The Montreal Canadiens rode goaltender Carey Price to 110 points in the standings and the NHL second-best record last season.
It would’ve been a stretch to expect better results in this year’s standings, but the Canadiens had room to grow as far as the process was concerned.
With 15 wins in their first 21 games (7 of them without Price in the net), the team has shown it has evolved in several ways.
THE GOOD: The list is long but if we’re to narrow the focus, the most impressive thing about Montreal’s start is the offensive balance they’ve displayed. Their strong possession numbers and their success on special teams shouldn’t be discounted, either.
Eight of the team’s forwards have scored five or more goals. The production of their third line, comprised of Tomas Fleischmann, David Desharnais and Dale Weise may be unsustainable (they’ve combined for 43 points and a shooting percentage of 18.6), but their consistency in generating high quality chances should keep them from dipping dramatically.
The power play, which scored on 16.9 per cent of its chances last season, is currently ranked 7th in the NHL (21.9 per cent). And the penalty kill, which ranked 8th in the NHL last season has improved to 3rd through the first quarter of this season (85.9 per cent).
Finally, the Canadiens were the 23rd-ranked possession team in the league in 2014-15 but have improved to 8th overall through their first 21 games by controlling 52% of even-strength shot attempts.
THE BAD: This was supposed to be a breakout season for Alex Galchenyuk, who was finally moved to centre, but hard luck has limited him to two goals on 38 shots (5.3 per cent). Galchenyuk is currently on pace for less than half of the career-high 20 goals he notched last season.
Another factor in Galchenyuk’s limited production: he’s had a revolving door on his right wing this season. The guy who was supposed to be a mainstay in that spot (Alexander Semin), hasn’t earned coach Michel Therrien’s trust (he’s been scratched eight times).
Wingers Devante Smith-Pelly, Paul Byron and Brian Flynn have lacked the offensive chops to complete Galchenyuk’s skilled plays. And Zack Kassian, who could’ve been a suitable plan B had Semin failed, knocked himself out of the running with off-ice issues before the season got underway.
TRENDING: The Canadiens, who were 9-0-0 to start the season, went 6-4-2 over their next 12. You can’t win ‘em all, but missing Price for nine of those last 12 games was a significant factor. Now that he’s back, expect the team to get back to a high winning percentage.
BOLD PREDICTION: It’s a pretty safe bet that general manager Marc Bergevin is scouring the market to find a right-winger that fits well with Galchenyuk and Lars Eller. But I boldly predict he’ll get that move done well in advance of the trade deadline.
GRADE: A The Canadiens are on pace for 128 points, so it would be an understatement to say they’ve earned an ‘A’.
Will their offence dry up? Will their possession stats drop off? Will they continue to thrive as they become the hunted?
If the team remains consistent through 42 games, they’ll have worked their way into ‘A+’ territory.