Thursday, November 19, 2009

Best Advice for Habs Fans - Hang in There!

Taking a quick glance at the NHL standings this morning, it is hard not to notice the Montreal Canadiens sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Boston Bruins with twenty points each. After 21 games, Montreal has a 10-11-0 win/loss record and although the season has just reached the quarter point, the opportunity to make an appearance in the playoffs will fade quickly if they are not careful.

Looking at the teams behind Montreal - Florida, Toronto and Carolina, one has to wonder - if the teams behind Montreal are “bad teams”, where does that leave the Canadiens. Are they as bad as the Leafs and Hurricanes? Are they better then the Thrashers, Islanders and Lightning - three of teams sitting ahead of them in the standings? These are the questions keeping Habs fans and sports columnists up at night...

On paper, this was supposed to be a competitive squad, reshaped by Bob Gainey during the off-season to challenge the top teams in the East. Statistically, the Canadiens are right where they belong - near the bottom of the standings. What is happening to this proud franchise? The unproductive players are supposed to be gone (Koivu, Kovalev and Komisarek to name a few former Habs), the new talent has arrived, a new head coach is teaching his defensive style and yet the problems persist; this team may be worse then last year’s squad by the time the season ends. How did that happen?

The Canadiens are 24th in the league on the power play at 15.9%, they are 17th on the penalty kill at 80.4%, 26th in the goals for department (2.29 per game), 21st in goals against (2.90 per game), and perhaps the most telling statistic, they are 28th in goals scored when playing five-on-five hockey.

It is tremendous to see Tomas Plekanec playing at the level many expected him to reach last season but is it a concern to see him leading the team in scoring? Through 21 games, he has 4 goals and 19 points, while averaging slightly more then 19 minutes of ice time per game. Mike Cammalleri (16 points), Brian Gionta (13 points) and Scott Gomez (11 points) are next on the team in scoring and then the drop-off begins.

One of my personal favourites, Glen Metropolit, has 4 goals and 6 assists to rank fifth in team scoring; he has averaged 14 minutes of ice time per game. When looking at the Habs top six forwards, as much as I hate to say it because I really like the guy, Metropolit should not be one of them.

The young players, expected to raise their games to another level this season, have fallen far short of expectations at this point of the season. Maxim Lapierre (5 points and is -6), Guillaume Latendresse (3 points and is -4), Kyle Chipchura (no points in 14 games and is a team worst -8), Max Pacioretty (4 points and -3), Andrei Kostitsyn (6 points and is -4) and his brother Sergei is somewhere between Hamilton in the AHL and the Russia in the KHL. Combined, these six “future stars” have seven goals this season. Wondering why the Habs cannot score when playing five-on-five, there is your answer.

The Canadiens signed free agent Marc-Andre Bergeron on October 6th because of the injury to Andrei Markov and he leads the Montreal D-men with 7 points, while playing only 16 minutes a game. The team leader in ice time for the D with 25 minutes is Roman Hamrlik (6 points, even rating), followed by Spacek (6 points, +3), Josh Gorges (3 points, +2), Paul Mara (6 points, -7) and before he was injured, Hal Gill had 1 assist and was a -3 in 14 games. The Montreal blue line has seen their share of injuries (which team hasn’t?), but the call-ups have produced zero points when they have been in the line-up - not a good sign when more injuries are a certainty in an 82 game schedule.

The goaltenders have both struggled at times this season and while it would be easy to place the blame at their feet, they will only be as good as the team in front of them. Observers will say that when a team is struggling, the goaltender will have to steal the game. Well, Carey Price did just that against Nashville, stopping 53 of the 55 shots sent his way and Montreal still lost 2-0. What more could Price do - if it was only 1-0, perhaps he should have taken a shot on the Nashville net from his end, he may have better luck then the forwards...

After a shaky start to the season, Price and Jaroslav Halak have improved their play and the numbers are starting to reflect that. Price is 5-8-0 in 13 starts with a 2.99 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Halak is 5-3-0 in 8 starts with a respectable 2.62 GAA and a .904 save percentage. Both could play better but as stated above, they have tried to steal a game or two for their team, only to be let down by the ineffective offence.

Where do the Habs go from here? General Manager Bob Gainey must certainly be working the phones looking for help but we live in the salary cap era and trades are becoming non-existent. What is the trade value of the players on Montreal’s roster? It cannot be too high at this point of the season... If Gainey had a vision of where his team would be at the 20 game point, it would be safe to say this was not it.

The best bet for Montreal management and their fans will be to remain patient. As difficult as that seems, it is the most prudent path to take at this time. With teams like Ottawa, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders ahead of them, Montreal must stay the course, keep fighting for the puck and shooting everything they can at the net. A few “garbage goals” may result in a victory, which could lead to a winning streak and a move up the standings. The Canadiens are incredibly fast on their skates, if they keep their feet moving, skating hard - they will draw some penalties, allowing the power play to find a rhythm.

The best advice for Habs fans at this point of the season - hang in there! If the team continues to struggle and misses the playoffs, well, at least you still have your draft picks - unlike another Original Six team just up the 401 highway. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by HoOn on Flickr

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