The Dirty Dozen #7
February 2, 2021
By Grant McCagg
Twelve Post-Game Grant’s Slants
The Canadiens are off to one of their best starts in recent times. Their .778 win percentage is the best in the Canadian Division, and a +15 goal differential and 4.3 goals per game tops in the league. Do not adjust your computer screen – so far this season the Canadiens have the NHL’s most potent offence. Here’s hoping that the Markstrom shutout was just a blip on the radar…a dose of Vancouver home cooking appears to be just what the food doctor ordered after Montreal’s first inept offensive performance of the season versus Calgary. With 23 goals against in four meetings with the Canadiens so far, the Canucks netminders are going to be glad that, after tonight, they won’t see Toffoli and co. again until March 8.
I am frankly shocked that it took Alex Romanov nine games to have one of those costly turnovers. Happens to the best of them. Put it in the back of the mind and keep competing. I was surprised to see in the final stats that Romanov almost matched Joel Edmundson in TOI last night. He certainly didn’t play as well. That was Romanov’s worst game of the season. One blatant turnover leading to a goal, several opportunities to shoot that he once again passed up, and on the ice for two goals against. Kulak should not be the one sitting out the next game – it should be Mete. And the next time one of the spare defencemen step in for some ice time? I hope it is Cale Fleury for Romanov, and Kulak can play on his normal side. Two third-pairing defencemen playing on their natural sides….what a concept!
Remind me again why Lehkonen isn’t a consummate fourth-line winger? If he sits, it better not be often. Or how about never? He contributes too much, rarely making a mistake and is always bringing his lunchbox. Much like Doug Jarvis never being scratched on those great Habs teams despite never being a noteworthy offensive contributor, Lehkonen is simply too valuable on the defensive side of the puck to be out of the lineup. Byron for me is the most likely candidate to rest a few games, aside from Corey Perry, when Joel Armia returns. Byron is just not quite as fast as he used to be. We aren’t seeing those patented breakaways that were a large part of his game before his concussion in the Weegar fight.
I continue to be flummoxed by the hype surrounding Quinn Hughes, and the insistence that he is already a serious Norris Trophy candidate based soley on his point totals. I get that he is a terrific offensive defenceman in the Erik Karlsson mould, but his defensive play is beyond worrisome. Last night I couldn’t stifle myself after yet another putrid performance in his own zone:
Quinn doesn’t win any zone puck battles and can’t budge ANYONE in front of his own net. I love him on the power play, and when he has the puck in the neutral of offensive zones, but playing him top-line minutes five-on-five, at this point in his career at least, exposes how much better Vancouver still has to improve defensively. Check out the “defending” on Corey Perry’s terrific setup of Jeff Petry:
That’s junior B level defence. He has no business playing 24 minutes a game versus other team’s top lines. He needs to be sheltered at least somewhat. Get him out against lower lines and for offensive zone faceoffs and play him the full two minutes on power plays. But if Vancouver hopes to ever go far in the playoffs; to me they need to find a solid top-pairing that can play in all situations. Unless he finds two more levels in his defensive game, I think Hughes is too much of a defensive liability to be out against other teams’ top lines.
Weber had a couple of games where he was making the puck square but for the most part this season he has been setting up quite a few plays in the offensive zone….passing better than at any other time in his Montreal career. Who says you can’t teach an old Man Mountain new tricks?
In 2018-19, Montreal’s left defencemen at season’s start were Jordie Benn, Victor Mete, Karl Alzner, Mike Reilly and Xavier Ouellet. Today…the club has Ben Chiarot, Edmundson, Brett Kulak, Romanov and Mete who all shoot left. This one shift from Chiarot give you an idea of the upgrade…especially in a game where he got to see Benn on the other side. Chiarot displays his IQ, poise, and turning ability in spades in this one shift:
I concluded the video clip with five seconds of Edmundson that ended with a major rub out along the boards. Those two are such a significant upgrade on the left. All at a grand total cost of one fifth-round pick.
Is there a better second-pairing in the NHL right now than Petry and Edmundson? There are few better top pairings, let alone second units. They are leading the NHL with a combined +22 plus/minus rating. The next closest pair are five points behind, and we’re less than ten games into the season. Petry is tied for the league lead among all defencemen in goals and assists, Edmundson has the league’s top plus/minus mark. It took Edmundson one shaky effort to adjust to life with the Habs. Right now he and Petry are playing as well as any NHL tandem.
