Canadiens mid-season report: Consistency key after turbulent first half

The NHL’s North Division has been unique and competitive so far, but does it have a future beyond this season? Tim Micallef takes a look at the merits of keeping the division in tact going forward.

The Montreal Canadiens have been hard to get a proper read on through half of this abbreviated season.

They’re a team that won seven of its first 10 games before losing 12 of the next 18. They’re a team that still picked up points in five of those 12 losses but failed to grab a single extra one available in those games. A team that had goaltending and identity crises that led to an extended losing spell and several changes to the coaching staff, but one that has been in a playoff spot all the way through.

They’re good, but flawed. They’re deep at every position, but shallow in game-breaking talent.

This is stuff we knew about the Canadiens going into the season, stuff even general manager Marc Bergevin knew when he said prior to the start, “We mean business, we’re here to win, and we can play anyway you want.”

He said on Tuesday, during his mid-season press briefing, that his belief in that statement hasn’t wavered, despite the inconsistency from the Canadiens he’s seen to date.

“It did not change,” Bergevin said. “It’s a tough league. Every night it’s a battle, and I expect the same down the road. We have to make the playoffs. I feel we have a team to make the playoffs. And once we get in, I feel anything is possible. Like I said, it’s hard. I call it a one-goal league. Every night it’s a one-goal league…”

He referenced his goaltending duo of Carey Price and Jake Allen as a reason to believe the Canadiens will more often than not allow one less than their opponents. He said that his young centres — Jesperi Kotkaniemi (20), Nick Suzuki (21) and Jake Evans (a 24-year-old rookie) — have gone through typical ups and downs but are fighting through them and progressing. And he re-affirmed that expectations for the team remain as high as they were at any point over the last three months.

But Bergevin also essentially said that he doesn’t see much difference between the Canadiens and every other team he considers to be good.

“I was speaking to another GM who has a very good hockey team, and he was saying to me, ‘One day we play well and the next day I don’t recognize my team. I can’t understand how we have such ups and downs,’” he said. “There’s lots of teams going through the same thing. Philadelphia has had tough periods, but I think they’re a good team. In general, I don’t know if it’s just the parity but, mentally, certain teams are having a harder time with the bubble and all the Covid restrictions. But, at the same time, there’s 31 teams in the same position.

“Anyways, we’re not the only team going through it. Even Toronto has lost five of six and they’re a very good hockey team. We look just at the Canadiens, and me too, but I’m also trying to evaluate what’s going on around the NHL and there’s a lot of things that look the same.”

Now it’s time to see if his team can differentiate itself.

With the exception of Ben Chiarot, who will miss the next six weeks as he recovers from a fractured right hand, the Canadiens are healthy. There’s a chance they’ll be bolstered ahead of the trade deadline, if Bergevin can clear enough cap space to fill some key needs. They’ve also found their footing in the new system Dominique Ducharme has installed since taking over as head coach for Claude Julien three weeks ago.

And if the Canadiens are who Bergevin believes they are, it’s time for them to show it.

“What I want to see from my team is consistency in the system,” said Montreal centre Phillip Danault, who may as well have been speaking for Bergevin, Ducharme, the rest of the coaches, his teammates and all Canadiens fans when he spoke on Tuesday. “Doing all those little things that Dom’s asking — it works. So, just gotta apply it for the next 28 games.”

Key team stats

Team Record: 13-8-7, (3rd in points percentage in the North Division)

Goals for: 3.21 per game (10th-highest in the NHL)

Goals against: 2.61 per game (9th-lowest in the NHL)

Power play: 22.1 per cent (13th-best in the NHL)

Penalty kill: 76.2 per cent (22nd-best in the NHL)

Best surprise: Joel Edmundson

How many people celebrated when this 27-year-old, whose rights were traded from the Carolina Hurricanes to the Canadiens for a fifth-round pick, signed a four-year, $14-million contract?

Bergevin seemed excited to be getting a six-foot-four, 227-pound Stanley Cup winner who plays like you’d want a player his size to play but also skates better than most players his size do. The Canadiens were pretty jazzed about it, too. And we agreed with an executive who texted us right away to tell us he thought this was a good deal.

But several in the analytics community called it a disaster, and fans piled on after Edmundson struggled to adjust to Montreal’s system within his first game in bleu, blanc et rouge.

He’s since proven to be a perfect partner for Jeff Petry and is an NHL-leading plus-26 despite matching up nightly against some of the league’s best forwards featured in the North Division.

Edmundson also has a goal and eight points, which puts him on pace to land just four points shy of his career-high of 20 in 68 games last season.

Tyler Toffoli, who signed a four-year, $17-million deal is a close second in the “best surprise” category. Granted, we knew he’d score goals — it’s why he was signed and what he’s done to great effect throughout his nine-year NHL career — but 17 in 28 games has him on pace to surpass his career-high (31 goals in 82 games in 2016) before he even reaches Game 56.

Biggest disappointment: Price/the penalty kill

It’s Price, but with a caveat. Because he was sub-.900 in save percentage through his first 12 starts, costing Stephane Waite his job, but he’s since posted a .950 save percentage over his last six and appears to be heeding the advice of new goaltending coach Sean Burke.

At least Price turned it around at some point, which is not what you would say of the penalty kill.

Granted, the struggles in this department to start can at least be partially tied to Price’s early season struggles.

But the penalty kill hasn’t improved despite Price’s recent strong play. And it’s arguably the biggest disappointment, regardless of how good the power plays are in this division, because the Canadiens have so many players suited to killing penalties who are playing in front of two excellent goaltenders.

Ducharme said the strategy, overseen by defence coach Luke Richardson, didn’t need to change. But it’s the same strategy that led the Canadiens to being sub-standard in this department last season and they’ve done even worse there since.

Biggest question for the second half: Can the Canadiens prove Bergevin right?

Provided they stay relatively healthy, the Canadiens have a chance to prove they’re exactly who Bergevin said they were before this season got underway.

Assistant captain Brendan Gallagher said over the weekend that he believes they’ll do it.

“I wouldn’t be playing if I don’t believe that we can eventually be a Stanley Cup champion team,” he said. “Every single year I talk to you guys, that’s the goal. Have we had better chances in the past? I don’t know if we have. I think this might be — depth-wise, talent-wise — the best team I’ve been able to play on. And I’ve played on some really good teams that went deep in the playoffs and kind had what it took…

“For me, when I look at this roster, there’s really no excuse for us to not be competing for the ultimate prize at the end of the year. I have a lot of confidence in this group, I have a lot of confidence in the players we have to get the job done. And I think what gives me that confidence is we have a lot of guys that, when we go through tough times, respond the right way. And we’re going to deal with a lot more of it as the season goes on. When you look at the character of this locker room, I really have a strong belief in it and hopefully I’m right.”

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