The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Halfway home: Can the Canadiens legitimately compete for the Cup?

My apologies, but things have been crazy again lately. So, while I was unlucky enough to find time to watch the New Jersey game right before the All-Star break, I couldn’t bring myself to make another snarky “3 Stars of the game: Not anyone on the Canadiens” kind of post. I had recorded the Tampa Bay game from last night and intended to watch it upon coming home from work tonight, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon the result (and thus save myself the unneeded stress considering this week has sucked out loud at work).

The upshot is that our Habs have now lost three straight games – two of them against dregs of the league in Atlanta and Tampa Bay. While some of the more optimistic posters over at Habs Inside/Out have a point when they say that many are overreacting to this stretch of bad games, it also isn’t that far out of order to wonder aloud whether this lot have any chance of winning the Stanley Cup at all.

Personally, I think the answer changes depending on what Bob Gainey can pull off at the trading deadline (or before). As currently constituted, these guys would do well to replicate the result of last year’s postseason.

Before getting to the team as an overall whole, I first wanted to take a look at the goalies, defense and forwards as individual groups to assess where we are at this point of the season.

GOALIES:

As of this moment, the Canadiens are 7th in the league with a team GAA of 2.66, and 11th in the league with a .909 save percentage. In a bit of a surprising stat, the Canadiens are 18th in number of saves made – in other words, 17 more clubs have had more rubber fired on their netminders (I feared it was much worse than that). So, what does this tell us?

Well, for one thing, let’s keep in mind that Carey Price’s long-term injury meant that Jaroslav Halak has already played one less game this season (21) than he had in the two seasons before it combined. He’s been OK (11-8-1, 2.89, .904), but his issues with rebound control and conceding backbreaking softies has been well-documented. There had been some chatter before the season, and also at the beginning of Halak’s run of games describing our situation as “two # 1 goalies”. Well, that myth’s been well and truly busted for now. At just 23, he has plenty of time to grow and mature into an established top-level NHL goalie. Right now though, he is league-average at best and probably should not be expected to win a playoff series against opposition with a pulse.

On the other hand, Price was excellent before going down to injury, and his numbers are pretty good despite rust in the last three games (16-6-5, 2.44, .915). Astute readers will note that those are mediocre when compared one-to-one vs. Tim Thomas and several others. However, you can’t compare numbers without taking the defenses in front of them into account. The Bruins’ defense has been tenacious all season, while the Habs…well…I’ll get to our blueliners in a bit.

Anyway, it’s fairly obvious based on Halak’s play (over a significant sample size) that any further injury to Price will just about do it for the Canadiens’ title ambitions.

DEFENSEMEN:

I’ll put this succinctly: If Gainey doesn’t trade for a defenseman who can get through 18-20 minutes a night without blowing defensive coverages, scoring own-goals or getting caught pinching too far up ice three or four times a game, we will not get out of the first round of the playoffs. Period, end of story.

Offensively, the Canadiens haven’t been nearly as prolific as they were last season. So, while they could get away with blown coverages here and there last season (when Kovy and the Flying Kostitsyns were scoring for fun), those mistakes take on greater significance this season. When an opposing forward is left alone in the slot and the inevitable happens, we’re not getting it back nearly as often.

Rooting for this defense is like popping in a horror movie and fervently hoping that all of the kids survive this time.

While I don’t like plus/minus as a be-all/end-all stat, it can lead to some basic conclusions. Roman Hamrlik, Frankie Bouillon and Patrice Brisebois are both +1, and lucky to have even that. Mike Komisarek and Josh Gorges are better, at +7 and +9 respectively. Andrei Markov is at +11, which makes sense as he has been our best blueliner all year. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Ryan O’Byrne. This is for the same reason that I don’t mention the color of the sky.

