Things were looking pretty good for the Montreal Canadiens, who had compiled an 11-5-4 record through the first 20 games of the season. They were up in the Atlantic Division race, relying on balanced scoring, building up impressive underlying numbers and a recipe to carry them through the rest of the season.
What’s happened since — a couple of lengthy winless streaks and a string of terrible injuries — has been an unmitigated disaster, and now the Canadiens are at great risk of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for a third straight season and a fourth time in five years.
So when we try to put a proper evaluation together of the team’s first half, it’s a real mixed bag.
Granted, with the Canadiens currently in sixth place in the Atlantic Division — nine points back of the third-place Tampa Bay Lightning and six points back of the second wild-card team in the Eastern Conference, the Florida Panthers — we can’t exactly offer a glowing review.
Team Record: 18-18-7, (12th in Eastern Conference)
Goals for: 3.12 per game, (14th in NHL)
Goals against: 3.21 per game, (23rd in NHL)
Power play: 21.7 per cent, (11th in NHL)
Penalty kill: 76.9 per cent, (25th in NHL)
Biggest surprise: Ben Chiarot’s play
When Chiarot signed a three-year, $10.5-million deal in the off-season, there were some people who laughably suggested the six-foot-three, 225-pound defenceman would be about as effective as Karl Alzner was with the Canadiens, which is to say not effective at all.
But Chiarot’s play since about the fifth game of the season has been excellent.
We thought he’d be effective and be able to be a steady No. 4, but no one could have predicted a move to the Canadiens — a speedy north-south team that plays so differently than the board-battling, heavy-hitting Winnipeg Jets he spent the first six seasons of his career with — would actually prove to be a better fit for the 28-year-old Hamilton, Ont., native and that he’d be a reliable No. 2.
Chiarot is undoubtedly playing the best hockey of his career, averaging 23:41 per game (which is close to six minutes more than his career average) and owning a 54.5-per cent Corsi for. You also have to give him credit for having seven goals and 15 points thus far despite starting more than 50 per cent of his shifts outside of the offensive zone.
Biggest disappointment: The penalty kill
It might be the worst one ever featured on a Claude Julien-coached team, and it’s completely perplexing.
The Canadiens have all the elements to succeed in this aspect of the game, whether it’s owning players willing to sacrifice their bodies, block shots and play with the type of desperate effort required on the penalty kill or it’s having big-bodied defencemen who are a good blend of physical and mobile. They should be better than 77 per-cent effective.
It probably wasn’t anticipated that this would be the strength of the team, but halfway through the season it’s an undeniable reality.
This team was built to have a balanced attack that could be realized with the right adherence level to the system Julien’s put in place. The reason why the Canadiens rank as high as they do in goals for and on the power play (they’re second in the league on the road in that category) has much to do with the work ethic and unheralded skill of their forward group.
But Max Domi, Nick Suzuki and Artturi Lehkonen have all stepped up in their absence.
Outside of those players, Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault are both having career years, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi is finding his better self after a groin injury slowed him down at the start of the year and a concussion kept him out of action for eight games from Dec. 6-27.
On the whole, the forwards have had some commitment issues on the defensive side, which keeps them from earning a better grade.
This one’s a tougher one to evaluate, for the simple reason that the team’s rank (23rd overall in goals against) has as much to do with the forwards and the goaltenders as it does with the players patrolling the blue line.
There are only four defencemen in the league who have more goals than Shea Weber’s 12, and only seven who have more points than his 31. He’s been an absolute beast all over the ice, and has been recognized for it by several media members and some of his colleagues around the league who believe he could be a Norris Trophy finalist if he continues to play as well.
No need to repeat what’s already been said about Chiarot’s performance, Jeff Petry’s had some consistency issues but has been mostly good and 21-year-old Cale Fleury is showing excellent promise as a rookie.
Victor Mete, the other 21-year-old on the blue line has been generally reliable, but has been playing with a bone bruise and ankle sprain for the better part of two weeks and it’s clearly affecting the best part of his game — his skating. And Brett Kulak has taken a big step back since showing he could be counted on as a top-four defenceman a season ago, and he’s since been relegated to the sidelines with the arrival of Marco Scandella via trade with the Buffalo Sabres.
Outside of the penalty kill, it’s been the team’s Achilles’ heel, and that’s not what you want when $12.25 million of the salary cap space is designated for the position.
It’s less than that now since Keith Kinkaid’s $1.75-million salary was transferred to the American Hockey League at the beginning of December.
There was hope the Farmington, N.Y., native could give starter Carey Price a breather here or there, but Kinkaid failed to earn any trust from Julien before being discarded with a 1-1-3 record and an .875 save percentage.
As for Price, who’s the highest-paid goaltender in the league, the team would be in a different place if he didn’t have the 48th-best save percentage (.902) out of 78 goaltenders who have dressed for a game this season.
Granted, it didn’t help that his worst stretch in November coincided with the Canadiens completely abandoning their system and hanging him out to dry.
Cayden Primeau came up and won one of his two games, and Charlie Lindgren played well in his only start, but they don’t really factor into the evaluation here.
We’d suggest that whatever mild success the Canadiens have enjoyed thus far is largely attributed to the job Julien and his staff have done, but we’re not absolving them completely regarding the team’s shortcomings.
Luke Richardson (with Julien’s help) has done well with the defence, but his strategy for the penalty kill has to be a factor in its failure.
On the opposite side, Kirk Muller and Dominique Ducharme (with Julien’s help) deserve as much credit for the success of the power play as they do blame for it being abysmal a season ago.
In the big picture, the Canadiens have a talent deficiency and several key players sidelined by injury, but Julien has them committed to an unimpeachable effort night-in and night-out. His tactics have also led to them being the top-rated team in the league in shot attempts and the second-place team in scoring chances from the high-danger zone (according to www.naturalstattrick.com).
It’s just somewhat surprising that the Canadiens have been as defensively deficient as a team when Julien (a former defenceman himself) has always been reputed to be somewhat of a maven in this department.