The Montreal Canadiens have only played seven games, with a record of 3-4-0. While that is a losing record, and it places them 24th in the NHL early in the season, it is what was expected of them as a rebuilding team that had to start the season relying on four rookies to play defense on the blue line.
As the season wears on, teams will adjust and learn to defend this team better. Their rush offense born off the transition game will become the target of more stifling defensive schemes as teams fighting for playoff positions face off against the Canadiens. Unless the Habs find a way to become more than a one-dimensional offensive threat, the hope that they play competitive, meaningful hockey deep into the season will fall away much sooner than expected. The team’s special teams performances will play a large role in that goal.
Canadiens Even Strength Offense
Surprisingly, the Canadiens have been able to compete in every game, even against some Stanley Cup-contending teams. They have been able to keep the score close as they’ve played well at even strength, holding a positive Corsi For percentage of over 52% in the majority of their games played. That shows that the Habs’ rush defense is generating shots. But that doesn’t point to why they only have 17 goals in seven games, which averages to less than 2.5 goals for per game, not exactly a level of offence that can lead to success.
A look at their High Danger Chances For per 60 minutes (HDCF/60) and Against per 60 minutes (HDCA/60) tells another layer of the story. While the Habs can generate shots off the rush, the quality of the shot is not always one that could lead to a goal. Quality over quantity is always preferable to quantity over quality. After seven games, the Canadiens average only 7.77 HDCF/60 while they allow 13.09 HDCA/60. The majority of their opportunities have come off of the transition game. With very little coming off of any form of offensive zone puck cycle or possession, special teams’ performances will become crucial to being a lineup that other teams have a hard time beating on a nightly basis.
Montreal’s Special Teams
What wasn’t expected was how the special teams have played out, with the penalty-killing (PK) units performing admirably. If anyone would have said the Habs PK would be in the NHLs top 10 at any point this season, that statement would have been followed by some curious looks.
Yet early on this season, while being manned by those rookie defensemen like Kaiden Guhle, the Habs PK units have an 85.7% success rate placing them 8th in the NHL. This half of the Habs special teams is doing its part and deserves all the praise that can be heaped upon it.
The PP, however, has been abysmal. Atrocious. Painful. Find any word to describe bad and it would fit. It has performed so badly in fact that fans wish for the success of last season’s PP where they scored on 13.7% of their chances, finishing 31st in the NHL. Well, the Habs remain 31st in PP success at a pitiful 4.8%, but that is only because the Columbus Blue Jackets haven’t scored a PP goal yet, placing them at zero.
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Watching the Habs PP has become a chore, as they have looked disorganized the majority of the time, having difficulty entering the zone under control, but also, once there, keeping the puck in the zone. When they have had control of the puck on the PP, they have been unable to take a shot. After the game against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 25, head coach Martin St. Louis gave an assessment of what he has seen so far.
“Against Dallas, we passed it seven, eight, nine times and we weren’t getting a shot. To me, if you move it 10 times before you take a shot, it’s probably not a good strategy. To me, a good PP is two, three passes and strike and then retrieve and do it again, it doesn’t have to be a beautiful goal but you have to have some strikes. You have to send some pucks to the net. There are times it doesn’t get to the net but it might break an opponent’s stick or it hurts blocking shots but you have to break down the PK.”
But how can this issue be solved? What will it take? Will it take St. Louis taking the reins away from assistant coach Alexandre Burrows who has been in charge of the PP for the last 18 months?
Solutions Available to the Canadiens
Part of the solution is personnel related. With Mike Matheson out injured, the Habs have lost their top puck-moving defenseman and the best option as a quarterback on the PP. His return could help on the top wave, giving a more experienced option to create controlled zone entries but also to distribute the puck once in the zone.
Until his return, however, the Canadiens will need to adjust their mental approach. As mentioned by St. Louis, less passing and more shooting is required. Having patience is a virtue but waiting for the opposition PK unit to make a mistake is proof that there can be too much of a good thing. Having the man advantage should be where the Habs’ skill players like Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki can shine.
By letting them play more instinctually, that skill could peek through the dark cloud around this aspect of the game. Puck movement is still necessary, but a more simplistic approach, a return to basics is needed. Instead of new concepts, an age-old plan of placing a man in front of the net to place a screen as the puck is moved along the perimeter before a one-timer or quick shot in the slot is made, could be more successful. At the very least, it can’t be any worse than the current 4.8% PP.
Rebuild. That’s the term fans should embrace as the Canadiens will have highs and lows all season, but they should remain competitive, giving fans exciting games to watch while the young players learn. They will need to find ways to adjust as the season goes on so as to try and meet their goals. Part of that competitive nature will be special teams, and as of now, they have half the solution, now they need to find one for the PP.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 29 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist with the goal to be a trusted source of information and entertainment.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.