So Who are the Habs?
Now that we’re approximately halfway through the season, I feel like it is a good time to step back and evaluate just who the Habs are and where they might be going. I plan to take the high level view, much as a GM would, which means with an eye for competing this year while still thinking big picture and planning for the future.
We have learned a lot so far about who this team is and not all of it matches with the blue sky view many of us had before this season started. So we’re going to break it down this way – we’ll take a look at the doom and gloom first and assess what hasn’t gone well. Then we’ll take the optimistic view and account for everything that should give us a reason to be positive. Finally, we’ll take a brief venture into what the future could, or should hold if I were in the purple pants of an NHL GM.
The glass is half empty
Let’s address all of the elephants in the room so that we can clean up the mess and start to see the potential a coat of paint and some new flooring might have, because the structure is sound. There is no better place to start than with the two cornerstone players and contracts – Shea Weber and Carey Price. There is no doubt that Marc Bergevin has based his entire vision around these two players and has tied a crippling amount of cap space to them as well. I’ll just say it plainly, and that is that neither player has earned his keep so far this season and that is likely to get much worse over time.
Weber is still logging far too many minutes and tough assignments for what his body and brain are capable of handling right now. Is he the train wreck that some would have you believe? No, he still is capable of being a viable minute muncher if paired with a skating defender who can make effective zone exits and recoveries. Price, meanwhile, has been up and down. Defenders will point to his stats when he’s on, detractors will point to the numerous mediocre goals that have cost the team points. The bottom line is that we have to get out of our heads that either guy is moveable or that either will justify their contracts from here on out. So the game becomes an attempt to maximize their output as much as possible.
Moving to the vaunted depth this organization has; it would be avoidance to not admit this has been one of the most disappointing factors. This assessment was based on the assumption at least a few of the depth players would overachieve and a few would match career averages. The trouble is that almost all of them are underachieving. We’re talking about the bottom-six forwards and bottom-four defencemen here. Outside of $750,000 free agent Corey Perry and defenders Joel Edmundson and Brett Kulak, there isn’t a single player who has performed anywhere near expectations.
It is now a massive sample size that tells us we’re not going to get expected value out of the likes of Armia, Lehkonen, Byron, Mete et al. The first three on that list alone account for nearly $8 million of cap space for a return somewhere in the $3 million range. It is time to move on.
Lastly, the coaching and organizational philosophy has proven to be a detriment as we look at the big picture. Many blamed Claude Julien and his conservative approach with balanced ice time and a weird ability to see value in players where no one else could. All of that is fair, but let’s be honest; it has been over 25 years of coaches with a similar mindset. When a coach looks up and down the bench and sees an as assembly line of homogeneous ground troops, only pausing to single out young players with skill for violating marching orders, it has a long-term effect on the team. Players who should help you win by creating offence forget how they did it in junior and in Europe after months and years of being taught to make what the coach perceives to be safe plays.
Many thought the move to Dominique Ducharme would be a change, but early returns suggest it is not nearly big enough of one. Montreal is still the only team on the planet that leans so heavily on defensive players in key situations and in share of minutes. It is completely counterintuitive to use a two goal defensive center to start every overtime. It passes counterintuitive and crosses into downright insanity to keep doing it even when you’re 0-9 trying it.
This organization is stubbornly and hopelessly stuck in a conservative mindset rooted in loyalty to character veterans and fear of mistakes. Until that mentality changes, they’ll always be a high-floor, low-ceiling team. I would respectfully submit on behalf of the fan base that we’re all in favour of a higher risk, higher entertainment approach to the games. Like Shea Weber, none of us are getting younger, so it’s time to try a different flavour.
The glass is still half full
I didn’t want to spend too much time on the doom and gloom partly because I spend a lot of time covering that in the game reports, but mostly because this is an intelligent and passionate fan base who spends a lot of time dissecting that already. So I’ll go a bit off Habs fan brand here and delve into why the situation isn’t as miserable as the (rightfully) demanding fans might think.
Any organization in any industry keeps a keen eye on its assets. What does it own? When will it need to be replaced? And what is the replacement plan? From this standpoint, Montreal’s organization has at least a reasonably promising outlook. When you look at assets currently in use with the big club, there is a reasonable mix of ages with strong young players in some of the most key positions. The all-important middle aged group is decidedly mid-pack. There are some important chips locked up in Gallagher, Toffoli, Drouin and Anderson, though the group still needs a game breaker.
I know we all like to scream about the lack of a puck-moving defender or a big point producer up front, but in doing so, we sometimes miss just how few true weaknesses there are in the overall picture. A reasonable assessment has to compare it to the competition and when you look around the league there are very few teams that don’t have glaring problems. There are many teams that have a lot more than Montreal does, so that’s a decent starting point.
Perhaps the most important reason for optimism is that for the first time in a long time, Montreal has a strong development system in place. For those who don’t pay much attention to Laval, be excited. Joel Bouchard is the perfect man for the job and the results are clearly showing. He is smart, communicative, tough and fair. He can identify what a player needs to improve and help him get there. Already he has helped far more prospects turn the corner than Sylvain Lefebvre managed in his lengthy tenure. The value of this component can not be underestimated. It’s like the fuel supply to a big machine. If it’s not functioning properly, neither will the machine.
We also all knew Montreal was a roster built for the playoffs. It’s getting there that would be the problem. Their 5-on-5 numbers continue to be very strong and an even passable OT record puts them near the top of the league. Like it or not, this data matters if we’re trying to get over the hump, because throwing more assets at the same flawed fixes or blowing things up when you’re not that far off are both pathways to misery. So what does the path to success look like short term and long term?
