With the Habs off to an atrocious start to their 2021-22 season, the blame game is understandably underway. Are their early struggles more due to poor coaching or players simply underachieving?
Let’s go back to last season when Dominique Ducharme first took over. The Canadiens often looked out of sorts; let’s not forget they backed their way into the playoffs. Yes, the compressed schedule certainly didn’t help things but they didn’t play well for him during the regular season last year and there’s a case to be made that they simply picked up where they left off. Players have spoken about not being able to execute the system. They’re all professionals and this is still a somewhat veteran-laden team; if the players can’t figure out or execute the system, perhaps it’s time to tweak it.
It’s not just Ducharme either. The power play didn’t work last year and some reinforcements were brought in over the offseason in the form of Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and a full season of Cole Caufield. Despite the extra firepower on the wings, the primary focus of the man advantage is to get it to the point. That strategy was at least somewhat understandable when it’s Shea Weber; Jeff Petry has a strong one-timer but he’s not at Weber’s level. When you have high-end shooters on the wings, they need to get the extra touches, not the defencemen. The coaching staff needs to make that tweak; it can’t really go much worse than the current iteration of the power play. For something as glaringly obvious as this is, it’s puzzling that it has yet to be tried.
The penalty kill isn’t absolved of the blame either. During the playoff run, it felt like the penalty kill’s success was a house of cards; they were playing well above their heads. That proved to be the case as the postseason progressed. Last season, the unit didn’t do well and they’ve picked up where they left off. I’m not an x’s and o’s writer but I’m going to hazard a guess that there’s a tweak or two that can be tried; not every team kills penalties the same.
Optimization is a buzzword that I really believe in. I like it from a management standpoint in terms of getting the best value for a player but also knowing when the right time to move a player is but it applies to coaches as well. Can the players be put in the most optimal role to have a chance to succeed? So far, the defence pairings have rotated basically every other game while last year’s top scorer is playing on the third line being centred by someone who hasn’t played down the middle in basically seven years. It may have worked against Detroit but that’s not a viable solution. Part of this is on the players too (and management for being too thin down the middle) but it doesn’t feel like everyone is in the right position.
Of the core players the Canadiens have up front, how many have lived up to expectations this season? Jonathan Drouin has done well and, well, that’s about it. A couple of others have been decent (Dvorak and Hoffman) but for the most part, there are a lot of underachievers. Nick Suzuki and Caufield have struggled, Brendan Gallagher has fallen off a cliff, and as much as Josh Anderson is hustling, he’s accomplishing next to nothing on the scoresheet. Even Toffoli has been quiet. Some of it is bad luck – a 5.7 shooting percentage is likely to improve as the season goes on – but with how some of their top forwards have played this season, I don’t think it necessarily matters who’s behind the bench. At some point, the players have to execute and it simply hasn’t happened. I get that there’s a ‘playoff hangover’ but all hangovers have to come to an end at some point.
Defensively, things haven’t been much better. Petry looks like the Edmonton version instead of the one that some argued was Montreal’s best defender the last few years. Ben Chiarot seems to have lost a step or two and it’s not as if he had many steps in him in the first place. David Savard is having his ups and downs adjusting to a new team (which is understandable) while Alexander Romanov’s start resembles how he finished last year – erratically. The other three defencemen just aren’t that good so it’s hard to pile on them too much.
We know Jake Allen struggles with the number one workload and with the current situation with Carey Price, it’s understandable that he’s getting the majority of the minutes but it’s not ideal and his play has shown it. It’s hard to trust Samuel Montembeault but they can’t just ask Allen to keep making 80+% of the starts either. And while we’re on the rest of the players, the lack of goal support for Allen last year was ridiculous. It’s somehow worse this year. Allen can’t get many wins when he gets less than two goals per game of support. The law of averages suggests that should level out soon…anytime now would be nice.
It also has to be said that injuries are a factor. A healthy Carey Price makes a difference in goal. A healthy Joel Edmundson better balances out the defence and should give Ducharme a chance to better balance the pairings. Hoffman missed time; Jake Evans is banged up weakening their centre situation even more, and while Shea Weber isn’t coming back, his absence is certainly felt as well. It’s not an excuse and those players wouldn’t cure all that’s ailing them but it is a factor and can’t summarily be dismissed.
If I had to lean one way or the other, I’d go with the coaches. Aside from a fun six weeks in the playoffs, this coaching staff hasn’t gotten much out of the players, including the parts of the core group that remain from last season. That’s not encouraging by any stretch.
But let’s not throw it all on Ducharme and company either. The correct answer on who to blame here is everyone. The coaches need to be better, the players need to be better, and while I respect GM Marc Bergevin’s desire to be patient, he should at least be looking at a tweak or two if things don’t turn around soon in the hopes of making things better.
The good news is that an 82-game season allows some margin for error in terms of allowing time to turn things around. But even that has its limits, especially on the softer part of the schedule. Collectively, the Habs need to find another gear or two and while California usually isn’t a happy place for them to play, it’s time for that history to change.