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It’s been a few years (before COVID) since I’ve seen any live NHL games, so it was a treat to be able to catch both the Tampa and Florida games on December 28th and 29th. While they were tough outings for the Habs, they gave me some new perspective on the players and the team.

First off, I was blown away at the speed of the game. Watching on TV simply does not do the game justice. Players rarely have more than a split second with the puck before being checked. The players are simply amazing at making plays under pressure with one or even two opponents checking them. The level of anticipation the players have, to already be in motion or in the right spot, two or three plays in advance is unbelievable. These players are simply the top in the game and they deserve a ton of respect.

With that in mind, below are a few insights on each player as they compete against other top players in the world.

Nick Suzuki: He receives a ton of attention from the opposition’s best defense and forwards. While Suzuki is certainly a skilled centre, he is not at the same level as other top centres from Tampa or Florida. He’s too small to physically control them and not skilled enough to compete against them.

Cole Caufield: In both games, he was a bit invisible out there aside from one or two chances. Opposing teams covered him well during Montreal’s power plays. Caufield stood out the most due to his very noticeable turnovers.

Kirby Dach: I know Habs management wants him to be a centre, but it was night and day – he is clearly a much better player on the wing. The chemistry is undeniable with Suzuki and Caufield – all three players are better together. That said, he needs to cut down on the unnecessary penalties.

Kaiden Guhle: Hard to believe he’s a rookie as he was clearly the Habs’ best defenceman with great positioning, skating, and decision-making. As he matures and gets stronger, he’ll only get better at defending against bigger forwards.

Arber Xhekaj: Perhaps it is because he physically dominates opponents, but Xhekaj plays with confidence and looks to make a difference each shift. While he made a few gaffes (which will be minimized as he gains experience), he more than makes up for it with aggressive plays with the puck and dominating physicality in his own end. He is a difference-maker. When his contract is up, sign him long-term!

Brendan Gallagher: Watching on TV does not do him justice as he outworks every other player on the ice. I’m more convinced now than before that better linemates that complement his game would allow him more success offensively.

Joel Edmundson: After Xhekaj, Edmundson is the only defenceman that can physically dominate in the defensive zone. With talk of him being traded, there would be a big hole in the line-up without him.

Jake Evans: While not getting on the scoresheet, Jake had two strong games with strong defensive play and a lot of time on the penalty kill against some of the top power plays in the league.

Josh Anderson: It would be a mistake to trade this guy. He gives full effort every shift and is one of the only Habs forwards to play physically and create a ton of open space and opportunities for linemates.

Michael Pezzetta: this guy is fearless.

Johnathan Kovacevic: He made a few gaffs but battled hard in his own end and usually won. As he continues to learn to play in the NHL he’ll be a solid D.

Anthony Richard: Great speed, energy, and aggressive play. Why isn’t he playing more?

Jake Allen: Despite being outscored 4-1, Allen played great. He can’t be blamed for any of the goals and stopped many he shouldn’t have.

Justin Barron: Played solid given it was his first two games with the Habs this year. He was forced to cover for Harris on many plays. Too bad he didn’t get an opportunity on the power play.

That’s the good. The rest of the comments are not for the faint of heart.

Jordan Harris: As one of the fans shouted, “Someone’s gotta tell Harris’s mom that they keep stealing his lunch money”. Too small and weak to stop forwards and gets outmuscled constantly. Not sure that he is an NHL player or at least one I’d want on my team.

Evgenii Dadonov: There’s no value here. Why is he still getting ice time?

Christian Dvorak: Plays hard but has no chemistry with teammates. Zigs when linemates zag.

Mike Hoffman/Joel Armia/Jonathan Drouin: Invisible for the most part.

Juraj Slafkovsky: I truly want him to work out but right now he’s a fish out of water. Getting outmuscled constantly with poor decision-making and turnovers. There’s nothing to like about his game right now. Why not let him play big minutes in the minors to learn and have success? I feel bad for Slafkovsky right now being put in the position he’s in. He’s giving 100% effort but he’s just not ready for the NHL.

Samuel Montembeault: Was largely hung out to dry against Florida but he didn’t do himself any favours with poor rebound control and getting beat short side on a couple of goals.

Other Thoughts:

The first unit power play was abysmal. The second power play unit with Xhekaj at the point was dangerous every time. Just having someone at the point who would shoot, forced the penalty killers to cover this option and opened up other shooting avenues. When Dach or Drouin manned the point on the first unit, there was no risk of a shot. Follow the success of the second unit and put a defenceman (hello Barron?) there who can be a shooting option.

Penalty Kill: Why is Suzuki on the penalty kill? I didn’t see anything he brought that others (Evans, Dvorak, Armia) weren’t doing just as well or better. He was outmuscled several times in puck battles. It’s better to keep him fresh for offensive opportunities.

Final Thoughts:

It was obvious these Habs are just not at the same level as either Tampa or Florida. Those teams moved the puck quicker and better and outmuscled the Habs in every aspect of the game.

There are simply too many passengers on this team. As this season closes and a number of Habs contracts expire, it’ll be a great opportunity to bring on new players who drive play.

The Canadiens had no answer for either team’s top line. I’m not sure if Suzuki is capable of playing top-line centre against the best players in the league. He has a long way to go to get to their level. Finding another top centre will be a key hole to fill.

I’m excited about the future of Montreal’s defence. Guhle and Xhekaj are going to be difference-makers. If some of the other prospects (Barron, Logan Mailloux, and Lane Hutson) can work out, they will be the envy of the league.