MONTREAL -- Unwatchable.
That’s not what the Montreal Canadiens have become; it’s what they’ve been for the better part of this season. No matter how much time they’ve spent away -- the Christmas break, the COVID break, the All-Star break -- they’ve come back making you want to claw your eyes out or just avert them altogether.
So, how much more can the guys who have to watch them stomach before making sweeping changes?
We know, the suits on the executive floor of the Bell Centre have already tolerated so much -- with the best odds at the top pick in the upcoming draft becoming more secure with each loss -- but they must know that what’s happening right now could be very damaging to the future.
Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes had to be thinking about that watching their team fall behind 5-1 against the New Jersey Devils before two periods of Tuesday’s game were played. Yes, those New Jersey Devils, the last-placed Metropolitan Division team which extended its losing streak to seven games after a pitiful performance in Ottawa a night prior while the Canadiens were soaking up the last few hours of a one-week sabbatical.
The Canadiens went into the break after suffering 7-2 and 6-3 losses on consecutive nights. They were disorganized, dysfunctional and downtrodden -- like they had been through most of their other 42 games. It felt clear then something had to change.
So, following the team’s first practice back on Monday, we asked Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme if he had taken the pause to re-evaluate his system, to tweak his forecheck, his neutral zone schema and his defensive zone coverage to address the persistent problem of the team proving incapable of executing any of it with a modicum of consistency.
Ducharme retorted with the chicken and egg problem, like he has on several occasions this season when he’s been asked about his system.
“You can be defending a different way, playing a different D-zone coverage, for example. But when the puck is travelling and you have a chance to kill the play, to stall the play, to separate a guy from the puck, if you don’t do it -- no matter what system you play -- it’s going to crack.” Ducharme said after mentioning the coaching staff is always evaluating things. “No matter what system you play, if you turn the puck (over) at the blue line to give a breakaway, there’s no way to defend it. If you don’t execute with the puck and you give it away, you give it to the other team in bad situations, there’s no way to defend it.
“I think in the last few games it’s more that than anything else…”
Never mind the last few games; for most of the 44 games prior to Tuesday’s, it’s been that.
In Game 45, a 7-1 loss to the Devils that Canadiens forward Josh Anderson called “embarrassing,” it was all of that. It was the same ineffective one-man forecheck; the same hesitant neutral zone play; the same Abbott and Costello routine in the defensive zone.
We asked Ben Chiarot to explain how it’s come to be that the Canadiens appear perpetually confused in their own end.
“It’s a good question,” he said. “It’s something (that) if we had the answers for, I think we’d be trying to fix it every game. Right now, it’s something that we’re always harping on -- killing plays quickly in our own end -- and it just seems like we’re always a step or two off. We’ve played 44 games, and we’ve got whatever we’ve got left now, and it’s something that needs to improve because it’s not fun spending that much time in your own end.”
It’s not fun spotting the opposition a multi-goal lead in the first period, either. But the Canadiens did that once again on Tuesday.
Once again, they pushed back in the second. And then they got bludgeoned.
“You’d think after the break that you’d be refreshed and ready to go,” said Anderson, “but you guys witnessed it out there. I feel embarrassed, to be honest with you.”
“I’ll say this, we’ve just gotta get out of this funk,” Anderson responded to another question. “We’ve got a lot of hockey games together and it is not fun losing right now. It’s not fun coming to the rink. We have to set our mindset right, right now, and just regroup, to be honest with you. We’ve gotta make hockey fun again and refresh. Throw this one out the window and come back to work next game ready to go. Because we just can’t get embarrassed like that. It’s not right.”
And it’s not good for the development of Montreal’s young players. They’re the ones a bright future must be shaped around, and they’re being poorly served -- not just by losses, but by catastrophic ones in which the process appears completely broken.
Nothing can be more damaging than that as the Canadiens continue to crater towards their best chance at that top pick. Development is where the organization has failed miserably for years. It’s a problem both Gorton and Hughes declared a top priority to address, and it could become much more of one if they don’t intervene immediately.
Surely, they’re considering it -- whether it’s removing Ducharme just to change up the message and the system or placing most of their young players in a much healthier atmosphere in Laval (where the Rocket are in contention for a spot in the AHL playoffs) or both.
Even if Gorton said on his first day on the job that Ducharme would remain through the end of this season, he has to be concerned about the coach’s ability to change what’s been happening.
Ducharme has been dealt a horrible hand and even worse luck -- a brutally short turnaround from the Stanley Cup Final in July, season-long injuries to his best players, and having to put more bodies in COVID-19 protocol than any other team in the league -- but he hasn’t found a way to play it. And with all the negative trends in play has come the supremely negative atmosphere Anderson was describing.
It’s been lingering for months, and it can’t be the one Gorton and Hughes allow to persist. They can’t want 22-year-old Cayden Primeau, 22-year-old Ryan Poehling and 21-year-old Cole Caufield developing in this atmosphere.
With Sam Montembeault nursing a minor injury, Primeau was once again thrown to the wolves on Tuesday. Playing behind this discombobulated group has been beyond detrimental to his development -- with his save percentage dipping and his confidence spiralling. His situation requires intervention from Gorton and Hughes, be it to trade for a goaltender or sign one since Carey Price, Jake Allen and Michael McNiven are all injured and no other goaltender in the organization has an NHL contract. They must do everything to get Primeau to Laval now.
Gorton and Hughes must do something about Poehling’s situation, too.
He practised as a projected scratch on Monday before he was plugged into Tuesday’s lineup because Christian Dvorak wasn’t prepared to return from an upper-body injury. He was one of Montreal’s only engaged forwards in the first period and only saw six shifts and 3:54 of ice-time before he was used for 10:56 over the final two periods. It was perplexing.
Poehling either needs to get locked into a roster spot or sent down. Dressing players who aren’t going to be a part of the team’s future in his place -- an outcome that was likely with Laurent Dauphin centring Poehling’s line at Monday’s practice -- can’t be an option at this stage of a failed season.
Neither can keeping Caufield in anything but a scoring role. We know he came into the season as the odds-on favourite to win the Calder Trophy and has fallen way below expectations due to spotty play and a boatload of bad luck, but his confidence isn’t going to spike in the role he’s been designated to.
Sure, it made sense to start the kid off slow in his first game since Jan. 17. He had a long layoff due to COVID-19 and the bye week, and it made sense to ease him in lower down the lineup.
But it sure didn’t appear as though the Wisconsinite was going to finish Tuesday’s game with over 15 minutes of ice-time after playing less than eight-and-a-half minutes through the first two periods. And it took the Canadiens being down by five goals just to get him out there more.
You’d have seen some good flashes if you made it to the third period. But no one would blame you for turning away long before then.
Gorton and Hughes don’t have that luxury. And it’s time they do something about what they’re seeing.