Let’s just revisit Bergevin’s moves in the past year. When you include Montreal getting Scandella for several weeks (who cost Bergevin a fourth round pick) and then dealing him to the Blues…what it boiled down to was that Montreal got Allen and a second-round pick from St. Louis for a third-round pick. Toffoli and Perry cost no assets. Anderson came at the price of Domi, who has been ably replaced at fourth-line center by Evans, a player much more suited for that role. If you cancel out the exchange of fifth-round picks, the NHL’s plus/minus leader in Edmundson cost the Canadiens Nate Thompson. If you include the third-round pick Montreal obtained from Washington for Ilya Kovalchuk (who also had cost Bergevin no assets), then the Blues trade boils down to Jake Allen and a second-round pick for Ilya Kovlachuk. The other trade was Nick Cousins for a fourth-round pick. Net result in assets acquired versus assets lost in the past year with draft picks canceled out: Toffoli, Anderson, Allen, Perry, and Edmundson, a second-round-pick, and a fourth-round pick for Domi, Cousins, Thompson and Kovalchuk. There is not a better wheeler dealer in the league right now. None.
Brendan Gallagher’s effort just never fails to impress. Check out this sequence in the third period:
It is essentially a snapshot of what you get from Montreal’s assistant captain every game. It doesn’t matter if the Canadiens are up 6-2 or down 6-2; he does the exact same thing – outbattle a player off of the faceoff so a teammate can get the puck, go to the front of the net, outcompete a defenceman in the corner to get the puck, and then dive to get the biscuit back to the defence partner on his side before the other team can get it. Fans of other NHL teams questioned why Gallagher was signed to such a lucrative contract because he’s not a 70- or 80-point scorer. Fans who watch him every night know darn well that he is worth every penny. The heart and soul of the franchise. I truly look forward to seeing Gallagher playing in the third and fourth rounds of the NHL playoffs some day. He was made for those moments.
If you exclude the first game of the season, where everyone, especially Josh Anderson, was running high on adrenaline after such a prolonged absence from regular-season hockey, I wouldn’t put the big winger in the top eight among Habs forwards’ performances so far this season. There have been long stretches of games where he’s not accomplishing a whole bunch. He is capable of providing more oomph, and creating more offence. He has four points in his last eight games playing on the top line with two guys who are really clicking and creating offence. I think he’s still trying to get in game shape. He did a lot of iron pumping to build his upper body and strengthen the shoulder…maybe the legs and stamina need to catch up. He has by no means been bad and I realize this opinion is against the consensus…on most teams he’d be top-six performance-wise over the past eight games, but on a team that is rolling; he’s just been average aside from a few flashes. I know what he is capable of bringing to the Canadiens, and for me it’s even more. There is another tier that he can reach.
Six shorthanded goals in the first nine games…equalling last year’s total output. If Bill Belichick was coaching against the Habs he’d decline the penalty. Evans, Lehkonen, Suzuki, Toffoli and Byron have been superb thus far in the transition game while a man down. Much like with Anderson, though, this is still room for improvement. Montreal’s top penalty killer from the past three seasons can be better. Phil Danault has another level both offensively and defensively. If he and Anderson can play up to their full capabilities, this club will be even better. It will need to be if it hopes to beat Toronto. It’s looking like the Leafs will be Montreal’s main nemesis, but it’s still early. Let’s see how Winnipeg looks with Dubois, and Edmonton with those offensive weapons will alway be formidable, especially if it adds another defenceman. I’m also not counting Calgary out if they continue to get the type of goaltending provided by Markstrom last game.
The Canadiens are winning 77 percent of the time with average goaltending from their $10M Dollar Man. There is both positive and negative in that fact. The club could be even more formidable if he finds his ‘A’ game. On the other hand; there is always the possibility that he does not. Price has a .903 save percentage to date, and that’s not going to be good enough to win 16 playoff games. You can get by with that when your offence is firing on all cylinders during the regular season, but the Canadiens are not going to be scoring 4.3 GPG come playoff time if they make it to the postseason. Price is letting in at least one iffy goal per game, and that’s going to come back to haunt the team when the games get more important. The good thing is that if Price isn’t playing better at playoff time, Allen is more than capable of taking his place and winning some big games. It’s no wonder that Bergevin’s first offseason move was in acquiring Allen – he realized that this team was finally capable of contending, and that having a backup who could play in any situation was vital. This club has finally been built to compete for a conference and league crown. It’s been 25+ years since that was the case; so let’s sit back and enjoy.
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