Following their loss at home to the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens are on their second eight-game losing streak of the season.
Just before the Christmas break began, this team was sitting third in the Atlantic Division. Now, on Jan. 10, they’re sixth and chasing the second wild card spot by an astounding nine points. As Eric Engels has written this week, the loss to Detroit all but sunk their playoff hopes, and the loss to Edmonton brought a new level of dejection. So what the heck has happened here that turned this thing south so fast?
“I don’t know what’s wrong there,” Brian Burke told Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Lead Off earlier in the week. “The coach is a great coach and their team is a decent team. I’m just not sure what’s wrong there.”
Naturally, this tumble down the table has opened up questions about what happens next, and the first answer for most is to consider a coaching change. Julien has proven himself to be a good coach over many years, but we’re now staring down the real possibility the team will miss the playoffs three years in a row. And if that happens, the only time Montreal would have made the post-season under Julien would have been in his very first season with them, when he was hired over halfway through the year.
After Thursday’s loss Julien himself said they were “running out of answers.” So until they start winning games, the coach’s future will be the biggest question around the team.
“I agree Claude Julien is a good coach, but I see a team that something’s coming,” Elliotte Friedman told Lead Off on Friday. “I don’t know if it’s the coach, I don’t know if it’s a big trade, but I just get the sense that’s a team that is just drowning right now and when you’re like that as a player and an organization, you’re almost like ‘OK what’s the GM going to do?’ He tried Kovalchuk. I wonder if something more’s going to come.”
What that next step is remains to be seen, but how the Canadiens got here isn’t due to just one factor. It’s not so easy to just point the finger at the coach, and that dismissing him would solve it all.
So what, exactly, has contributed to this quick drop?
No. 1: Carey Price may not be solely to blame, but he hasn’t been himself
We’re not breaking new ground here by pointing out that the 32-year-old Price is the lynchpin of the team. After all, that’s why Marc Bergevin made him the highest-paid goalie in the league with a $10.5 million cap hit. The problem, of course, is the league itself is trending in a direction towards tandems and offence, so investing that much in a 30-something netminder to lean on will probably never look solid.
When Price is struggling, as he has been lately, the Canadiens aren’t able to cope around him. In Price’s past nine games, he’s allowed three or more goals seven times.
Back in November, in the midst of Montreal’s last eight-game losing streak, Andrew Berkshire wrote a great analysis of Price’s play. A major factor was that Montreal was not a good team at defending the pass in front of the net. During this current losing skid, only the Winnipeg Jets have allowed more high danger chances than Montreal — and the Jets are the league’s worst at this across the entire season.
This is the kind of stuff Price, at his peak, would have been able to overcome to steal games, but he’s currently sitting with a .901 save percentage that ranks 39th among all goalies with at least 15 games played. His high danger save percentage at 5-on-5 is a lowly .817 according to Natural Stat Trick, which is 21 percentage points lower than Sergei Bobrovsky, who has faced the same amount of high quality chances. And much has been made of Bobrovsky’s struggles in Florida.
On this week’s 31 Thoughts Podcast, Jeff Marek made the point that, when player tracking comes, it could shine a light on how much someone like Price — or Pekka Rinne — has slowed as they’ve aged. He just doesn’t look the same as he did when he was the world’s best goalie, and now his numbers are reflecting that.
No. 2: Are they burly enough to hang with the playoff contenders?
Look, the NHL is definitely more about skill today than it was a decade ago and if you try and build a team around anything but that, you’re not going to be successful. But you still need a level of grit and toughness that Montreal may lack. They are one of the younger and smaller teams in the league and we shouldn’t underestimate it.
Every time “toughness” is mentioned as a positive and necessary team trait it needs to be followed by a caveat: No, the Canadiens don’t need someone to go out and fight or even be a deterrent. It’s about winning puck battles, being hard in front of the net, difficult to knock off the puck, and so forth. In terms of veteran leadership, having a few players who have experienced the ups and downs make you better prepared to handle the low points in the season.
“I think they’re a really skilled group,” Friedman told Lead Off. “They’re not the biggest group and I do think you don’t have to be killers anymore in the NHL, but you do have to have some beef and that beef has to be able to grind and I do wonder if they need more beef.”
No. 3: The goal scoring has evaporated
It’s hard to say the Canadiens have been playing poorly during this stretch. Their 52.49 shots for percentage at 5-on-5 since Christmas is eighth-best in the league and they’ve created the most high danger chances in the league during that stretch. Their expected goals for mark ranks fourth and yet they’ve scored the 12th fewest times over the past few weeks. Montreal has been outscored by 12 at 5-on-5 over their past eight losses.
This can partly be chalked up to some bad luck, but also draws attention to the hard truth that Montreal doesn’t have the same individual star power the NHL’s best teams do. Those types of players can will a team’s offence through an extended bad run — they’re not impervious to slumps, but this is the second bad streak of its kind that has happened to the Canadiens this season and a lack of true superstar power is contributing to it.
The good news here is that while Montreal was trying to win now, there’s still an eye on the long-term future, which promises to be bright.
Bergevin has done a solid job building up organizational depth. The centre position used to be a huge problem for the team, but suddenly they’re overflowing. The prospect base is strong, with some recent graduations to the NHL and more to follow.
“(Bergevin’s) made it very clear they have some very good prospects coming and he’s not getting rid of them for a short term fix,” Friedman said. “I think Bergevin’s trying to do both at the same time: contend and wait for his prospects to come.”
But are any of them superstars? That remains to be seen.
No. 4: The injuries
The biggest missing piece right now is Jonathan Drouin, out of the lineup since mid-November just as it was looking like he could be taking off as an impact player. That has hurt his centre, Domi. But that’s not the only loss the team has had to deal with.
Joel Armia was a terrific fit in the lineup, playing in all situations, and he’s missed the whole losing skid. Paul Byron is a major penalty killer and he hasn’t played since Novemeber either. Brendan Gallagher missed four games in January with a concussion before returning Thursday, but his availability has come into question again on Friday.
Defenceman Ben Chiarot is the latest to go down to injury and he’s been a surprisingly big part of the team’s defence. Only Shea Weber averages more shorthanded ice time among Montreal defencemen and no one gets more even strength time. All of this adds up and challenges the team’s depth and ability to bounce back from a tough losing streak.