Those prepared to heap acclaim on the Montreal Canadiens during the off-season were few and far between. That’s not without reason, of course. Sure, GM Marc Bergevin brought aboard Jonathan Drouin and locked up Carey Price, but the organization also said goodbye to Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin and Nathan Beaulieu, as well as top prospect Mikhail Sergachev, who went the other way in the Drouin trade.
But even if the Canadiens had one of the more disappointing summers, there was still some honest-to-goodness positivity around the team. Drouin gave the Habs added scoring punch up front, Karl Alzner was signed as a free agent to help make up for the losses on the back end, and an underrated aspect of the summer was that it gave coach Claude Julien, seen by many as an incredibly savvy hire upon his firing from the Boston Bruins last season, months to prepare himself and his team for the 2017-18 campaign.
Whatever good energy existed around the team as the puck dropped on the pre-season seemed to disappear in a hurry, though. The Canadiens struggled mightily, dropping their first six games by a combined score of 25-9. But when the exhibition slate ended, we concluded that Montreal was one of those teams that was better than what their pre-season record indicated. How could we not? The Canadiens finished with 103 points last year, atop the Atlantic Division, and the roster, while different, was surely still good enough to compete for a playoff spot.
If that’s the case, though, that version of these Canadiens surely hasn’t shown up yet. It’s not just that one aspect of Montreal’s game is lagging behind the next, either. Rather, the Canadiens look almost entirely out of sorts, discombobulated to an almost unfathomable extent.
The most obvious cause for consternation in Montreal is, without a doubt, the offense. The lackluster numbers tell as good a story as any amount of words ever could. In seven games, the Canadiens have scored 10 times, good for 1.43 goals per game. Their power play is operating at 7.7 percent. Only one player, Drouin, has more than one goal on the season. And Drouin and Alzner, who’s not exactly noted for his scoring ability, are the only players with more than two points.
You almost have to feel for Julien, too, who seems as though he’s living in his own personal Groundhog Day. With the Bruins last season, Julien’s team was almost remarkably unable to make good on their opportunities. In fact, when he was let go by Boston, the Bruins had the league’s second-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage, a measly 6.1 percent. The lack of offensive output despite oftentimes dominant defensive and possession-based performances resulted in losses piling up, which, of course, led to Julien’s dismissal. And, wouldn’t you know it, things are much the same this season. Montreal’s an equally impressive possession team, boasting the league’s sixth-best possession rate of 54.1 percent at 5-on-5, yet the Canadiens are scoring on only 3.4 percent of their shots at five-a-side.
That said, the above numbers are almost all reasons why the Montreal offense could and realistically should turn around. Generally speaking, a shooting percentage as low as the Canadiens’ should balance out as the season progresses — though Julien, if anyone, is well aware that’s not exactly always the case — and strong possession metrics do tend to correlate with a team heading in the right direction. Additionally, Montreal has had the bulk of the even-strength scoring chances in their outings, 53.4 percent thus far, and boast a high-danger Corsi For percentage of 56.6 percent. All positive signs.
Many of those same numbers bode well for the defense, too. The more the Canadiens’ offense is tilting play towards the attacking zone, the less time Montreal is spending in its own zone. On a per-60-minutes basis, the Canadiens have some promising defensive metrics, too. They have the 11th-best Corsi against, 13th-best shots against, ninth-best scoring chances against and 11th-best high-danger Corsi against per-60-minutes rates through these first two weeks. Staying comfortably among the top half of the league means Montreal is giving themselves the chance to win.
However, if there is one defensive aspect in need of a fix, it’s the penalty kill. Montreal is middle of the pack, having been shorthanded 26 times through their first seven games, but they have the seventh-worst success rate, 76.9 percent, and only five teams have surrendered shot attempts at a higher rate. The Canadiens need to stifle more shots or they’re almost certainly doomed to remain in the bottom third of the league in penalty kill percentage.
Beyond that, though, the consistently strong underlying numbers do seem to point the finger in one direction, and that’s at the net. Now, no one is about to proclaim that Price has lost it or should no longer be considered among the best netminders in the world, but he has both looked and performed like a second-rate goaltender through the opening weeks of the season. Of the 37 netminders to play at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Price has the fourth-worst save percentage, .880, and while he’s been unbeatable on low-danger attempts — he hasn’t allowed a single goal against from those areas — his mid-range SP, .824, and high-danger SP, .731, are among the 10 worst marks thus far. To say that’s unlike Price, who has the best SP of any goaltender with at least 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5 over the past four seasons, is an understatement.
Does anyone really doubt Price’s ability to turn things around, though? Agree with his eight-year, $84-million contract or not, he’s proven time and time again to be among the world’s most elite netminders. That ability hasn’t disappeared overnight. He’s still the Canadiens’ backbone and, no matter how tough this current stretch has been, Price can get this team back on track.
So, are the Canadiens really as bad as they’ve shown through two weeks of the season? Well, there’s nothing statistically that would indicate the offense is really as poor, the defense as lousy or the goaltending as shaky as it has seemed through seven outings. That’s not going to help the Habs’ rabid fan base sleep at night, but it’s certainly better than the alternative, which is a team that appears, in every way, shape and form, to be just as bad as their record.
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