Going beyond plus/minus though, what mainly fuels my pessimism for this team’s chances is the fact that the same stupid mistakes are being made by these guys over and over and over again. Look, I know even Nick Lidstrom misses a coverage sometimes. I know Brian Campbell gets caught pinching. I know that many clubs don’t get stellar play from their 5th and 6th defensemen. It almost wouldn’t be fair to expect much from Breeze and O’Byrne…in the playoffs, they just wouldn’t play as much. But, Hamrlik in particular has been our worst player this season relative to normal performance (and more importantly, to salary earned). As Mike Boone mentioned at Habs Inside/Out in the Tampa Bay liveblog, Hammer makes $5.5 million  to not score and not hit. What he forgot to add is that he also doesn’t play much defense – the number of key blocks or interceptions or checks made is far outweighed this season by the number of brain-dead gaffes that he’s committed. If you go back through the game reports I’ve done at this blog, you’ll want a dollar for every time I bemoaned a goal where Hammer was directly at fault.

From a depth perspective, a top-4 defenseman is needed for several reasons. First off, we need one more physical defenseman to go with Komisarek. More importantly, O’Byrne is simply not good enough for the NHL at this stage…and at this rate, Hammer is not good enough for anything other than 3rd-pair status. I am perfectly fine with Komi/Markov and Gorges/Player TBD as the top 2, with Frankie, Hammer and Breeze fighting for the last two spots. If a D-man goes down with an injury, would you really want Yanick Webber staring down the Devils or Bruins or Capitals?

FORWARDS:

As mentioned, the Canadiens haven’t been scoring at anywhere near the same rate that they did last season. Through 47 games, no one on the team is even close to point-per-game status…in fact, our leading scorer has a 7-31-38 line. That player, by the way, is Andrei Markov. Our top forward is Robert Lang, whose 16-20-36 is mostly counterbalanced by his abysmal defensive play (hint: scoring 20 points and directly being responsible for 5 is more valuable than scoring 36 and being responsible for, what? 25? 30?).

Once you get past Alex Kovalev in 3rd with 13-21-34, no one else on the club even has 30 points? For a team that was supposed to largely be the same run-and-gun free-scoring outfit from last season, that is DISGRACEFUL. In fact, it’s one less than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mull that over in your mind for a little bit. Even the offensively-challenged New York Rangers have four players with more than 30 points, and one with 40 on the dot (Nikolai Zherdev). With all of the talent on this team that should be feeding passes to one another, how is this possible?

Honestly, I feel like our whole game plan was sussed out by the Flyers in the playoffs last season…and also by the Bruins in the first round to a lesser extent. If we played the Bruins in the opening round this year, we’d be out in 5 games. We’re not sneaking up on anyone anymore…I fear that a lot of our success last season can be attributed to the fact that some pundits had us finishing dead-ass last…as in, worse than the Islanders! This year, we’re the defending Conference champions and everyone comes to play against us. Our forwards don’t get the time and space that they did last year, and the games of Kovy, the Kostitsyns, Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins have suffered.

Here’s the good news – the kids (Matt D’Agostini and Max Pacioretty) have been far better than they had any right to be. The energy guys – Steve Begin, Tom Kostopolous, Maxim Lapierre, even Guillaume Latendresse, have played out of their skins…far beyond their limited skill sets. But, you need the skill players to complement that…and other than the fantastic play of Alex Tanguay, we haven’t gotten enough of that without the price of horrid defensive play to go with it.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

We’re mediocre on the penalty kill. We blow goats on the  power play. You already knew this.

 

Don’t get me wrong. The Habs are a good team…a very good team. They will win more than they lose, sometimes significantly so in a given 7-8 game stretch. But, the fundamental weaknesses of this club in defense and on special teams, along with the regression of the forward unit as a whole means that any decent team will eat us alive in the playoffs. It’s a sobering thought for those of us that got caught up in the preseason centennial hype.

You know what to do, Mr. Gainey…over to you.

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January 28, 2009 - Posted by | Montreal Canadiens

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