting to his natural position – even if only for a single game – has coincided with his playing with far more confidence, and accordingly, the point are coming. There is a lot to be excited about in a first year player who seems to be the complete package of offensive ability, blessed with strong skating ability and speed, stunningly quick hands, a fast and hard release, and precision passing that often even surprises his own linemates. It won’t be long before he grows into the go-to offensive gamebreaker on this squad. He’s already starting to make the little plays with the puck that show he has arrived and adapted to the pro level.

What can you say that hasn’t already been said about P.K. Subban? A lock for at least a nomination for the Norris Trophy, unlike earlier in the season, Subban’s minutes are finally approximating what they should be for a player of his calibre. They’re likely only to continue to increase down the stretch and into the playoffs, particularly with the injury to Alexei Emelin leaving Subban as the most physical player on the team’s blueline. Subban leads the NHL in points among d-men, hovering around the point-per-game mark, while his +12 also ranks in the top 15 for rearguards, despite 21 of his 32 points coming on the powerplay.

Emelin’s injury also leaves the team requiring more out of its other rearguards, and average play from Davis Drewiske has put a lot of that responsibility on the shoulders of Francis Bouillon. I was not a big fan of the move to extend Bouillon mid-season, as I don’t see him as core to the team’s success, and would have liked the club to explore upgrade options before committing (albeit only for one season) to the undersized aging veteran. But since Emelin’s injury, Bouillon has stepped his play up for the past game and a half and given the trade deadline is behind us, he will carry a heavy load moving into the post-season. He has served well as a mentor and aide to the young prospects that have been inserted in spurts into the line-up, and there’s no doubt he is a factor in the confidence displayed by Nathan Beaulieu currently during his second call-up with the team.

Lastly, other than their stretch of three shutouts in ten days back in February, this segment has likely been the best of the season for the goaltending tandem of Carey Price and Peter Budaj. Price seems on top of his game at the most critical of times as we approach the playoffs, earning a shutout against the New York Rangers, turning in a strong performance against the Boston Bruins, and preventing his teammates from being run out of the rink in the first ten minutes against the Washington Capitals. Budaj had only a single start, but was very solid against the Winnipeg Jets, picking up his sixth straight win despite Montreal being outshot 34-24. Budaj’s play throughout the season earned him the two-year extension the Canadiens rewarded him with this week, and still at the prime age of just 30, he should continue to be a reliable back-up to Price.

The Letdowns

There seems to be a perception that I have it out for David Desharnais. Really I don’t. I swear. Desharnais is a talented scoring forward who is creative in the offensive zone and a great passer. Certainly he is a top-6 capable NHL’er. The problem is he is very one-dimensional in what he brings to the table, and is his production slips, so does his usefulness to a team. The bigger problem is that there are other players with similar weaknesses to Desharnais but who bring more to the table already in Montreal’s line-up. Lack of size? Brendan Gallagher is younger, tougher to play against, goes to the net, and will score more goals. Brian Gionta is the team’s captain, a veteran leader who – in addition to be a goal-scoring threat – kills penalties. Poor defensive play? Michael Ryder suffers similar deficiencies but comes in a bigger package and puts more points on the board. And that’s without accounting for the team ideally sheltering rookies like Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher from the tough minutes. Weak on face-offs? Unfortunately it’s a team deficiency. Other than fourth liner Jeff Halpern, there is no center on the team who you would put money on winning a critical draw.

When Desharnais isn't producing, he isn't a useful member of the Montreal Canadiens (PHOTO: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
When Desharnais isn’t producing, he isn’t a useful member of the Montreal Canadiens (PHOTO: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

Then it becomes a numbers issue. When all forwards are healthy (like now with the exception of Colby Armstrong), the Canadiens have ten top 9 forwards. Brandon Prust is the obvious one to shift to a fourth line, as has currently happened, but it’s a fair question to ask if the Canadiens – for overall team ability and balance – would be better suited with Prust in the top 9 than Desharnais. Is there a weaker link than either of the two? I’d argue not. That guys like Gionta, Galchenyuk, Ryder, and Rene Bourque all bring more of what the club needs. Having depth is a good thing of course. But you want to be able to upgrade your players and drop your weak links down the line-up. The depth has to be managed and given opportunities and ice time based on merit. It’s not that Desharnais has played absolutely horribly. He is creating chances. I just don’t see his game as having a next level to attain, which is a letdown. And an even bigger letdown considering he has been extended for four more seasons.

 

The Road Ahead

If the team’s 6-4-0 record in their last 10 games isn’t the most encouraging stretch of their season, a big positive is the return to action of Rene Bourque and the sudden improvements in the condition of Raphael Diaz that could see him back in practice as soon as next week. Both had their ups and downs in their attempts to return from concussions, but would bolster the line-up beyond what most trade deadline pick-ups could have provided the other players on the team can stay healthy.

While Emelin’s loss will hurt the team, it opened a spot for Nathan Beaulieu who will help the second powerplay unit until Diaz is ready to return. This experience will also be great for Beaulieu’s development, he who has improved by leaps and bounds since his pro debut in Hamilton this Fall.

Speaking of Hamilton, while the Bulldogs have been mathematically eliminated from the AHL playoffs, their remaining six games should be of high interest to Canadiens fans. A number of the team’s promising prospects, notably Danny Kristo and Charles Hudon, have joined the squad. While Hudon is on a tryout and thus ineligible to play for the Canadiens, Kristo is likely to be one of a handful of guys who stay together once the season is over as “Black Aces” – potential call-ups should the Habs run into post-season injury woes. Others likely in that group would include Jarred TinordiGreg PaterynPatrick HollandDustin Tokarski, and possibly some combination of Frederic St. DenisLouis Leblanc, and Michael Bournival.

There was talk of both Sebastian Collberg and Magnus Nygren joining Montreal’s AHL affiliate for their final few games as well. The former was in Montreal for medical examination after suffering a playoff concussion. The lack of any movement towards signing a tryout deal since then indicates he may not be healthy enough to play without risk. As for Nygren, it seems insurance issues related to the fact that he is signed for next year with Farjestad impeded his signing a tryout contract with the Bulldogs. In his case as well, there was hint of a playoff injury that may have complicated the dealings.

While it is a luxury that the Canadiens stand to lock up their spot with as many as eight games still remaining in the regular season schedule, few do – or should – see it as a “mission accomplished” just yet. The goal must remain winning the division, which at this point is not in the team’s hands; the loss to the Capitals allowed the Bruins to pull one point ahead in the battle. All the Habs can do is win as many of their remaining games as possible, to at the least ensure they hold on to fourth place to open the playoffs on home ice. That spot in the standings seems fated for a date with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which should make the two remaining Saturday night contests between the two squads this month all the more interesting.

 

Three Stars – Segment Nine

1. P.K. Subban

2. Michael Ryder

3. Carey Price / Peter Budaj

 

Three Stars – Standings through 9/11 segments
(three points for being named first star, two for second, one for third)

1. P.K. Subban – 12
2. Tomas Plekanec – 8
3. Michael Ryder – 5

4. Alex Galchenyuk – 4
4. Max Pacioretty – 4
4. Lars Eller – 4
7. Andrei Markov – 3

7. Brendan Gallagher – 3
7. Carey Price – 3
7. Peter Budaj – 3
11. Brian Gionta – 2
11. Rene Bourque – 2
11. David Desharnais – 2
14. Raphael Diaz – 1
14. Brandon Prust – 1