It’s a scenario that not many thought would be realistic but the Montreal Canadiens have a winning record through the first five games of the season. With that in mind, it’s time for five early thoughts on the early performance from the Habs.
He has been quiet for the most part but that’s more than fine. Frankly, it could be a lot worse if he was showing that he was overwhelmed by the pace of the game. He isn’t and that in itself is a positive. I’d still like to see him sent down and delay the decision on the nine games but it’s not looking like that will happen.
There have been some complaints that he’s not on the power play but I’m okay with that. He’s already getting acclimated to playing on a smaller rink in a league that is much better than the Finnish Liiga. He’s learning new concepts (I won’t use system since Martin St. Louis talks about not having systems) and getting his feet wet at five-on-five. For now, that’s more than enough.
There’s also the matter of load management. If Slafkovsky plays the entire season, he’ll have played in way more games than ever before, logging much more ice time in the process. That’s tough for any rookie to navigate. By keeping him off the power play, they’re managing his minutes and there will be some value as the season goes along if the cumulative wear and tear isn’t as bad. There will come a time when he’ll need to be in that role (preferably with Laval) but that doesn’t have to be two weeks into the season. His usage may seem odd to some but to me, it makes a lot of sense.
I had a hunch the Habs would be targeting Winnipeg on a waiver claim and went back and watched some tape of their AHL team in the weeks leading up to training camp. Unfortunately, I was expecting someone other than Kovacevic so I wasn’t watching him as closely but I remembered him being a good skater for his size but pretty vanilla otherwise.
Granted, it’s only five games but it looks like Montreal might have something here. His play in the offensive zone has been pretty steady for someone that doesn’t have a point yet although his gambling on holding the line on clear-out attempts is due to backfire sooner than later (odds being odds). But there isn’t a glaring weakness at that end.
Defensively, I can’t say there’s much of a weakness either. He isn’t overly physical but is strong enough to handle opponents on the boards and in front of the net and he’s mobile enough to recover if he’s caught out of position. He has held his own in steady penalty killing minutes as well.
Do I think he’s a core player in the making? No. But if he can give them a steady 16-18 minutes a night for a few years (he’s signed for the NHL minimum for two more years after this), Kovacevic could become one of Montreal’s more valuable waiver claims in recent memory. Evidently, their scouting eye was better than mine when it came to looking at Manitoba’s game tape.
While Thursday’s scoring outburst against Arizona makes the overall numbers look a little better (14 goals in five games), I’m starting to feel a bit hesitant in my thoughts that the Habs will be a decent offensive squad this season. They have one line that’s living up to expectations and if you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you which one it is (but just to be clear, it’s the one that has nine of those goals).
On paper, there are enough veterans with a decent track record offensively to provide some cause for optimism that there should be some serviceable secondary scoring. But five games in, a lot of those players, quite frankly, have underwhelmed at that side of the ice.
We’ve seen some stretches where the top line looks good and then the next three struggle to generate much in the way of possession and offensive zone time. St. Louis can shuffle those bottom few lines around but it seems like they have too many of the same type of player to put those veterans in situations where they can thrive. Of course, it’s still early but I think we might see some more performances like the Detroit game where the team is hustling but it’s not really doing much of anything.
This feels like one of those things that needs the small sample size warning repeated. The Canadiens are one of the top teams in the league on the penalty kill having successfully killed off 14 of 15 opportunities and when you consider that Nick Suzuki scored on a shorthanded penalty shot, they’re basically perfect when being down a player. Compare this to the penalty killing of recent years when it’s near the bottom of the league and this looks great. It also looks like something that’s too good to be true.
Montreal’s save percentage when down a man checks in at .966. Think about that for a minute. Last year, their combined save percentage as a team in all situations was .894. Anything over .910 is above average nowadays and the Habs are still 56 points ahead of that. That’s simply not sustainable. Add in the fact that there are four rookie defencemen in the lineup right now and it feels like this is one of those short-term successes that is going to come crashing down in the near future. Enjoy it while it lasts.
I’m usually of the mindset that players shouldn’t make the jump from junior hockey to the NHL without a stint in the minors. Guhle was one of the players that I thought could buck that trend and break camp with the Habs and then see what happens from there.
Even though it only has been five games, it certainly feels unlikely that he’ll be going down anytime soon if at all, doesn’t it? They have him in a key shutdown role already, killing penalties, and lately, how about some power play time for good measure? The end result is that he’s second on the team in ATOI behind only his playing partner in David Savard.
It can be difficult to develop in the NHL which is why in most cases, the AHL is the safer play, even if it’s only for a little while. But if Guhle can cover 20 minutes a night now and do it well, it’s hard to see a scenario where Laval seems like a better option. Sure, he could get a few more minutes but is 24 minutes in the minors better than 20 in the NHL? Probably not.
Of course, things can change in a hurry and perhaps he starts playing like a rookie at some point. If that happens, then yes, time with the Rocket could be the best option. But right now, Guhle is making the mark in a big way and it has been nothing but positives. Not too shabby for a 20-year-old.