The Canadiens ‘Jiri Sekac factor’ explained

Montreal Canadiens' Jiri Sekac. (Graham Hughes/CP)

When the “Jiri Sekac factor” was first referenced a couple weeks ago, it was often done with a tongue planted firmly in a cheek. But now that Sekac appears embedded in the Montreal Canadiens lineup, it’s time for an honest evaluation of what the talented newcomer can do.

What we can say for certain is the Habs’ record with and without Sekac in the lineup is due for a correction. How else can you view the fact that Montreal has a staggering 8-1-0 record when the 22-year-old rookie suits up?

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And what happens when the young Czech watches games from the press box? The Canadiens slip to 3-3-1.

That startling discrepancy initially had a humorous look to it because Sekac was a third-line winger who had one goal and was seeing about 13 minutes of ice time per night when coach Michel Therrien took him out of the lineup six games into the season.

Skilled or not, it was hard to say with a straight face that the absence of a bottom-six freshman was the deciding factor in the Habs’ ability to win games.

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But since Sekac returned to the lineup a week ago, a few factors have converged to make the conversation a touch more serious.

Most significantly, Sekac has provided some evidence as to why Montreal was competing with about 10 NHL other teams to sign him this summer, when he decided to leave the KHL. His strong puck skills have led to three Canadiens goals in his past two outings, one by him and two by his centre, Lars Eller. Previously, Eller had been consistently teamed with lumbering Rene Bourque.

But when the Canadiens finally realized “Good Rene” was never going to make more appearances than “Passive Rene,” they demoted Bourque—who hadn’t scored in 13 games this season—to the AHL. Then they flipped veteran winger Travis Moen to the Dallas Stars for defenceman Sergei Gonchar, creating a little more room up front. Both moves signal more opportunity for Sekac to make the always-tricky adjustment from Europe to the world’s best league and its smaller ice.

In the foreseeable future—including when the Habs host the Boston Bruins on Sportsnet 360 Thursday night—Sekac figures to do his adapting beside Eller and left winger Brandon Prust. The three have formed a valuable trio for Montreal since being thrown together, especially considering the Habs’ top two lines have had a tough time finding the net—to say nothing of a power play that’s operating at a woeful 7.1 per cent.

The chemistry Montreal’s third line has shown in an extremely limited two-game sample size has a lot to do with Sekac’s ability to control the puck a lot better than Bourque ever did. Prust’s willingness to scrap for loose pucks is well-documented, and the spirited veteran is likely a bit more equipped to make offence-oriented plays than some realize. Eller, meanwhile, continues to be a polarizing figure in Montreal, with some people swearing up and down he’s nothing more than a grinder, while others claim he’s never been given a proper chance to show what he can do with talented wingers.

Playing beside Sekac may actually offer some insight into Eller’s ceiling because though the former is still extremely raw, there’s no denying he posses an intriguing skill set. Sekac was known for his shot in Europe and while it’s tougher to snap one off in the NHL, his confidence with the puck will only grow and that’s something that could, at least to some small degree, improve the Canadiens’ sorry possession numbers.

Eller did find a lot of success beside Bourque in last year’s playoffs when both used their big bodies to claim loose pucks and direct them toward the net. But anybody familiar with Bourque’s larger body of work knew that production was bound to fall off. And now that it has, another player is getting a deserved crack to show what he can do.

And while his team’s record with him in the lineup can only fall, Sekac may be in the earliest days of a career on the rise.