After going to the Stanley Cup Final, the Habs are off to one of the worst starts in their history. While not out of the playoffs yet, the odds are quickly diminishing. What once promised to be a competitive season is rapidly turning into one to forget. As they’ve hit the quarter mark of the season, here are a few of the surprises, disappointments, and outright unpredictable performances that have led the Canadiens to their current state.
Cole Caufield: After turning in an impressive playoff performance, Caufield’s play struggled. He somehow lost the ability to stickhandle in open ice, turning over the puck on a regular basis without pressure. He was tentative to shoot and downright timid around the puck. It was a good call to send him down where he needs to regain his confidence and play to his strengths as a dynamic game-breaking goal scorer.
New additions: Christian Dvorak and David Savard were brought in to play instrumental roles with the team as the second-line centre and second pair defence, respectively. Both are struggling in their new surroundings and have arguably cost the Habs some wins and points in the standings. The only solace is that Jesperi Kotkaniemi is doing worse, so the Habs can still say they made the right decision on this one.
Nick Suzuki: Playing against better competition has at times been overwhelming for the third-year player. Despite leading the team in points, he is a -8 in the +/- column and seems to cough up the puck and miss assignments at key moments. While he continues to learn and grow, it may be a tough year for him.
Joel Armia: After turning in a dominating performance in the playoffs, he signed a big contract with the expectation that he would be a strong contributor. In the playoffs, he had success on a line by cycling down low and maintaining control deep on the offensive zone. He’s not being deployed like this in the regular season, but he’s got more to give with only one goal so far.
Dominique Ducharme: Unfortunately, in most games, the Habs are being outcoached. In the last few seasons, the team won by playing a top defensive line against the opposition’s top offensive lines, by rolling all four lines and by playing strong zone defence in front of the net. The approach this year is completely different.
Ducharme has the Suzuki line playing more than minutes a game followed closely by Dvorak’s line. Somehow Ducharme does not realize that neither of these players is a true first-line centre and are not yet capable of playing these types of minutes. As the game progresses you can see the effectiveness of the Suzuki (and Dvorak’s) line diminish as the opposition wears them down. The results are quite obvious to the eye test and even more so when you look at results period by period. The Habs are almost even on goals with their opponents but are then blown away in both the second and third periods.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the defensive line (Lehkonen-Evans- Armia) is limited to around 11 minutes at even strength and are being sheltered with mostly offensive zone faceoffs. Meanwhile, the offensive-minded Dvorak-Drouin-Anderson line takes the majority of defensive zone faceoffs. This quite simply is not how the Habs have been successful in the past.
The defensive zone coverage is abysmal with many an example of Habs defencemen chasing cycling forward opposition players up by the blue line. Whatever system Ducharme has implemented is clearly confusing the players.
Special teams (both the power play and penalty kill) are a disaster.
The search for the last centre (third or fourth line depending on your perspective) has more twists and turns than a snakes and ladders game. With Ducharme at the helm, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brett Kulak gets a chance. Due to injuries, Ryan Poehling finally got his shot and has looked respectable, while adding much-needed size up the middle.
Ducharme has had a full summer and training camp to implement his game plan on this 2021 Stanley Cup finalist team. The results are hard to ignore.
Offence: Where did the offence go? Despite having a deep crop of wingers capable of putting up 20 goals and 40 points per season (including Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Brendan Gallagher, Mike Hoffman, and Jonathan Drouin), none of them are on pace to hit those marks. While Toffoli was due to come back down to earth after a career year in 2021, it is difficult to understand where the rest of the goals have gone.
Jeff Petry: After seven years of watching Petry play solid hockey and getting better like a fine wine, he is playing his worst hockey in a Habs uniform. He is missing assignments and being caught out of position unlike ever before. Petry scored over 40 points in four straight seasons – including significant time without Shea Weber – but this year, he’s on pace for only nine.
Offseason Injuries: Both Carey Price and Joel Edmundson have yet to play a game this season. Both were instrumental in Montreal’s success in last season. Will Price play hockey this season? I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s done for his career. And what mysterious injury is Edmondson dealing with? Until these guys get back in the lineup, there will be glaring holes to fill.
Well, maybe it’s a stretch to have any positives in a season like this. Perhaps these points are just less negative?
Jonathan Drouin has been a pleasant surprise. After missing much of last year and the playoffs with mental health challenges, it was uncertain what to expect. At times, Drouin has been the best player on the ice and continues to tease fans with inspired hockey.
Jake Evans: Seventh-round pick Jake Evans has played solid hockey centring a defensive line. He is actually +1 in plus/minus when many regulars are in the negative. While he hasn’t been deployed as much against top lines, his performance (and the team’s results) suggests it may be time to try lining him up against the top competition and take the pressure off Dvorak and Suzuki. It can’t get any worse, can it?
Alexander Romanov: Despite being a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs, Romanov has come back to play pretty decent hockey in his second season. He has reduced the roaming nature of his play and is looking solid. He may never be a play-driving defenceman, but he’s looking like he’ll be a strong, mobile blueliner that can lay a heavy bodycheck.