In an ironic twist, the Montreal Canadiens were eliminated from the playoffs because of lack of scoring, not backup goaltending, falling to New York 1-0 last night. Still, there is reason for optimism. The team’s core is 26 or younger — Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk – and just gained more valuable playoff experience.
Montreal is flush with cap room – the payrolls for Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York all fall in the top 11 in the NHL, while Montreal places 25th, per CapGeek – and will be handing out some very important contracts this offseason. General Manager Marc Bergevin will give defenseman Subban term and truckloads of cash, speculated at somewhere near $8-10 million per season.
In view of a rising salary cap, Subban’s age (25), and his value to Montreal, that is a reasonable and necessary cost. Subban is one of the best defensemen in hockey, and he operates as the fulcrum of this team. How he ebbs and flows performance-wise coincides with how well the team plays. He is that important.
Another positive for Montreal is that their salary cap is not marred by albatross contracts, and even though the Alexei Emelin deal might not look good two seasons from now, the discount they are getting for Pacioretty’s services negates that. Now they need to find a deal with Gallagher that secures him at a reasonable price, and things will be peachy.
But this is Montreal, not some ordinary franchise. The Canadiens measure themselves in Stanley Cups, and this team is still not Cup-winning good. Are they close to reaching that level? What do they possess personnel-wise? Does their coach’s philosophical beliefs prevent them from reaching their full potential?
Note: All advanced statistics used are from ExtraSkater.com.
Evaluating the Status Quo:
Acquiring robust puck-possession metrics starts with defensemen who have mobility and are skilled enough to find the outlet pass consistently. Montreal has some of that; Subban is proficient at exiting the zone and Josh Gorges is able to accomplish that task as well.
After those two, things become a bit thorny. Andrei Markov finished the season with a sturdy +2.8 Relative Fenwick, and while his skating is gradual, his experience in the league makes him a composed presence when Montreal is hemmed in their zone. Markov can identify the pressure points and make the first pass, or skate with the puck until he sees an eligible Montreal skater with time and space. But while he still operates as an effective top-six defenseman, and is a boon to the power play, he is 36 and has had serious injury issues.
Gorges is signed long term and Subban will receive his mega-contract, but Markov is a UFA this offseason. Given the uncertainty that shrouds the rest of the back end, it might be smart to bring Markov back, but on a one- or two-year contract.
Emelin is paid like a top-four defender, but he is seemingly closer to a third-pair rearguard. He hits well, has a nice slap shot, and can pass decently, but ultimately he struggles with giveaways, defensive zone coverage, and lack of speed. Emelin did manage to post a prolific Relative Fenwick this postseason, but his foot-speed and decision-making were consistent problems.
The future for Montreal on defense lies with Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, both of whom played well in limited action during the regular season. The two combined for 39 regular season games, but posted strong Relative Fenwicks. Their appeal is evident: They possess skating ability, size, and the requisite modern-day defensive skills that allow them to transition the puck well. Though they are young, 21 and 22, they have shown flashes of impactful play.
To expedite the process of understanding Beaulieu and Tinordi’s future roles in Montreal’s back end, Montreal would be wise to part ways with Mike Weaver, Douglas Murray, and Francis Bouillon. Beaulieu and Tinordi are on their entry-level deals and are soon-to-be RFAs, so this upcoming season will be a big one. Discerning the breadth of their talents, which Montreal was able to see a little more of with Beaulieu since he played in seven playoff games, will be essential in determining what the future blue line looks like.
Offensively, Intelligent Hockey subscribes to Craig Custance’s opinion concerning wingers Thomas Vanek and Rene Bourque. Montreal should avoid re-signing Vanek for the ludicrous amount he is commanding, and if they can find a trade partner for Bourque, they should pull the trigger.
They can afford to do this because there is a lot to like about their forwards sans Vanek and Bourque. The Pacioretty-David Desharnais-Gallagher line was feisty as hell these playoffs, and each individually, each player had a prolific regular season.
