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- January hasn't been a kind month for Lars Eller. He has just 12 points in 44 games, his lowest PPG average of any month.
A month into the season, Iíd say Habs fans are experiencing mixed emotions right now. Weíre on a high from winning three games in a row, a feat that was completely unexpected. This is good news, except when you remember that it was preceded by 7 losses in 8 eight games. Not to mention a dreadful preseason.
The Canadiens opened the season on the road, in Toronto, where they were shut out by James Reimer. Lest we began to panic about our offensive troubles, the Canadiens scored five goals to beat the reborn Winnipeg Jets. Six losses followed before the Habs turned things around.
In a very strange month weíve seen Travis Moen as the teamís leading scorer, injuries to key players, the firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn prior to the winning streak, a defence corps made up of mostly rookies, a Jacques Martin outburst at a press conferenceÖ drama indeed.
Read on for the first installment of the player grades.
Peter Budaj A-
Budaj played one game in October, a loss against Florida. He let in 2 goals yet still looked like a reassuring backup. In fact, I might prefer him to last yearís Auld. Seemed more confident and solid.
Priceís stats are dismal, due to the string of losses. So letís talk about his game. After a brilliant season last year, Price was a mixture of bad and mediocre in October, with some great saves here and there. In the last three games heís been a veritable wall, except for the strange moment when he appeared unready and let a puck slide in off the faceoff.
When the Habs signed Andrei Markov in June to a generous contract, it was assumed that this signified a healthy Markov would be soon returning to the lineup. November is here and the veteran defenceman is just returning from a rehab stint in Florida, with no clear timetable on his return. As a result, with the Habs dropping James Wisniewski, Paul Mara, Brent Sopel and Roman Hamrlik, the defence corps contains more rookies than one would expect. This has been a big part of the losses, as the rookies adjust.
First, I think we all agree Weber is a better defenceman than he is a forward. His stint on the fourth line was difficult. With the offence straightened out, heís back to his natural position. That said, Weber has not distinguished himself in either a good or bad way, nor taken advantage of his experience with the Habs to show what he can do. He hasnít been awful either and the team needs him right now, especially on the PP.
Spacek missed 5 games due to injury, and while few will label him a top defenceman, he was sorely missed while the Habs were on their losing streak. Without him, there were just too many rookies in the lineup. He has stabilized the defence and while is still prone to mistakes and doesnít produce any offence, heís an important part of the team now.
Josh Gorges A-
The Canadiensí very own Iron Man has had his knees fixed up and seems all the better for it. His defensive game is much the same, simple yet effective. Heís fifth in the league with 30 blocked shots. Whatís more surprising is that his offensive game has improved. Gorges now had 6 assists in 11 games, tying his assist total from last season (which took him 36 games to achieve). I like this side of Gorges and hope it continues.
Raphael Diaz B+
The Swiss rookie is showing some offensive flair, ability to make crisp first passes and smart decisions. Because heís adapting to the size of the NHL ice surface and new defence partners, errors are understandable. Heís also shown an interest in Carey Priceís job, sliding across the goal line to save Price on one occasion.
Hal Gill B
The only real veteran on the Canadiensí back end has had his weaknesses exposed during the losses. Heís a shot-blocking machine (28), and a great penalty-killer, his lack of speed and skating skills is really hurting him. Theyíve resulted in 14 giveaways in the past month.
Forced to play a bigger role than he would have been, P.K. logged many minutes and made some really dreadful mistakes early on. He was also much too aggressive, taking too many penalties and hurting the team. Growing pains are expected, especially after an amazing debut last year.
The Russian defenceman whom the Habs have been trying to lure here for a while finally showed up. As advertised, the physical aspect of his game is strong, and something the Canadiens needed. Unfortunately for him, the team has decided that Diaz is adapting quicker to North American hockey, resulting in Emelin being installed in the press box. I donít think heís been given enough of a chance and would love to see more of that physical play we saw in the preseason.
