Habs Offensive Woes Not Beyond Repair
March 23, 2018
By Grant McCagg
I heard a regular guest on TSN690 rehashing the same topic he brings up every time I hear him, and that is that the Habs have no scoring and no hopes of having it in the future.
There is no doubt that right now the Habs have trouble scoring, and there is also no question that, as the GM Marc Bergevin pointed out in his last two press conferences, in large part it is due to inconsistency. Scoring six goals one game…shutout in the next….shutout on 12 occasions through 74 games…it’s not good enough.
One need only look at the makeup of the club’s forward group right now to find the main reason for this inconsistency, though. Right now the elder statesman in Montreal’s top-nine forward group is 25-year-old Brendan Gallagher, who just so happens to be the one forward that had a breakthrough offensively this season.
Why did he break through instead of the others, you may ask? Well…because it is at 24 years of age that you normally start to reach your prime years offensively at forward in the NHL. A great example of this would be in the case of Las Vegas center William Karlsson, who prior to this season had a career-high nine-goal season. This year, at 24-25 as he finally felt comfortable at the NHL level and was physically mature, Karlsson is going to hit the 40-goal mark.
There of course will always be exceptions – the superstars like Crosby, McDavid and such are top scorers before they ever hit 20, but it has long been statistically proven that an NHL forward’s prime scoring years are between the ages of 24 and 30, and as unlikely as it may seem after this season, the Habs do indeed have a few forwards who will put up good numbers as they hit their primes or near primes in the very near future.
There is no reason not to expect Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk to put up better numbers next year given that they were top-three picks who have yet to reach their primes. For one thing… don’t expect Chuck to be moved all over the lineup like this season in the first 40 games as the coach strived to see a consistent effort from him.
Galchenyuk will start next season cemented in a top-six role after improvements in his defensive play, competitiveness and attitude this season, and at the same age as Gallagher was going into this season.
He has matured as a player and now understands that hard work can get you as many scoring chances as cheating offensively. The shot, hands and skills are all there; there is no reason not to expect a 25-goal campaign from Galchenyuk next season, perhaps even more. He scored 30 goals in 2015-16…he can do it in 2018-19 given the opportunity and stability of regular linemates and ice time, and that should be the case.
Drouin was a 53-point scorer at the age of 21, so his points regression this season was a bit of a surprise until you considered what he was asked to do – move to a position with much more defensive responsibility and try to hold the league’s top centers in check every night. As a result, his offence suffered in the first half, particularly when it was discovered that he simply wasn’t a match with Pacioretty, and he subsequently went through numerous linemates.
Drouin has 20 points in his last 33 games after starting the season with just 18 points through 36. One should only expect his ppg to increase as he continues to get more comfortable with his new team playing a new position and as he moves towards his prime.
His former linemate Nathan MacKinnon had his breakthrough offensively in this his fifth NHL season – next year will be Drouin’s fifth. Can he find the next level? The skill, vision, puck savvy are all there – now he needs more consistency, the next level in terms of fitness, steady linemates and maturity. I’m not betting against Drouin hitting the 60-point mark next season, especially if he ends up back on the wing and the Habs find him a productive center, but even if he stays at center, he will most assuredly be more comfortable in his second season at the position
Arrturi Lehkonen fell victim to the dreaded sophomore slump this campaign, and it hit him hard. Granted he missed more than a month due to injury, but by the end of January, he had scored in just one game. The positive is that he is just 22, and in the last 22 games has tallied seven goals as he finally rediscovered his scoring touch. There is no reason to believe that the Lehkonen we have seen the past two months isn’t the one we will see next season as he continues to mature. The 25-goal pace he has been on since early February is much more likely than the five-goal pace he was on after 36 games.
Jacob de la Rose is averaging 0.5 ppg since Plekanec was traded, and that isn’t taking into account that two goals were called back either. He has looked solid on a line with Lehkonen and Galchenyuk, demonstrating to the Habs’ brass that, when given the opportunity, he does indeed have some offensive upside.
His mindset has changed in the offensive zone, and there was no better example than in his last game with his goal. As a rule he goes off the ice any time he’s near the bench 30+ seconds into his shift, but he saw an offensive chance developing and joined the rush, received a pass and took a good shot that flew up into the air, followed up his shot by heading to the net and popping in the rebound once it landed on the ice.
De la Rose had shown little offence at the NHL level the past three seasons, and it may very well be that he turned pro too young and never was given the chance to score a pile of goals and develop his confidence as for the past five season he has always competed against much older opponents.
It didn’t help that when he did play in the first four months it was sparingly and with checkers in a strictly defensive role, and even after a solid game or two would find himself sitting in the stands for a few games afterwards.
