Mid-season report card: Montreal Canadiens

With the Canadiens tied for second-place in the eastern conference, the team has a lot to be happy about at the mid-way point of the season. Chantal Desjardins looks at how the team has gotten to this point.

The Montreal Canadiens will hit the halfway point of their season on Saturday night and, on the morning after their 40th game, only three teams in the league had a better points percentage than the Habs. That’s the (really) good news. The rub, though, is that Montreal’s underlying numbers haven’t been nearly as nice and shiny. The Canadiens are a bottom-third club in terms of possession, leading some to speculate about the long-term viability of their game. Still, for a team that underwent a significant amount of off-season change following a run to the 2014 Eastern Conference final, the season is going quite swimmingly.

Record: 26-12-2 (2nd in the East)

Goals-for: 2.62 (19th)
Goals-against: 2.30 (3rd)
Penalty-kill: 85.6 (6th)
Power play: 14.2 (26th)

Pre-season Cup odds: 18/1
Cup odds right now: 14/1

Biggest surprise: Montreal may not have lost any true front-line players in the off-season, but it’s fairly remarkable how well the Canadiens have transitioned given how different the current version of the club looks relative to the one that won two playoff rounds last spring. Captain Brian Gionta, No. 3 defenceman Josh Gorges and likeable backup goalie Peter Budaj all passed through the exit gate in the summer, while mercurial Rene Bourque and big veteran Travis Moen were also moved in early-season trades.

The Habs have shifted prized youngster Alex Galchenyuk to centre, long-time small pivot David Desharnais to wing, promoted 22-year-old defenceman Nathan Beaulieu to a top-four role as part of a blueline shuffle that’s seen three new guys in the top six, and incorporated rookies Jiri Sekac and Sven Andrighetto into the lineup, all the while racking up enough victories to stay near the very top of the standings. Helping the situation greatly is the fact Montreal has been one of the healthiest outfits in the NHL.

Biggest disappointment: A power play that struggled last year has managed to get worse. Despite having two fantastic quarterbacks in P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov running the show, the Canadiens just haven’t been able to find their man-advantage mojo. The team has been particularly gruesome on the road, where the power play is converting at an absolutely stinky rate of 8.6 percent.

Forwards: As mentioned, the big news is that two-and-a-half years after drafting him third overall, the Habs are finally giving Galchenyuk a chance to play his natural position of centre. The 20-year-old still has a lot to learn, but it sure seems like the right move by the organization. The Canadiens have only one player—Max Pacioretty—on pace for more than 60 points, so they really try to get things done by committee. A few more tallies on the power play would go a long way in helping a mediocre attack.

Defence: The development of Beaulieu has really been a boon for a blueline corps that can be quite hit and miss. Subban isn’t setting the world on fire in the first year of his huge new contract, but he’s still among the best in the league at his position. Newcomers Sergei Gonchar and Tom Gilbert have, for the most part, kept their head above water, but banger Alexei Emelin has looked downright awful at times.

Goaltending: Carey Price is the unquestioned MVP of this club and well on his way to earning the first Vezina Trophy nomination of his career. At 27, with a gold medal dangling around his neck from last February’s Olympics, Price is living his prime years as an NHL goalie, and that’s fantastic news for a team that still leans on him a little too much.

Coaching: Now 170 games into his second tenure with the Canadiens, coach Michel Therrien boasts a .638 win percentage. Yes, the goalie we talked about in the previous paragraph has a lot to do with that, but how hard can you complain about a bench boss with that much success? Certainly the Habs would do well to even out their shots-for-and-against ratio, but Therrien is clearly pushing most of the right buttons on his team.

Overall grade: A-