With Montreal averaging a mere one goal per game in the playoffs, a lot of attention has been given to their lack of capable scorers as the primary cause for their struggles. I think the root cause of their problems isn’t that but rather a lack of playmaking.
If you look at Montreal’s wingers, there are some pretty good goal scorers in there. We saw what Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson did this season and both of them are players that typically have more goals than assists. The same can be said for Brendan Gallagher, their most prolific goal scorer in recent years. Cole Caufield is just starting his NHL career but it seems pretty safe to say he’ll be in that category as well. As far as a group of scorers go, that’s not too bad.
But what do good goal scorers need? Set up guys, players that can get shooters the puck in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, Montreal isn’t particularly deep in that category. There’s Nick Suzuki and, well, that’s about the end of the list. Jonathan Drouin would be here but he’s not coming back this season, if at all. Jesperi Kotkaniemi could be one of those players down the road but right now, he can hardly complete a pass on target, let alone a precise one. I thought Eric Staal had a ‘good’ game on Tuesday simply because he was able to complete a couple of well-timed passes. If that’s the bar, there’s a problem.
What can be done about this? In terms of roster composition, not a whole lot. Alexander Romanov replacing Jon Merrill isn’t going to do a whole lot as it’s not as if he’s a good playmaker. Subbing in a taxi squad/Black Ace option doesn’t move the needle either. They could try Erik Gustafsson who is good at creating offensive chances but he’ll give up as many as he creates if not more. He’s about the one available player that could change things but he’s a big risk.
There’s a reason that Montreal’s attack has basically been attack off the rush or wait to get the puck back to attack off the rush again. With an inability to sustain offensive zone pressure and execute set plays, they don’t have much of a choice. Quality playmakers would allow the team to be more successful setting up in the offensive end as shooters could get to the right spot and trust that the pass will get there at the right time. That’s far more preferable than the current plan which is to have the shooter shoot from the outside and hope for the best. You know who likes that? Sheldon Keefe and Jack Campbell.
Under Dominique Ducharme, the defencemen have been getting less involved offensively in an effort to have the forwards drive the attack. With the current group of blueliners, I can even understand the thinking behind it. But it’s not working right now. I know that it’s riskier to have them engage more in the attacking end but maybe it pokes a hole or two in Toronto’s defensive shell around the slot by pulling someone out of position in coverage.
There’s more to tweaks than frequently shuffling the lines around. Switching to a more aggressive back end now could be problematic but at this point, if the potential rewards outweigh the drawbacks, they need to do it. The fact they’ve played that way earlier this season could make the change a little easier to adapt to. It’s not as ideal of a solution as having two or three more quality playmakers in the lineup but that’s a summer problem. For now, this is the card they have to play and it’s time to play it.