With all the new guys taking up so much attention through the first two days of Canadiens training camp, we figured we’d steal some away and give it to Brendan Gallagher to open this notebook.
When we last saw Gallagher in the flesh, he was bleeding profusely from his mouth after having lost a couple of teeth on a hit from now-retired Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Matt Niskanen. It was a hit that also broke his jaw.
As Gallagher was readying himself for surgery to repair that damage, and as the Canadiens were preparing to play what proved to be their final playoff game in the Toronto bubble, general manager Marc Bergevin dropped a bombshell that Gallagher had also been playing for some time with a tear in his right hip.
We knew he was playing through some serious discomfort in the Pittsburgh series—he missed a morning skate after the team had a day off from practice, which set off an alarm bell—but we couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
In the end, it wasn’t an injury that required surgery, but it was one that prohibited Gallagher from immediately jumping back into his intense workout regime with his father and personal trainer, Ian.
We wondered how that might affect his start to camp, but he’s looked like the same old Gallagher to these eyes, and he assured us on Tuesday that he’s feeling healthy and energized.
“I feel good,” Gallagher said. “I had to spend a little bit of time taking care of some things, which was new for me. But I feel good coming into camp, which is exciting for me. I was able to do the work I needed to in the gym and on the ice. I got to a point where I was just like I feel every single camp—you’re 100 per cent ready to go and you prepare yourself for that grind throughout the season. And the goal is the same: you want to be in the lineup every single night.”
With that out of the way, he also shared some thoughts on what it will be like to no longer be the only pest on the Canadiens now that Corey Perry and Josh Anderson are in the fold.
Just our opinion, but we don’t think they’ll be fun to play against.
“That’s the goal,” Gallagher said. “Every single night you want to be hard to play against and we definitely have that potential within our lineup. Not just with us three … I think up and down our lineup. But it’s definitely part of our job that we’re going to have to do, and if we’re able to do it successfully, you know the team’s going to have a lot of success. So, it’s going to be fun to watch. Hopefully we can do our jobs and live up to that.”
Revamped power play
So, Gallagher’s still there, but he’s been moved to the second unit—playing the bumper position while Anderson takes on the net-front role, rookie Alexander Romanov mans the point, Tomas Tatar stays on the left wall and Jesperi Kotkaniemi takes the right wall.
Victor Mete rotated in for Romanov, and Perry rotated in for Anderson.
On the top unit, Jonathan Drouin moved from the point to the goal line, Nick Suzuki is manning the right wall, Tyler Toffoli’s in the bumper, and Petry and Weber took turns rotating from the top of the point to the Ovechkin spot in the left circle.
What’s interesting here is that the Canadiens are running different in-zone strategies for both of these units.
Regarding the second unit, here’s what coach Claude Julien wants to see:
“It’s a unit that we want to see shoot a bit more than the other one. Tatar has a really good shot from one side, and we have Kotkaniemi who also has one. Same thing with Gallagher, who can shoot near the net, and he’s fast. And with Anderson in front and Romanov (on the point), this unit has guys who can all shoot and we want them to shoot as much as possible.”
And here’s what Julien likes about the top unit:
“We still have good scorers, but we also have guys who can make plays like Jonathan Drouin and Suzuki…”
Having Weber and Petry on the same unit gives the Canadiens two lethal shooters in one-timer positions. As colleague Arpon Basu pointed out in this tweet (below), it wasn’t an option they exercised much last season, and we’ll add that it was probably because they felt they were putting too many eggs in one basket.
Now the Canadiens can do this and still ice another unit that has several shooting threats, as Julien mentioned.
As Canadiens associate coach Kirk Muller recently noted, Toffoli as a dual-threat option in the bumper—a righty who can shoot as well as he can make plays—is going to help free up shots for Weber and Petry. And we agree with Julien that Suzuki and Drouin can make the plays to get all three shooters the looks they want.
Of course, none of this matters if the Canadiens can’t enter the zone cleanly.
“It was the first thing we talked about this morning in our PP meeting,” Suzuki said. “We know that our entries have to be better. If you’re not breaking the puck in with control it’s giving the PK a huge advantage. We know we need to be better at that, and I think we have the strategy and tools to do so. For me I’m going to have a lot more confidence to carry the puck over the blue line and make plays. I think our power play unit has all the tools to do so.”
We have a sense for what the coaching staff wants to see when the Canadiens do set up in the offensive zone.
And Julien told us what they don’t want to see:
“Sure, there’s a bit of a difference in strategy on each unit but, overall, what we don’t want to see is either one spending its time passing the puck around the outside without getting shots or scoring chances,” he said.
Perry likely more than just a depth option
Perry made his Canadiens debut at camp after missing Monday’s session for the last day of his quarantine. He skated with Ryan Poehling and Michael Frolik on a fifth line a few of us reporters mused is better than a lot of fourth lines in the league—and certainly better than the fourth line the Canadiens had in the bubble.