He would rarely venture past the faceoff circle in the offensive zone and never drove to the net. When he got the puck he’d dish it into the corner or pass it right away…rarely carrying the puck or shooting it. Since being placed on a competent line and given ample ice time, however, we have seen a much different player. De la Rose is carrying the puck, driving to the net, shooting it from all spots inside the blueline, heading to the slot and deflecting shots (he’s shown a propensity for doing so)..and, most importantly of all, collecting points and creating opportunities.
De la Rose has good velocity on his shot, and since he’s started using it more often he’s gotten more accurate with his placement. For much of the past two season all of his shots seemed to hit the goalie smack dab in the middle of his crest, now he’s starting to find the corner and actually making the goalies work for their saves. He’s also got decent puck skill and vision, and if Julien keeps that line together next season, I have no reason not to expect his offensive game to only keep improving as he has regular linemates for the first time in a half decade, and he has the tools to put up 40+ points while checking opposing centers quite competently.
De la Rose has the speed and defensive awareness to cover up for Galchenyuk when he wants to be in deep for a scoring chance, and that should only help Chuck increase his point totals going forward as well if they remain together. He is a good fit for Galchenyuk, as Alex noted in an interview the other day as it frees him up to seek scoring chances.
Nikita Scherbak is showing flashes of his high-end skill level during this callup, scoring two highlight-reel goals in the past couple of weeks that showed off his great hands, skill and reach.
The problem is that Julien and Muller are stifling his creativity. There may not be any other coaches in hockey that could turn an assist per game pro player into an assist per ten games player.
How does one go about that?
Play him less than ten minutes per game, make Logan Shaw his center and utilize him the last 20 seconds of the power play even though he showed in Laval that he was a magician with the man advantage, displaying playmaking skills of an elite level.
Voila! Now Scherbak is setting up a linemate for a goal every ten contests instead of each and every game, and his greatest asset is being wasted. And one wonders why the Hab are having trouble scoring!
It has become clearer as the season has gone on that Muller, Daniel Lacroix and JJ Daigneault need to be replaced, and since Julien was signed inexplicably to a long-term contract much like Michel Therrien had been, he won’t be bought out at this time, so it would make sense to bring in assistants that Julien is comfortable with and are on the same page. All three were holdovers from the Therrien years, so seeing that the club is committed to Julien, let him bring in his own guys to help him out. Hopefully one of them has some clue about creating offence, and not blind/averse to using Scherbak on the first power-play unit.
If Julien is not interested in having an offensive coach and Bergevin isn’t planning on doing it or firing the current staff, it will be time for the club’s hands-off president to put his foot down and make it clear that it happens or Bergevin is gone. The free rein is over; changes have to happen in the team philosophy, the young talent needs to be utilized, and most importantly, it needs to be taught and encouraged to be creative. The game is changing, and Montreal’s coaching staff/management needs to keep up with the times.
Bergevin’s main task this offseason will be in finding two important pieces – one would be a mobile puck-moving defenceman to be paired with Shea Weber. The club has not properly replaced Andrei Markov, and that also affected offensive production as there weren’t enough puck movers driving play from the back end. That in itself will increase forward production.
The club ideally needs to find an offensive center to take some heat off of Drouin and slot the other centers into roles in which they are not asked to overachieve. John Tavares, of course, would be the ideal solution and while the odds of landing him are fairly low, an addition such as that the right coaches in places would go a long way towards fixing this team’s offensive woes.
Let’s say a Tavares or up-and-coming offensive center was found and Drouin could be moved back to the wing, and the Habs draft Tkachuk/Svechnikov/Zadina at 4th overall.
Drouin Tavares/Other Gallagher
Galchenyuk DLR/Danault Lehkonen
Scherbak Danault/DLR Tkachuk
Those top nine with offensive production both taught and encouraged; Scherbak and Galchenyuk regulars on the power play; seven of the top-nine forwards all expected to be on the rise offensively as all have yet to reach their primes….it is hard to see this club struggling as much offensively as it did this past season.
Two years from now you place Poehling in the second-center slot and have DLR slotted in the third spot….that top nine would look pretty promising by the early 2020’s, especially if Trevor Timmins can find some gems among the club’s four second-round picks.
Unquestionably, this has been an off year, and there needs to be some reinforcements. By no means does this group need to be blown up, however. There is plenty of cap space, some moveable assets like Max Pacioretty and a solid young core that should only improve as it matures.
Julien has done WONDERS for Galchenyuk this year. It’s the first time in Galchenyuk’s entire NHL career that a coach has actually gotten through to him that he needs to always be moving and think about the other aspects of his game. Julien did well with Marchand and a certain center in Boston as well. I have every confidence in him when it comes to Scherbak. Could he be less conservative? Sure. But has he proven time and again that his message can sink in, that he’s a good communicator, that over the long haul he can make most players better? Yes. Absolutely. I’m fine with Scherbak’s deployment for now. Ice time has to be earned.