State of the Habs is a 12-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs season into 4-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.
Overview – 4 Game Segment 3/12
|Season||Last Four Games|
|Leading Scorer||Plekanec (6-5-11)||Subban (3-1-4)|
|Hot (L4 GP)||Plekanec (2-2-4)|
|Cold (L4 GP)||Desharnais (0-0-0, -6)|
TORONTO, ON – Nobody said it’d be easy. After 3-1-0 records in each of the first two four-game sets of the 2013 season, the Montreal Canadiens faced some adversity as the tests got a little bit tougher over the past week. To expect them to win 75% of each of these segments was of course unrealistic, but the team fell just short of the 2-2-0 record I had previously laid out as a bar of success for these games.
And in Montreal, the mood can jump from “We’re Stanley Cup contenders,” to “Trade the team and fire the coach,” at the drop of a pin. It’s no surprise then that critics of Michel Therrien have been coming out of the woodwork of late, speaking to his management of players’ ice times and special teams decisions. But the truth is that none of the four teams Montreal played in this past set should be considered significantly worse than they are (on paper), and with the exception of a non-performance against Toronto, the Canadiens were competitive in all games, likely deserving of a better fate than a shootout loss in the game against Buffalo.
That’s not to say there aren’t some concerning signs, so here we break down the positives and negatives.
After a disappointing 2011-12 campaign that saw him fail to reach the 20-goal mark for the first time since his rookie season while finishing a career-worst -15, Tomas Plekanec has successfully re-established himself as the team’s clear number one centre. He has taken over the team lead in both goals (6) and points (11) through 12 games and has been used extensively by Michel Therrien, already topping the 23-minute mark on three occasions. His line with Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque has been the team’s most consistent and thus the one held together through the most recent rotations. Ironic how the opposite situation of last year – where he seemed to be a part of as many combinations as Don Cherry owns suits – has coincided with his bounce back performance, isn’t it?
If there’s a player on a shorter leash with the Habs than Ryan White or Lars Eller right now, it would have to be P.K. Subban. It seems coach Therrien had it in his head from day one that he was on a mission to reel in Subban’s larger-than-life personality and peghole him into the team concept and system. From being informed that he could no longer perform his trademark triple low-five with Carey Price after wins before even lacing up his skates, to not being used at all during a two minute powerplay in overtime against Tampa Bay, the actions taken against him have been visible – and often puzzling – to all. Sure, his defensive game and discipline haven’t been perfect at times, but they are part of what makes Subban the player he is. All he has otherwise done on the ice is produce, with four points in his past four games and six in six since rejoining the team. And that’s after not playing in a game in about 11 months; wait till he’s up to full speed! Meanwhile, he remains on the club’s bottom pairing beside Francis Bouillon, and played just 18:25 versus the Lightning, only more than his D-partner. The voices clamouring for him to be reunited with Josh Gorges get louder by the game.
Speaking of Eller, since getting back into the line-up, he has taken his game to another level. Even when not producing (he’s hot and cold with all five of his points coming in two of his games) and despite being stuck with the likes of Travis Moen and Colby Armstrong on the fourth line, Eller has looked dangerous in creating chances on a nightly basis. He plays a well-rounded game, able to take the body on occasion and adept on the penalty kill despite not regularly getting significant time in those situations. Hopefully Therrien and his staff can get the most out of the young Dane on a regular basis and help him towards his significant potential, though it seems thus far like he’s succeeding despite not being handed any of the ideal tools. He is much better suited to the third-line role behind Alex Galchenyuk and Plekanec long-term than David Desharnais, so hopefully management doesn’t give up on him before he reaches his prime peak.
After apologizing to teammates for his poor play in the early-going, Erik Cole was only moderately better – if that – against the Tampa Bay Lightning, with his new line with Desharnais and Brandon Prust the only one to finish the game in the negatives. Cole has been a slow starter throughout his career, and has also been known to have off-years in between quality seasons. Unfortunately, it’s beginning to seem like this may be a case of the latter, rather than the former, though even the former would prove costly in a lockout-shortened year. No one should have expected the 34-year old to repeat the 35-goal career high he set last season, but certainly he needs to be producing more than 4 points every 12 games and most importantly must get back to the net-crashing powerforward style from which he has strayed.
