MONTREAL, QC. — Within the short span of a week, the fortunes of the Montreal Canadiens have changed dramatically. With them, the overzealous optimists have re-entered the picture and are once again speaking about lofty expectations for their team. They are the crowd who admire the brilliance of the general manager who road down aboard the country house (the same one from last season with the leaky roof) and landed it on top of that evil assistant coach, Perry Pearn, freeing the Canadiens to fulfill their destiny.
They sing, “Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch! Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.” Cue the Munchkin parade carrying the Cup down the yellow brick road.
I’m sorry if you find yourself in this camp. In my humble opinion, it’s a silly notion (the parade aside.) Watching the Canadiens resemble the team that we expected certainly chases the storm clouds away, but it’s unlikely to be all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows ahead.
It should be obvious that Pearn wasn’t the single paralyzing force to the team. If not Pearn, why is the team doing better without him? Let’s set that question aside for a moment and dispel some fairy tales.
Heard the myths about the reasons for the slow start?
Inexperienced defensemen: Heard most often from national media who assume the “youngsters on defense” have been the problem. In reality, Josh Gorges started the season slowly, with Hal Gill and P.K. Subban stuck in a funk. Yannick Weber has been the Habs best defenseman in terms of minutes played, a teamleading plus-minus rating and points.
Goaltending has been sub-par: Carey Price’s numbers have suffered due to the high quality shots from dangerous scoring areas that he has faced. Following a game against Colorado on October 15, Price claimed that three goals were stoppable. In reality one goal could be considered soft, the rest resulted from poor defensive zone coverage. Price was simply showing leadership by trying to take the heat off of the skaters. Some misunderstood and took his words literally. Price has kept his team in games as confusion reigned in front of him.
Bad bounces: One might as well say that the losses were because Roget Doucet wasn’t singing the anthems. The Canadiens didn’t perform well enough to create their own luck.
Injuries: We’ve been through this before. The Canadiens are not the only team to be affected by injuries nor are they more impacted than other teams. Elite teams manage holes in their line-up with the general manager and head coach ensuring depth and a contigency plan.
Team plays harder when games are meaningful: A win in October is worth two points, exactly the same as in March. We’ve seen that research shows that a good start is crucial, and falling more than three points back by November 1 is rarely recoverable.
With the myth-busting completed, let’s move on. There has to be something behind the early-season struggles.
What are the real reasons for the poor start?
Habs weren’t ready: As the season started the Canadiens looked like a team who hadn’t played together before — passes weren’t connecting, and linemates seemed unfamiliar with each other. Part of this can be attributed to retaining so many players at training camp, allowing little time to build chemistry, and few practices with the opening day line-up.
Confusion reigned: Whatever system the head coach was trying to implement, the message wasn’t getting through to the players. The Habs were in disarray from defensive-zone coverage to breakouts to forechecking schemes. As captain Brian Gionta said, “We’re not on the same page.”
Line combination mixmaster: Switching line combinations when done strategically can be an effective way of tailoring the right mix of ingredients to spark the performance of a trio of players. Rolling the dice and hoping for the best on successive shifts smacks of desperation and undermines the confidence of players severely inhibiting their performance.
Special teams: In recent years the Canadiens relied on their power-play to make up for weak 5-on-5 scoring and the penalty-kill for taking far too many minor penalties. Special teams were dreadful to start the season being in the bottom third of the league on the power-play and penalty killing.
No voices of dissent: Jacques Martin and Perry Pearn have a shared view of game philosophy that was hatched many years ago. Randy Cunneyworth is a team guy, someone who wants to get along. Recall when he was hired to coach the Hamilton Bulldogs, Cunneyworth said, “I think it’s very important that I emulate what Jacques is doing in a lot of cases.” Kirk Muller had provided an effective counter-balance and now that was gone.
Few defined roles: The responsibilities of the coaches weren’t very explicitly defined meaning that the head coach had his fingerprints on every decision. The same approach was applied to the players who were treated as equal interchangeable parts.
What has caused the change in the Canadiens’ fortunes?
Less concentrated authority: Pearn’s firing by Gauthier was a shot-across-the-bow for Jacques Martin warning him that change was necessary for the team’s success and the coach’s survival. Randy Cunneyworth and Randy Ladouceur have been given defined roles and greater autonomy.
Improved communication: It would appear that Cunneyworth and Ladouceur have a greater opportunity for input towards decision-making. Players have commented that communication on the bench has increased.
Improved special teams: There was an effort by Randy Cunneyworth to deploy skilled players on the power-play, a novel idea. Randy Ladouceur primarily used defensively-strong players like Tomas Plekanec, Travis Moen, Hal Gill and Josh Gorges to kill penalties while offensive stars like Mike Cammalleri were bypassed to maximize their energy and focus towards scoring.
Line stablility: While coach Martin will never relinquish control of his favorite toy, a bingo machine for assembling lines, combinations were much more stable and predictable. The addition of Petteri Nokelainen via trade and Mike Blunden from Hamilton gave the Habs a legitimate fourth line. Jaroslav Spacek with Yannick Weber have formed an effective top-four defense pairing.
Player pride: With just one win in the bank after eight games, and Montreal being thoroughly dominated by Philadelphia through the first 19 minutes of the game, Yannick Weber’s tying goal at before the end of the period gave the Canadiens hope, and they pulled together as a team to kickstart the turnaround. After underperforming for the first eight games, the Habs have played closer to their potential.
Favourable schedule: Look past the name and reputations of the Flyers and you will see a team that struggled after losing their captain and defensive anchor Chris Pronger. Add to that a goaltender who has lost his confidence in Ilya Bryzgalov, and Philadelphia was ripe for the picking. Similarly, ignore the fact that the Bruins are defending Stanley Cup Champions and you will find a team who is a shell of their former self. They are 29th in the NHL after playing 11 games.
What can we expect going forward?
The Habs will need to continue to do the things that have been working over the past three games. That may be most difficult for Jacques Martin who is the key to many of the changes. While the initial shock of the firing of his friend may have caused him to release control, old habits die hard.
Canadiens’ fans would be wise to prepare themselves for a few more rollercoaster moments in the month ahead. Andrei Markov should return mid-November but who, if any, will be the next to fall? With eight of 14 games away from the Bell Centre, the Habs will be tested while trying to make up ground on the teams ahead of them in the standings.
By the end of the month we should have a good idea of who this team really is, and the direction they are going.
About the Author (Author Profile)Rick is the Editor-in-Chief, lead contributor, and owner of the All Habs network of websites. His mission is to build a community of Canadiens fans who are informed, engaged and connected. He is the vision behind all four sites within the network - All Habs, Habs Tweetup, We Are Canadiens, and The Montreal Forum - and is responsible for the design and layout of each. In concert with the strong belief that "Habs fans are everywhere!", Rick is pleased that people use All Habs as a conduit to find and connect with other Habs fans worldwide. He is also proud that Habs Tweetups have allowed fans to meet in person and develop long lasting friendships.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Hockey Blog Beat – November 2, 2011. | Spectors Hockey | November 2, 2011