It’s probably safe to assume Perry won’t dress for every game, but we’re of the opinion he was signed to play and not just for taxi squad purposes. Heck, cap problems or not, we don’t anticipate him going to the taxi squad at all — at $750, 000, he’d be an ideal player to claim on waivers for any team with less depth than the Canadiens ... and there are many teams with less depth than the Canadiens.
Gallagher shared what it means to him to have Perry as a teammate:
“He’s a player that he’s going to be really good for a lot of guys, but me especially,” he started. “You know, you watch how he is around the net—he’s just got so many tricks that he’s picked up ... Just watching those guys is always going to help. So personally, I’m looking forward to that, and he’s going to play a big part of our team. So definitely a very good addition.”
Gallagher also had this to say:
“Everyone knows who Corey Perry is. They know the career he’s had, the impact he’s had on every single team he’s gone to. You know when you’re going into a big game, he’s the guy. When you look around the locker room before games that’s the guy who can make you feel comfortable because you know how confident he’s going to be in himself and his abilities. Just step up at the right time and contribute in an important way. It’s hard to find guys like that. Obviously someone that just won as much as he has, he's been around players that have that experience and he has it himself. Somebody that I think we can all learn from a bit and when he steps in the room he definitely comes with a presence."
Julien referred to Perry on Monday as one of the best net-front power play players in the league. On Tuesday, he went on about Perry’s experience and about his own experience watching Perry play junior hockey and coaching him at the Olympics and the World Cup.
“He's a competitive ... and I’m going to use the word ... he’s a competitive bugger,” Julien said. “There’s not too many people that are going to want to cross him when he’s in that kind of a mood ... Not a fun guy to play against, but he’s a fun guy to have on your team.”
Doesn’t sound like someone who’s just here to watch the games.
The puck-moving problem that might not be a problem
Enter Joel Edmundson, Romanov, Toffoli, Anderson and Perry.
Suddenly a small, speedy Canadiens team has a vastly different look to it. Particularly on the back end, where Montreal now has an opportunity to ice six players at once who are over six feet and 200 pounds.
It begs the question: Do the Canadiens have the mobility there to execute the fast style Julien still wants them to play?
“We don’t plan on trying to change our approach to our team, because when you look at the players we’ve got, they’re all guys who can still skate, they’re all guys that can move the puck quick,” Julien said Monday.
Moving quickly and moving the puck quickly are key features of Julien’s system, and we’d even agree with his assessment about this group’s ability to do those things.
But moving the puck efficiently makes for the fastest hockey, and you can’t evaluate the makeup of Montreal’s defence without asking: Can they move the puck efficiently?
Edmundson’s not exactly known for that. In fact, it’s been proven to be a deficiency of his over the course of his five years in the NHL.
Romanov, who turns 21 on Wednesday, has been labeled "the Assassin" by the Canadiens brass. It’s a tribute to his ability to kill rush and cycle plays, which is big feature in ensuring quick transition to offence. His skating will help, too, as it's one of his best assets.
But we know nothing about the Russian’s puck-moving abilities at this level, and we’re taking what we saw in his two outstanding performances at the World Junior Championships—as well as his performance with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow—with a grain of salt. First because the game moves exponentially faster in the NHL than it does at the WJC, and second because CSKA’s (stingy) use of Romanov was obviously related to his imminent departure for Montreal.
If we’re going to allow for the possibility (or probability) that Romanov’s got more offence in him than his low usage enabled him to produce for CSKA—he had one goal and 10 assists in 86 games over two seasons—we have to also consider that he might not. And without having watched him play regularly in the KHL, we can’t take much from his Corsi ratings or any other advanced statistics related to his puck-moving abilities.
Puck-moving is far from Ben Chiarot’s biggest strength, even if he circumvented that and put up a career season with the Canadiens in 2019-20.
Shea Weber is passable in that department, but not quite on the same level as Jeff Petry.
And then you have Brett Kulak and Mete—two very reliable puck-movers who just happen to be fighting for the only spot left in the top-six. So, we’re not sure either will be given enough ice-time to make a considerable difference in helping the Canadiens get out of their zone easily and often.
But here’s where some of those big forwards come into play.
The Canadiens are not alone in wanting to break out of their zone and into the offensive end through the middle of the ice, but that is a key feature of their system. And what was problematic a year ago was that when teams took that away from them, they didn’t have the bodies on the wings to get out or in on the sides.
Now they do.
That’s going to help players like Chiarot and Edmundson—and Weber, to a certain extent. Players who came to the Canadiens from much bigger teams like Winnipeg, St. Louis, Carolina and Nashville; players who built habits moving the puck up the wall on teams more capable of winning the battles in those areas.
“I remember at a certain point during last season we were saying we’re having trouble along the boards and having trouble getting into the zone between the dots on the inside,” Julien said on Monday. “I think what we’ve done will certainly help us offensively. Defensively, we’re also going to make it a lot harder for teams to get into that inside area with all the big defencemen we have. So I think we’ve improved as much defensively as we have offensively.”
And it stands to reason the Canadiens will have more versatility on the zone exits and entries.