Cole hasn’t been the only disappointment from last year’s top line, as David Desharnais has struggled mightily to get going. Unlike when he’s on his game, Desharnais’s small size has been very apparent this season, easily knocked off the puck and very weak on the back check. His chemistry with Max Pacioretty - dynamite last season – has seemingly vanished to the point where Pacioretty was taken off his line to try to get something going. Given his struggles, Desharnais’s time in Montreal may be winding down. The team still needs to get bigger and stronger, and Therrien was clear that he sees Alex Galchenyuk as a center rather than a winger. Desharnais’s game projects as a top 6 or bust, with Lars Eller much more flexible in his ability to slot on to a third line and play a two-way game. Unlike a Martin St. Louis, Desharnais may lack the speed to make up for his size if he were to be transitioned to the wing, so while he likely doesn’t have significant trade value, it wouldn’t be surprising for Marc Bergevin to explore some options by season’s end.
Perhaps more of a regression towards the norm than a real concern, but Montreal’s top pairing of Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov haven’t maintained the pace with which they began the year. For Markov, it’s meant less offensive output as the team’s powerplay has cooled off some from a sizzling start. In the case of Emelin, he has noticeably been out of position or missing in coverage on a number of goals in the most recent 4-game period. The easiest solution is likely to limit the minutes the pair plays. At age 34 and with the wear and tear on his body, it may be unreasonable to expect Markov to play 22-25 minutes a night all year, and there is no reason a younger and more energetic duo of Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban couldn’t relieve him of some of the harder shutdown minutes. The more difficult change would be to shift Emelin back over to his natural left side, the position where he looked best in his rookie season, but which would require a re-jigging of the rest of the back end. Gorges has played on the right side before (notably with Markov), but it has been a few seasons since that was tried, so there is no guarantee of such an experiment’s success.
A final disappointment in the past four games was Ryan White not learning from the mistake that saw him banished to the press box earlier this season. After being suckered into a double minor that turned the tide of the first Canadiens-Senators game, White was again the culprit, as he overeagerly dropped the gloves and mugged Steve Ott in the game against Buffalo, again forcing a momentum-shifting penalty kill. Would we still be talking about this if the Sabres hadn’t scored on the man advantage? Or if the tying goal in the final seconds had been called back on the obvious goaltender interference that it was? Or if the Habs hadn’t blown the second point by winning in overtime or the shootout? The answer is probably, as mistakes are mistakes (“No excuses”), and it may be a while before Therrien trusts White sufficiently to re-insert him into the line-up. He remains a part of the team, and likely will get his chance if/when there’s a bottom six injury, but the next chance is very likely his last one as he skates on this ice.
The Road Ahead
Three Stars – Third Twelfth
1. P.K. Subban
2. Tomas Plekanec
3. Lars Eller
Three Stars – Standings through 3/12 segments
(three points for being named first star, two for second, one for third)
1. Tomas Plekanec – 5
2. Andrei Markov – 3
2. P.K. Subban – 3
4. Brian Gionta – 2
4. Rene Bourque – 2
6. Lars Eller – 1
6. Alex Galchenyuk – 1
6. Raphael Diaz – 1
About the Author (Author Profile)Dan was raised with a love for the Habs since his grandfather was a close friend of Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, and others of that era. But he only became a diehard in his own right during the 1993 Stanley Cup run. If it is a fact regarding the Canadiens between then and now, he probably knows it. Dan loves to read or watch anything and everything about his team, and started a blog to share his knowledge, a mission he hopes to continue in joining the All Habs team. Outside of hockey, he is a Toronto (via Montreal) marketing and business professional who recently completed an MBA from McGill University.
Sites That Link to this Post
- GameDay: Flyers vs Habs Lineups, Price, Discipline, Trade | All Habs Hockey Magazine | February 20, 2013
- GameDay: Canes vs Habs Lineups, Gallagher, Skinner, Budaj | All Habs Hockey Magazine | February 20, 2013
- GameDay: Habs vs Rangers Lineups, Lundqvist, Therrien, Pacioretty, Price | All Habs Hockey Magazine | February 20, 2013
- State of the Habs, Part 6 – Games 21-24: No Defense, No Problem | All Habs Hockey Magazine | April 4, 2013