The first half of the season has come and gone and we’ll be doing our next set of grades shortly. But what about assessing the performance of Montreal’s management and coaching staff? This post will review the coaching and management in terms of the good, the bad, and the ‘what are they thinking’?
Likely the best performance is the management of the young defence. With the two best defencemen injured coming into the season (Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson), the Habs were forced to use four rookies on a nightly basis. This naturally leads to many mistakes and errors. The coaching staff has taken an amazing approach when dealing with the rookies by teaching and supporting the learning process rather than disciplining and berating the inevitable mistakes. As a result, we’ve seen the rookies reduce the number of errors while continuing to play with confidence.
Top Line Combination: In the early days, coaching searched for chemistry on their top line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. After trying a number of wingers, they moved Kirby Dach from centre to the wing and the results were immediate and game-changing. The dynamic duo saw much-improved metrics in terms of possession stats and reduced opposition chances, while Dach started to capitalize on offensive zone time.
Centre position: At the beginning of the season, one area of concern was who would be playing centre amongst the five experienced pivots. After some trials, it seems like the team settled into successful lines centred by Suzuki, Sean Monahan, Christian Dvorak, and Jake Evans. They have had good defensive coverage, good faceoff success, and have still supported the offence.
Competitive most nights: Let’s face it, last year the team went through the motions and were often blown out of games in the first period. This year (prior to the late-December road trip), fans are seeing the team compete most games with only a few blowouts.
While the top line and defence have been strong management points, there are far too many passengers on the team to be a playoff contender. Forwards like Jonathan Drouin, Evgenii Dadonov, and Joel Armia are off to their worst career starts. Considering their salary cap hits, these are players that are supposed to provide strong secondary scoring. Far too often, fans aren’t seeing maximum efforts from these players, yet they are still in the lineup (when not injured). The lack of accountability for these players is starting to drag the team down.
Power play: Similar to last year, the power play is abysmal with the Habs near the bottom of the NHL for success rate. It has become stale and predictable with the only real scoring threats being Suzuki skating down the right side and Caufield from the off-wing position. We’re not seeing much in the way of other attempts (point shots, shots from the slot). The second unit continues to see the above players (Armia, Drouin) regularly appearing with the man advantage which is a further head-scratcher.
Penalty Kill: We’re starting to see Suzuki get worn down. He’s playing well over 20 minutes a night. One easy way to cut down on his minutes and prioritize those minutes for when he can have the greatest impact would be to eliminate his penalty kill time. With Evans and Dvorak being solid shorthanded performers that are able to take draws, there is simply no reason to add to Suzuki’s minutes on the penalty kill.
Everyone, including Habs management, knew that competing for a playoff spot was not going to happen this year. Fans were advised that it would be a development year with lots of movement between Laval and Montreal. However, for unknown reasons, this has not been the case. Only in the last few weeks has someone been called up from Laval (Anthony Richard and Jesse Ylonen). Otherwise, despite the struggles of some of the veteran Habs, there have not been any opportunities for AHL recalls. It is difficult to understand what else is required before management takes struggling veterans out of the lineup and gives more opportunities to up-and-coming players.
What are they thinking?
Slafkovsky: Despite Habs management suggesting they would not be afraid to move Slafkovsky to the AHL for better development, we have yet to see it. He simply hasn’t performed well thus far. Does management really think that the 10 minutes a night he plays on the fourth line is more valuable than 18-20 minutes he could be playing in Laval? This isn’t a criticism of Slafkovsky, as a young player it is expected he’d struggle at times as he adapts to playing against the best players in the world. Fans are right to be concerned that current inexperienced Habs management haven’t learned the lessons from the old Habs management and are repeating the mistakes made with other high draft picks. It’s hard to understand what value is gained from having Slafkovsky continue to struggle while playing a limited role in the NHL.
To gain my trust, I’d like to see Habs management:
- Trade, release, demote, or otherwise remove underperforming veterans from the line-up.
- Give opportunities to up and coming players.
- Demote Slafkovsky or give him top six minutes including special teams.
- Do something different on the powerplay. It can’t get any worse!
- Be honest with fans. If you provide insight into how you are going to handle certain situations, stick to your word!