BROSSARD, Que.,–"Who’s going to shoot the puck?"
That was the simple question one scout in attendance at Thursday’s game at the Bell Centre between the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings asked about the home side’s power play. It’s one the Canadiens are going to have a hard time answering in the absence of Shea Weber, Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.
"Well you hope it doesn’t take too long [to figure out]," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Wednesday. "If it’s going to take a while, I think, at the end of the day, it’s for us to work on to get the right people in the right places and make it successful. There’s still some tweaking that we do along the way as we watch games and we see what’s going on, and we’re trying to obviously make it better. That’s the goal at the end of the day—that our power play has a positive effect on our game."
It had the opposite effect in the 3-0 loss to Los Angeles.
Down 2-0 late in the second period, the Canadiens were gifted three power-play opportunities in a five-minute span. They managed a total of two shots on net.
"We definitely have to move the puck quicker," said Julien after the game. "And when you get those shooting opportunities, you gotta shoot. I think there were times tonight where I felt our guys were trying to force those cross-ice passes instead of maybe just putting pucks at the net and trying to jump on those loose pucks."
Weber, who owns arguably the most lethal slapshot in the NHL, will return at some point in the near future from off-season knee surgery to help the Canadiens generate rebounds to pounce on. Possibly in November, but more likely in December.
But Pacioretty and Galchenyuk, who were 30-goal scorers for the Canadiens, were traded in the summer for players—Tomas Tatar and Max Domi—who don’t quite have the same scoring pedigree. The first two were pure shooters, but we can’t say the same of their replacements.
Both Tatar and Domi are currently positioned to control the flow of play on separate power play units, with Tatar operating from the right half-wall and Domi patrolling the left. Andrew Shaw, Joel Armia and Brendan Gallagher are net-front presences, and Artturi Lehkonen, Jonathan Drouin and Jesperi Kotkaniemi rove around the high slot.
It’s a group that features a lot of creativity and determination, but no one member of it really stands out for their shooting ability.
"It makes their power play easy to defend," said the scout. "You want to have multiple shooting threats on a unit, it’s the only way to keep the penalty killers guessing. If you don’t have that, you almost avoid setting up that good point shot because you don’t want to be predictable.
"The problem is that if you do that, you end up trying to make all the plays happen from down low and we all know it’s hard to get positioning between the dots with any kind of frequency. What you end up with is a play that moves around the perimeter."
It’s certainly what the Canadiens have had through three games, converting on just one of their 11 power plays so far.
How will they adjust?
"I think we’ve gotta find ways where guys who aren’t naturally shooters have to get the puck on net from the half-wall," said Drouin on Friday. "It’s a stupid cliché, but we also have to get guys going to the net and getting their noses dirty. If we’re not converging to those areas, it’s not going to work. We have guys who are good at that, just look at [Gallagher].
"And we have to stop forcing plays. Seam passes happen off of shots and rebounds, it’s rarely off a set play on a faceoff. Guys defend too well for that to work all the time. Once you shoot, you get teams off balance and that’s where you find those seams and back-door plays. We have to just put the puck on net, no matter who’s shooting it."
That’s how Drouin scored all four of his goals on the power play last season. It’s how he scored the majority of his nine goals on the power play the season before that, too.
"Especially as a lefty playing the left side, I know I need to shoot that more often," said Drouin. "When that puck comes through and you put it on the short side, it’s pretty hard to stop for any goalie."
The other players currently employed on Montreal’s power play are going to have to adopt the same mentality.
They’ll be given a chance to, with Julien saying on Friday that he isn’t ready to make wholesale changes just yet.
"I think right now whether we make one change or we don’t make any, I don’t think it’s a blow-up situation on the power play," he said. "I think we need to give it a bit of time to find its confidence, its groove and its comfort level."
With so many new players in the mix, it’s going to take time.
But even with time, not having enough pure shooters is going to be a considerable obstacle to overcome for the Canadiens’ power play.