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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.
In the post lockout era of the Montreal Canadiens not much has been
consistent. Only 2 players remain in the current Habs roster versus that year (Plekanec
and Markov). 5 head coaches (including Bob Gainey twice) have stood behind the
bench. If you believe the trade rumours swirling around Montreal right now it
seems like more change is on the way.
However, among all the change in Montreal one thing has remained consistent, excellent special teams. Going into this season Montreal's penalty kill has averaged a spot in the upper half of the league with a 82.8% kill percentage. Meanwhile the even more impressive numbers come from the powerplay which has averaged 5th place in the league and 21.3% since the lockout.
This year that has all changed. While the penalty kill has been astounding this year (89.2% and 1st in the league) the powerplay has been the complete reversal. At 12.2% it is the worst in the league, and by far the worst for the Habs since the lockout.
To put this fall into perspective if the Canadiens powerplay had been at their post-lockout worst (before this year) of 19.3% (13th) they would have 13 more goals this season. At their post lockout average of 21.3% the Habs would have 17 more goals this season. With the of 19 one goal losses the Habs have been dealt this season 13-17 more goals has to translate into at least 6 or 7 more wins.
What would 6 or 7 more wins do for the Canadiens? With 12-14 more points the Habs would put the Habs in 6th or 7th. Everything considered this is about where fans and sports media would have thought this team would be at this point in the season.
The only questions left to ask at this point is why? What happened to the powerplay that it hasn't produced the results that were expected and required from it this season? It is not a simple answer. It certainly isn't for lack of opportunity, the Habs have had 188 chances in 48 games this season, translating into 4 powerplays per game, 5th highest this season.
Part of it has to be related to the number of injuries the Habs have sustained this season. Mike Cammalleri took a 3 game injury early on in the season which got his awful season off to a bad start. Scott Gomez missed 8 games soon after and shortly after returning was re-injured and missed 21 more games. Then it was Brian Gionta who missed 11 games after an early December injury and who returned only to get a season ending injury not too long after. None of these injuries helped in any way the chemistry and quality of the Habs' man advantage.
But the injury that has most affected the Habs this past season not only on the powerplay but in almost every aspect of their game is that to Andrei Markov. 41 of Markov's 81 career goals have come with the extra man. In the 7 games Markov played in before going down with the knee injury in 2010 the Montreal powerplay was at a shocking 23.3%. Markov has always been a powerplay quarterback and that is exactly what the Habs have needed this season.
When Markov got injured last season Montreal made a quick and savvy move to replace him acquiring James Wisniewski from the New York Islanders for a 2nd round pick. This move remains one of the best Pierre Gauthier has ever made in his time in Montreal. 'Wiz' was an instant success and had 7 goals (4 PP) and 23 assists in half a season for the Habs.
This season Gauthier did the logical thing when he found out that Markov would take a little while to return and made a move for a defenseman to boost the powerplay. Only this time his move was far more problematic. Bringing in yet another aging player with a multiple year contract was the last thing Montreal needed especially when they could have used the cap space that UFA Jaroslav Spacek would have brought.
However, while Tomas Kaberle has not been the kick in the pants the Canadiens powerplay really needed he has at least put up points with 13 of them in 20 games with the bleu-blanc-rouge. Early on he also looked like a possible fix as the powerplay performed well in his first couple games on the point. Since then things have only gone downhill for the man advantage and Kaberle as well.
Another player who has not been the impact offensively or on the powerplay that he was last season is P.K. Subban. In his rookie campaign last year Subban finished with 14 goals. Of those 9 came on the powerplay. This year Subban is only on pace for about 5 goals. Only 1 so far has come with the man advantage. Overall this year defenseman have scored only 5 powerplay goals (1 by Subban, 4 by Weber). To put that in perspective Subban's 9 goals last year is about the same amount of goals that is projected to be score by ALL of the defense on the team this year.
While defensive offense has been lacking on the powerplay this year it is not the only thing missing. The Habs have no stud sniper that can take the shots that finish off the plays. Erik Cole, who leads the team with 7 powerplay goals is more around the net than he is a big shot from the circles. Since the lockout between Alexei Kovalev (45 PP goals with the Habs) and minus this season Cammalleri (12) the Habs have not had this player.
Finally, although this has never really factored in the Habs powerplay to my memory, Montreal needs a presence in front of the net. With a Ryan Smyth-type player I guarantee the Habs would not be in last place in the NHL in that category. No player in the Habs current lineup is particularly good at screening the goalie. For the most part this might have had something to do with size.
What do the Canadiens have to do to fix this? Part of it is just patience. Soon enough Subban will get out of his recent slump and start to put up points on the powerplay the way he did in his rookie season. Eventually, and hopefully soon after the All-Star break, Markov will return to the fold and provide the boost that the PP needs.
As for offense the move to acquire larger players starting with Rene Bourque can only help the Habs powerplay. Getting a stud sniper at the trade deadline or offseason would be beneficial to it as well. However, it is doubtful that this will happen.
For now the Habs need to really focus on working on the powerplay. It is by no means the only problem with the Habs this season (shootouts and blown leads anyone?) but it may be the most important. I have seen several Habs teams post lockout wiggle into the playoffs entirely because of a solid powerplay. If the Montreal Canadiens still have playoff aspirations their play with the man advantage has to get back on track, fast.