This is my first post since my "Five Burning Questions" prior to the season starting, so needless to say its been a while. We're now a quarter of the way through the 2013/14 season and the Montreal Canadiens record stands at 10-9-2. Currently sitting 7th in the Eastern Conference, this start is a far cry from the team we witnessed at the beginning of last season.
Whereas average-at-best goal-tending was an issue last year, Carey Price has been amongst the top goaltenders in the league this year. The Habs sit 3rd overall in the NHL allowing only 2.0 goals against per game. On special teams, Montreal continues to put up points on the power-play (23.1% PP rate; 4th overall in the NHL) and penalty killing has been strong this year as well (85.7% PK rate; 6th overall). The biggest reason Montreal is playing like a playoff bubble team would be a lack of offense. Even strength scoring has been a serious issue for the Habs. Montreal currently sits 21st in the NHL, averaging 2.4 goals per game. The Habs have been consistent in their performance regardless of location, sporting a 5-5-2 record at home and a 5-4 record away from the Bell Centre.
Positive (The Kids)
The 'EGG Line' combination of Lars Eller with Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk burst out of the gate offensively before slowing down. They've come on as of late, but while Gallagher has been noticed on the score sheet consistently (team leading 8 goals; 3 on the PP) both Eller and Chucky have disappeared for stretches. Such production should be expected from the talented, but relatively inexperienced trio. While all three are certainly on pace for breakout years offensively, the veterans need to step up and support them when their sticks go cold for stretches. Scoring has been by committee this year, just rarely in the same game. Rookie Michael Bournival earned a roster spot out of training camp and hasn't disappointed, showing grit and speed and has contributed offensively with 5 goals/9 points in 18 games, with 3 points coming on the power-play. The kids are a combined +11 at even-strength.
Negative (Veteran Performance)
While the kids are proving their worth, the veterans have failed to show up this year. Aside from Tomas Plekanec, who continues to play a solid two-way game while filling out the score sheet (6 goals/13 points, 7 on the PP and a +3 rating), veterans have failed to contribute much of anything this season. Captain Brian Gionta is continuing to show his age and has posted just 4 goals/9 points in 20 games. Rene Bourque has had games where he's shown an ability to play physically and get to the net, but has disappeared for stretches and sits at 5 goals/6 points in 21 games.
Much has been written and spoken about David Desharnais' performance this season. After signing his 4 year/$14 million dollar contract extension last season, DD has basically taken a long sabbatical from hockey. Except he's done so in uniform for 19 games while averaging 15 minutes of ice-time per game. I won't beat a dead horse. DD has 1 assist for the season and has been benched in recent games. Abysmal is an understatement.
Max Pacioretty suffered a knee injury early in the year and missed 8 games, but has not shown an ability to drive to the net and has disappeared for stretches as well. He's sitting at 2 goals/4 points in 12 games and is on pace for his lowest offensive output since his rookie & sophomore seasons. While Patches can and will get hot at some point, thus far the first quarter has been a wash. Veteran defencemen Rafael Diaz has 7 assists in 21 games, but is still looking for his first goal of the season. Frankie Bouillon has 2 assists in 21 games, but is also a team-worst -10 at even strength.
Positive (Subban continues to shine)
PK Subban has continued to put up offensive numbers and quarterback the power-play (9 points). Coming off his Norris Trophy winning season, PK has continued where he left off with 3 goals and 17 total points in 21 games, leading the team. While his shooting percentage is down (4.2% compared to 8.7% last year), he's on pace for 12 goals and 66 points. He's also sitting at a +4 rating at even strength play. His 24:57 of ice-time per game trails only workhorse Andrei Markov's 25:14. The only knock against PK this year is lack of time on the penalty kill, which says more about coach Michel Therrien's decision making than it does about Subban's level of play. Subban is playing for a contract and we all know he'll receive it. Marc Bergevin would be wise to consummate this deal early on in the new year to allow PK to focus on the stretch and playoffs. Expect him to received a Drew Doughty-ish deal around 8 years/$60 million. Deservedly so.