In playoff action, this line was dynamic and tilted the ice. They kept plays alive by scampering to the puck first, and forcing gobs of turnovers. One of the most fun things about watching them was their ability to flip an easy exit from the zone into a takeaway, which quickly became a three-on-two or two-on-one down low. This seemed to happen a few times every game, and they feasted on their scoring chances, crashing the net hard and effectively.
They were also the best line at igniting the transition and finding cracks in the forecheck (unsurprising, given their propensity to move the puck north). Exposing gaps in defensive coverage against Boston and New York is difficult — both squads are stout defensive teams — but Pacioretty’s line utilized strength on the puck and patience to take advantage of every sliver of ice. Desharnais and Pacioretty are locked in for the immediate future, so re-upping Gallagher should be second on GM Bergevin’s to-do list.
In addition to that line, there are some important pieces. Lars Eller, 25, seems to have plateaued as a very capable No. 3 center. Tomas Plekanec is a qualified No. 2 center who can chip in 40-50 points while accepting the defensive responsibilities incurred from leading the team in defensive-zone draws during the regular season and playoffs. Eller was second on the team in defensive-zone faceoffs in both the regular and postseason, and still managed to finish second on the team in scoring during the playoffs. Freedom from more onerous deployment opens up Desharnais and his linemates to have more cracks at scoring, and Plekanec and Eller are a strong 2-3 in the center depth chart.
If the Canadiens move Bourque, and do not re-sign Vanek, more pressure will be placed on former No. 3 overall pick from 2012, Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk’s development, and how adeptly he played at times in the playoffs, brings to the forefront important questions. Is Michel Therrien the right coach to help this team take the next step? Can Therrien coax the most out of the talented Galchenyuk and his rapidly maturing team?
Galchenyuk has struggled through some injury issues, and maybe needs to be handled more delicately in order to tap his upside. But does Therrien possess that coaching skill? Therrien is a good hockey coach, and adherence to his principles is what allowed him to help make a lottery team a playoff team. But when Montreal’s players reach peak performance age – which is fast approaching for the Montreal core — will Therrien be able to make a good team a great team?
While puck-possession success stems from strong play in the defensive zone, there are some important questions to address with Montreal’s forwards and their ceiling under Therrien. Heavily influenced by Jacques Lemaire, Therrien relies on chipping-and-chasing, admonishing star players. He depends too heavily on the counterattack for offense, and uses the team’s defensive structure and goaltender as a safety valve, which seems quaint in today’s NHL.
The NHL is an up-tempo league dictated more than ever by skating and puck skills from forwards and defensemen. Montreal made an impressive run in this season’s playoffs, but they needed a fair amount of puck luck to achieve their upset of Boston (the Bruins had a 96.7 PDO versus Montreal’s 103.3). In puck possession, the Canadiens were dominated by Boston, and they were soundly beaten by New York in Fenwick Close.
Montreal was first in the NHL in blocked shots during the regular season, and only two other clubs among the top 12 teams in blocked shots made the playoffs, per NHL.com. (The Kings, Blackhawks, and Rangers are all in the bottom third.) Not controlling the puck, and relying on timely scoring and gritty defense, is a dangerous formula.
The poor puck-possession numbers are troubling. Since the 2007-08 season when Fenwick statistics became available, first-class puck-possession teams have been well represented in the Stanley Cup finals. It is a small sample size, but the Canadiens were 22nd in Fenwick Close during the regular season. They were not even close to being an average puck-possession club.
The Therrien conundrum is a big-picture question, something to chew on as Montreal grows into adulthood. After all, this team just overachieved and reached the Eastern Conference finals. There is a lot to be proud of. The Canadiens have a healthy cap sheet, even after the inevitable Subban payday. Having a throng of talented forwards and defensemen, along with a star goaltender, is an excellent foundation, but how Montreal matures will be symptomatic of whether they have the right coach to take them to the Cup finals and beat the mighty Western Conference representative.