The Problem With: The Montreal Canadiens
An MVP winning goalie.
A hard-hitting, cornerstone defenseman. The first 70-point producer in almost a decade. A plethora of young talent.
What team does this bring to mind? The scorching Tampa Bay Lightning? The 1999 Stanley cup finalist Buffalo Sabres led by Dominik Hasek? The underdog 2002 Montreal Canadiens backstopped by Jose Theodore?
How about the 19-20-7 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens just coming off their second losing streak of 8 games this season with a win over the powerhouse Ottawa Senators. This season has been a rollercoaster of emotions for both players and fans, who a month ago believed to have a real shot at 2nd or 3rd in the Atlantic division. Now, the objective is quite simple: Derriere for Lafreniere. After a heartbreaking 96-point miss at the postseason last year, the Canadiens seem to be on pace for their 3rd straight year without the playoffs. This leads to the question: What is wrong with the Montreal Canadiens?
Constant Defensive Breakdowns
For a coach best known for his defensive strategies, Claude Julien has had a hard time executing his gameplan this season. As of late, the team has developed an ability to build a lead and have a solid defensive effort up until the midpoint of the game when it seems to fall apart, most recently exemplified in their 4-2 loss against Edmonton, in which they gave up a 2-0 lead in the second period. Sure, part of the blame for their poor efforts can be chalked up to Carey Price's subpar play and the team's lack of a backup goalie, but most of Price's problems stem from the absence of help in front of him. The Canadiens sit in the bottom third of the league for both goals against and penalty kill percentage while being in the top half for both goals for and powerplay percentage. They haven't had an effort problem, which has been positive for the team, but rather a communication problem, something that comes with inexperience. Large gaps in the neutral zone leading to odd-man rushes have plagued the Canadiens, and in order to be a competitive club down the stretch, they've got to get their defensive roles sorted out.
Yes, this isn't exactly the team's fault, but I'm still putting it in here. The current injury report is as follows:
-Jonathan Drouin (IR)
-Brendan Gallagher (O)
-Joel Armia (IR)
-Paul Byron (IR)
All four of these guys are impact players for the Canadiens who make plays both offensively and defensively, with Drouin, Gallagher, and Armia all having top 6 roles. Jonathan Drouin was playing the best hockey of his career (19GP, 15PTS, +4) before going down against the Capitals on November 15th, and both Joel Armia (35GP, 21PTS, +6) and Brendan Gallagher (41GP, 32PTS, +5) were in the midst of their best statistical years to date. This, in turn, has had an enormous effect on the team's depth.
The Canadiens don't have a point per game player or any real star scorers, so instead, they recreate a top scorer through multiple players. When healthy, it works, as the Canadiens sat in second place of the Atlantic before getting hit with the injury bug. The injuries have forced these secondary scorers into unfamiliar roles, eventually prompting Marc Bergevin to bring in former 50 goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk (who went from unsigned to first-line minutes in under a week). The team expects all four players back within the month, which is crucial for the Canadiens to remain in the hunt.