Negative (New Additions)
To say that Marc Bergevin's new additions haven't quite worked out thus far is basically the nicest way to phrase it. Signed to add secondary scoring and help on the power-play, Daniel Briere has missed time after suffering a concussion and is currently sitting at 2 goals/5 points in 11 games, with one of those goals being an empty-net goal. He has failed to make an impact thus far, but will receive a mulligan for this quarter because of the time lost to injury. Another veteran addition who has missed time is Douglas Murray. Signed to help minimize the loss of Alexei Emelin, Murray suffered an upper-body injury to go along with a lower-body injury (You got to love the NHL's injury disclosure policy) and for the season has only appeared in 9 games. He has failed to record a point, but does own -5 rating and has earned the ire of the fans with terrible play with the puck in his own end. Not signed to be an offensive weapon, aside from blocking shots with his sheer size and a few thundering hits, he has not contributed much of anything that we couldn't get from Jarred Tinordi or Nathan Beaulieu, both of whom appeared in games while Murray was out. George Parros made headlines by knocking himself out in the season-opener against Toronto and has dropped the gloves in almost every game he's appeared in. However that game total stands at 5 and his -5 in the stretch is not good for a player who sees only 4:13 seconds of ice-time per game.
Positive (Elite Goaltending)
Goal-tending has been outstanding this year. The addition of goal-tending coach Stephane Waite from the Chicago Blackhawks has helped get the best out of Carey Price. With the Olympic games being held in Sochi in February, talk of Price being a potential goalie for the Canadian Olympic team has been on the lips of analysts all over hockey. But coming off an average season with a below average finish in 2013, Price needed to lift the club on his shoulders and carry the load, something he has shown flashes of doing in the past. So far, he has certainly done plenty to show he deserves consideration to lead Canada to Olympic gold. For the season, Price's numbers show a 2.05 goals-against-average (GAA) and a dazzling .936 save-percentage (PCT) despite a mediocre 7-8-2 record. Backup Peter Budaj has continued his sparkling play in relief of Price, with a 1.48 GAA and .945 PCT to back up a 3-1 record. Both goalies have recorded 1 shutout.
The biggest difference between the two is that the team tends to tighten up defensively in front of the Budaj, allowing an average of 27.5 shots-per-game with a season high of 30 just once. Price has seen his defenders leave him to fend off the wolves himself and the cowboy from Western Canada has done just that. Price has faced 30+ shots in 11 times in his 17 starts; twice above 40. For the season, he's seen an average of 32 shots per game. Of his 8 losses, all but one (a 4-1 loss to Ottawa) have been by 1 goal, including 2 shootout losses. Whereas last year Price's detractors could say the Habs were winning despite having Price in goal, this year they would be rivaling the Edmonton Oilers in futility if they didn't have Price in goal.
Negative (Decision Making)
Montreal is a pressure cooker for any coach and general manager. While the hot start to last season may have been a mirage, it has surely increased the expectations of the team in the eyes of the fans. Montrealers expect more out of the team and the franchise in general and so far this team has not delivered on those expectations. Marc Bergevin has failed to make an impact acquisition aside from the drafting of Alex Galchenyuk and while his other draft picks show potential, none are close to making an impact of the Habs. The Desharnais extension will continue to be a black mark on his track record and while some argue that signing Subban to a 2-year bridge contract instead of a long-term extension prior to his Norris trophy win was a bad move, PK was and is going to get paid regardless of when we signed his long-term pact. Maybe he'll get some extra money now, but he's always wanted Doughty money and has shown he's worth it.
Michel Therrien comes across as a passionate and knowledgeable coach on 24-CH, but his decision making has been extremely questionable this season. Sure Subban is not paid to kill penalties, but he's more physical and better with the puck than Rafael Diaz. Ryan Ellis doesn't replace Shea Weber on the penalty kill in Nashville, but we do the equivalent here in Montreal with PK Subban. The constant line-juggling has not allowed any of the players (EGG line aside) develop any sort of offensive chemistry. And it took 18 games of trotting out Desharnais to the tune of 15 minutes per game of ice time; including power-play time before Therrien finally scratched him. As much as the fans love Frankie-Boo, the AHL trio of Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn have been shuttling back and forth from Hamilton to basically watch the games from the press-box. All three of these players possess more size and upside than the 38-year old Bouillon.
The season is 82 games long. The Habs have played 21 games. There is still a lot of time for the negatives to turn around and the positives to continue. I'll be sure to look back on this piece at the half-way point of the season and provide an analysis of the state of the Habs at that point. The season is a marathon and not a sprint. There is plenty of time to turn things around. Certainly not time for anyone to enter the panic room -- unless you're David Desharnais.
Nick M. is a transplanted Montrealer, currently living in evil LeafLand. He is a contributor here at HabsAddict.com and give him a follow, as he can often be found rambling on Twitter.