There’s not a lot to talk about as the season concludes here, so I wanted to take a second to take a more positive look at some of the things that are working in a season that overall didn’t work. There are some building blocks these days.
- The biggest building blocks for the future are all happening on one line of the Habs. It’s a line getting a lot of hard match-ups and handling them surprisingly well. The block is so important for the Habs that it doesn’t seem logical to bring back Tomas Plekanec anymore. Jacob De La Rose is playing so well that he basically is fitting the Plekanec role on the team perfectly. For someone to argue right now that JDLR does not have an NHL career in front of them I don’t think would be fair at all. DLR is averaging a half point a game since he got a bigger role on the team when Plekanec was traded. DLR would if he continued that average (and he had two goals called back as well) have 41 points on a season. You can’t say for a second that this is not a good number for a third line center. So add Phillip Danault back into the mix and you have two good centres for what they are: they both skate well, they both have good work rates, they both back check well, they both have 200 foot games. Both are limited in their offence topping out at likely 40 points, but 40 points from your back end is an outstanding number in today’s NHL. I feel like the Habs down the middle are set in the back end of the roster. I can’t see the need for more of the same like a Plekanec. If you can’t land John Tavares and I won’t lie, I don’t think the Habs can win this battle for a top flight free agent, then you try to get Paul Stastny. I think he has 2C credentials. They would still be thin in the scoring up the middle, but I expect Jonathan Drouin to improve, and Ryan Poehling is coming down the pike too. Add, what they fetch for Max Pacioretty and the first round draft pick, and I really don’t see the need for Plekanec. JDLR has done all that you could ask of him. He deserves the reward now.
- The top line since they were put together after the Plekanec trade is JDLR with Alex Galchenyuk and Artturi Lehkonen. Galchenyuk is impressing me tremendously these days. He really seems to be turning into a much more complete player now. His work rate is so much better than it used to be. He used to be heading too far mentally into the offensive zone before his defensive work was done (like Scherbak right now for example), but now Galchenyuk is much more tidy. He seems to have learned blue line awareness finally. Also, his back check is so much better than before. I have seen many examples in the last month where the hardest back checker was Galchenyuk and he has saved goals because of the superb work ethic too. Right now he has great chemistry with JDLR and Lehkonen and on the power play he has a keen sense that his role is to stay on the right side an let that one timer fly. I would like to see the odd duplicity in his routine to keep the defenders and goalie guessing but this is just a small thing in a giant puzzle that is coming together finally for this player. Can you imagine if they traded him for the poor return that was being offered? Some of the best deals you make are the ones you leave on the table. Galchenyuk has also moved into a tie for the lead on the team in points with Brendan Gallagher. Not bad for a guy who started the year in the doghouse. I say he finishes it among forwards in the penthouse with Gallagher.
- The other member of the line is Artturi Lehkonen who I imagine was put together with the other two to be the stability on defence, but a weird thing happened as all three played great defence. They even got the assignment when Claude Julien could match lines in Montreal of facing the Crosby line and the three did splendidly. Lehkonen is suddenly hot with four goals in the last six and five goals in the last eight. He still carries that terrific work ethic and intelligence. I actually don’t know if I have ever seen a forward better at taking away a defenceman’s options when he approaches on a forecheck. They are mesmerized so often, not having a clue which way Lehkonen is leaning to take away the pass. He seems to have eyes in the back of his head to know what the angle is to take away to confound the defender. I won’t lie. I absolutely love Lehkonen as a player. He’s probably my favourite forward on the team. He’s just my type of player. The intelligence he brings to the game is a bloody delight to watch.
- Another player who has a much higher work rate and good things are happening to is Jonathan Drouin. He seems to be quietly figuring some things out. He’s more confident than he has been for sure. He is holding on to the puck longer than he was earlier in the season when his confidence was low and he didn’t seem to want the puck as much. One thing Drouin does that he needs to get better at is let himself get separated from the puck in a corner battle. He leaves himself vulnerable to lose it by not blocking out well. This used to be the best skill that Lars Eller had for Montreal. A little bit of blocking out and protecting when he isn’t in open ice would make him a better player. In open ice, he gets a chance to show that amazing skill he has, but as we all know, we can’t always be playing in open ice. I like what I see from Drouin and I believe he will be a much better player next year. Best case scenario, Bergevin gets his wish and has superior centres offensively so he can push Drouin back to the wing. I think even Stastny as a center for Drouin would be a good fit for the Habs, if you can’t make the dream scenario come true. The Habs are a very good team at the wing position. Those wingers can produce better offensively if the puck gets up faster to them to show the speed they have. Gliding around in the neutral zone watching your defencemen look like they’re working with a grenade doesn’t allow them to show their skill. The wingers are there. The Habs have them.
- A 934 in 17 starts for Antti Niemi. I remember when he got picked from Florida I thought it was kind of ridiculous. I thought why? This guy can’t stop a beach ball. Well, 934 is an amazing save percentage this season where the average overall is down 9 points. This is a 943 save percentage last season. The Habs chose Charlie Lindgren for next year already He has the long deal to prove it but I sure hope that Niemi finds work somewhere. He sure deserves it. His first shutout of the season with 35 saves. All he did this year was stop pucks. That’s all they ask of a goalie He better find work It would be a brutal shame if he didn’t.
- Brendan Gallagher has 27 goals now looking for his first chance at 30.
- Been a long year and I honestly just don’t feel like being negative tonight. You know the team’s issues. You’ve heard them many times. No one had too much trouble in this one though. The reason: the Sabres just don’t bring enough speed to the game. They don’t challenge you very much to be fast. Usually some of the Habs struggle watching the game move so quickly in front of them, that they can’t keep up, but these Sabres don’t create those moments. Therefore, no one really looks that slow or can’t think the game fast enough which you see a lot against the Pens of the world.
- It was a mixed bag for the Canadiens prospects in the NCAA regionals going this weekend. Big disappointment for the first rounder Ryan Poehling. He was having an outstanding season on the number one team in the country. As a result of that standing, Saint Cloud State got the number one seed and faced the 16 seed in the event Air Force, but they lost in their opening game and were eliminated. The Huskies were completely asleep for the first half of the game and then it was too late to get back into it and then ultimately they were goalied. Poehling was one of the two best forwards on the team. It doesn’t matter though as elimination is bitter and this must be quite an unhappy moment for Poehling. He will spend another year at Saint Cloud so don’t expect to see him anytime soon.
- On the other hand, Jake Evans did have a good first game as Notre Dame beat Michigan Tech in a thriller in overtime. Evans assisted on the game winner. Evans was a work horse in the game seemingly on every second shift for the number two team in the USA. Evans is finished his college career when this tournament ends. It is expected that he will sign as soon as Notre Dame is eliminated from the tournament, or they win the national championship. Evans is a center and it would be nice to think that he could step in and be an NHL center, but it is a long shot. However, after a terrific college career, you never know.
- Canadiens Head Scout Trevor Timmins sure has a gift of finding goalies. Cayden Primeau is up for the Mike Richter Award as the best goalie this year in college hockey (remember that the Habs also nabbed Charlie Lindgren out of Saint Cloud), but there’s another who gets less ink named Hayden Hawkey who played for Providence tonight against Clarkson, and Hawkey played thief all night. The Friars in a tight game were able to win 1-0 and will take on Notre Dame in the regional final. That means that the Habs will for sure have one player in the Frozen Four – either Evans or Hawkey.