Where do we go from here?
Let’s start with addressing the immediate future, which is the biggest challenge. There is not going to be a magic bullet that makes this team the Cup favourite, but believe it or not, some of the fixes are fairly simple and would go a long way towards getting this team on the path to success.
First and foremost, let’s put the mentality change into practice by fixing the ice time management. It’s time for Montreal to stop being the only team in the league that practices bench communism and starts being a team that encourages their top talents to take over games.
This means Kotkaniemi going up to 18 or 19 minutes a game. Yes, he’s young and that’s a lot to handle, but it’s his third year in the league and he is undoubtedly the most promising mixture of size and skill the Habs have to throw at the opposition. Skilled players flourish with ice time and regress without it. The opponent’s mentality shifts completely when low scoring players log so much ice time. They play looser and more aggressively knowing that mistakes are unlikely to hurt them. Use the big weapons in your arsenal and start putting the opposition in a more conservative mindset.
Secondly, I’d adjust some of the minutes and pairings on defence. It’s not rocket science to see that Weber needs two things right now. He needs a slightly reduced workload and he needs a partner who can skate and exit the zone. The options for the latter all have pros and cons, but I’m proposing Brett Kulak who has flourished when given more responsibility and who possesses the experience and mobility to complement Weber. This allows the pairing of Petry and Edmundson, which was near the top of the league in all measures, to reunite.
Finally, and this is the hardest part for Bergevin to get his head around and execute, but it’s time to turn the lineup over to some extent. Players like Armia and Lehkonen are no longer factoring largely in your plans and are taking up space both on the roster and on the cap. Both are also likely moveable as legitimate NHL players who are affordable. Paul Byron is not movable, but it’s time for him to jump on the taxi squad for good. Mr. Ouellet should return to Laval to mentor the young players and stay far, far away from the likes of McDavid and Matthews.
All of this sounds fine and dandy, but you may ask who the replacements are? Bergevin does not have the cap space to make huge moves right now, nor should he relinquish many good young assets for another aging two-way player. I’m proposing it’s time to let Ryan Poehling or Lukas Vejdemo replace Armia and Byron, with Ylonen not far behind. On defence, Cale Fleury absolutely should be playing ahead of Ouellet and next on my recall list would be Leskinen and Brook, both of whom have looked steady and have progressed rapidly under Bouchard.
This isn’t to suggest these players are the answer. What it does do is it clarifies your lineup more. It tells your premier players that the ball is theirs to carry, which ups accountability from this current state where the blame is diluted. It also fixes a structure where your bottom lineup guys aren’t paid upwards of $2 million to contribute so little.
Mostly, it gives a shot to younger and more talented players to see if they’ll take the next step that the current players very clearly won’t ever do. This is important as it sends a signal to your prospects that there is a path for them and that it’s worth spending time in Laval and to stay with the organization. Imagine how signals like that will be received by prospects like Jordan Harris, who is currently contemplating signing with Montreal. If solid prospects like him don’t see an organization that’s willing to promote AHL players in reasonable time, suddenly the option of going the free agency route are much more appealing.
All of these steps set Montreal up reasonably well for the immediate future and for the longer term, but it’s this long view I’d like to end on. No one thought Corey Perry would be as impactful as he has been, but his philosophy is simple – go to the net and try to make good plays in tight. Why this is relevant is that I think the lack of this element is the biggest long-term threat to Montreal’s success.
Trevor Timmins and Marc Bergevin have done well at the draft, both in accumulating quantities of picks and selecting some promising talent. Some may look at the current team and determine that a puck-moving defender is needed, particularly on the right side. Even though the prospect cupboard leans more heavily on left shots, there are a number of options that satisfy this need. The aforementioned Harris has spent three years in NCAA hockey and looks like a prime bet to move the puck up ice for the Habs in future years.
Harris’ Northeastern teammate Jayden Struble has oodles of potential with his skating ability and offensive awareness. Mattias Norlinder looks like a potential premier puck mover playing in Sweden as we speak. Perhaps the most under-rated puck mover of all is 2020 first round pick Kaiden Guhle. Some see him as a bruiser, but his puck-moving skills are understated and nearing elite. All of this is to say, I’d put my focus elsewhere in the draft.
What Montreal badly needs is net-front presence. When you look at how effective Perry has been and the decade of net-front success Brendan Gallagher has enjoyed, it’s hard to ignore. You can also use those examples to indict the rest of the team for their lack of will to spend time in the slot and pay the price to wreak havoc on opposing defenders and goalies.
These players tend to hide in the draft as often they don’t have impressive skating skills. But even a cursory glance at the league shows what Montreal will be up against if they don’t get on the bandwagon. We all know about Brady Tkachuk, but this is also where Drake Batherson excels for Ottawa. Imagine the wonders it’d do the Montreal lineup if they had a player or two like that who stops on the net front instead of looping fly-bys. That’s where the goals are. You don’t have to score pretty, you just have to score.
Cole Caufield and his brilliant shooting display is on the way. I’d love for the Habs to go all-in on net-front players in the next couple of drafts and suddenly the pipeline will be full.
When you break it all down, the best news of all is how you can see a clear pathway to better times, which is not the case for so many teams. Habs fans should be enthused by that, but as I’ve outlined, there is some work to get there. Unfortunately, the biggest piece of work that needs to be done is to their own organizational mindset and philosophy. What should be the easiest step may in fact be the one that is hardest for them to take.