Chris Campoli N/A
The irony of the situation Ö Campoli was supposed to provide some experience and insurance for the Habs, and in the first game of the season sustains an injury. He appeared to pull his hamstring with an awkward move in front of the Habsí net and is out indefinitely.
The biggest relief of the season so far is that Pacioretty is not only recovered from his horrifying, potentially-career-ending injury, itís that he is playing exactly as he had been before his collision with a stanchion, if not better. Matching Plekanec goal for goal and assist for assist so far, he is the big power forward the Habs have been searching for. He is throwing his body around and racking up points, and therefore merits his A+ ranking. A wrist injury has not kept him out of the lineup although it may have affected his game somewhat.
Desharnais has an impressive seven points so far, and while he hasnít been that visible in some games, his play continues to improve. Iím glad he still buzzes around Chara and other opposing forwards, and his faceoff percentage has been good as at times as well.
In a contract year, Kostitsyn has not given fans much reason to complain. He is playing physically and displaying his offensive talents. He has seven points and hardly any bad mistakes. Heís forechecking effectively, and the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Kostitsyn trio has been the Habsí best on most nights. Consistency is an issue as always, but Iíll take this Kostitsyn over last yearís version any time.
Four goals and five assists for the veteran center, whoís looking much better now than when the season began. Being pulled in many directions (PK, the point on the PP, in addition to regular shifts) does not allow Plekanecís offensive skills to shine through. I also didnít think he seemed particularly motivated through the first several games.
The Canadiens lost the sniper in the second game of the season against Winnipeg. In an unfortunate freak accident, the skate of Yannick Weber cut him on the thigh as they both lunged for the puck off the faceoff. It wasnít a terrible cut and he only missed three games. Cammalleri has 5 points so far and while he has been quiet and made some errors heís still managed to produce.
Erik Cole A-
Arguably the best offseason acquisition in recent years, Cole has been effective in his role as a physical forechecking forward with excellent offensive talent. It took him a few games to fit in and define himself, but I think weíve reached that point. Regarding the controversy over his ice time, or lack of it on the PP, Habs fans were within rights to argue over this. Iím glad someone figured it out and Cole is now seeing PP time. Special mention to Cole upending Chris Kelly against the Bruins, something we have longed for from our top-6 forwards.
Lars Eller A-
Eller came back from a shoulder injury after missing training camp and the preseason, yet it didnít seem to affect him badly at all. Production is still an issue for the rookie but his excellent, smart play make up for it. The chances are there, and Eller will improve.
Travis Moen A-
For a time there, Moen led the Canadiens in scoring, to the surprise of the entire fan base. It was incredible to see his suddenly soft hands stickhandling like Rocket RichardÖ I still donít agree with putting him in the top-6, but he is producing and his defensive/physical game picked up from where it was at the end of last season.
This smart, speedy centre has done a lot to stabilize the bottom-six. His faceoff skills are an important and welcome addition to the team, enough for me to forget his offensive struggles.
Brian Gionta B-
The captain has been almost invisible on the ice. Two goals and four assists isnít terrible, but when youíre team is on a bad losing streak at the start of the season, it is up to the captain to lead by example. That hasnít happened.
Darche has one goal in 11 games, and while he continues to work hard, the results arenít there. His usefulness on the team is dropping. In addition, he should not have been used on the PP ahead of Erik Cole. A very questionable decision.
Gomez has one assist in 6 games, and has been out with an injury for the past five games. I have not missed him. In my opinion, the only thing he contributes is the speedy way he carries the puck up the ice. While the Habs donít have that right now, Desharnais and Eller are doing an excellent job centring their lines. Gomez has become unnecessary.
Mike Blunden N/A
Too early to grade this latest addition, but he has already made an impact on the fourth line. Finally the Habs have a decent bottom-6.
Both have seen limited action but not enough to be graded.