Ed. here. For the Montreal Canadiens, aka "the Habs", it's now three games past the half-way point of the NHL season. I've been bugging our sports editor, Poor Len Canayen, to get his report in, but he wanted to wait a bit to see if he could discern a trend sufficient to enable him to make a prediction. Monday and Tuesday nights' games yielded mixed results so he has given up. He writes:
Tank youse, Ed. Let's start with the trend. The Canadiens are up and down like a toilet seat at a mixed party. After 44 games, they are 23-16-5, for a total of 51 points, or, in baseball parlance, .579. If the playoffs started this morning, they'd have the second and last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, but the New York Islanders are right behind them with 50 points and three games in hand. Will les Glorieux be there for the post-season? Hard to say.
What I can say, with pleasure, is that the Habs are having a much better season than anyone, including moi, predicted. GM Marc Bergevin made some major deals in the summer which are paying off handsomely. Notable are the acquisitions of Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and whiz kid Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who are all contributing to a much improved offence.
The defence corp is still iffy. Stalwart (and now captain) Shea Weber returned from injury in December -- not a moment too soon -- to relieve the pressure on Jordie Benn and (especially) Jeff Petry, but finding three more reliable D-men seems to be a challenge. Star goalie Carey Price has stayed healthy most of the season so far and seems to be regaining his form, albeit a bit slowly. According to the stats, backup Antti Niemi is the worst goalie in the league (starting 10+ games) but has more wins than losses to his credit.
Now for a closer look...
Forwards: Playing alongside Max Domi seems to be helping Jonathan Drouin, who last year delivered much less than expected, but this year is one of the Habs' leading scorers. Still need to play better in his own zone, though. Tough little guy Brendan Gallagher plays his heart out every night and has the goals (and bruises) to show for it. Deserves the "A" on his chest. Andrew Shaw, another scrappy little guy, has finally got his temper under control and is playing the best hockey of his career, IMHO. More Irishmen on the team, please!
M Bergevin got rid of the Russians and brought in Finns. Apart from Niemi and Kotkaniemi, there's Joel Armia, who's a decent 3rd or 4th liner, and Artturi Lehkonen, who IMHO plays like a Swede and should be traded to a team like Vancouver. One of the few authentic Canadiens on the team, Phillip Danault, is improving every year and has earned his spot at centre of the first line. Compatriot Charles Hudon is only playing because of injuries to others, and can be relied on only to choke, as he did last night.
Paul Byron, who missed quite a few games due to injury, still has his incredible speed but doesn't always have the finish when he gets to the opponents' net. The 4th line is a work in progress. Kenny Agostino works hard but hasn't got much to show for it. Matthew Peca is a defensive liability, and Michael Chaput has discipline issues. The guy I like is Nicolas Deslauriers; every team needs a tough forward and Nic's da man!
Defence: It's great to see Weber back after missing over a season with a game leg. He still has the cannon shot from the blue line, and still dishes out fear-inspiring checks, but his passing seems a little off, compared with yesteryear. He brings solid leadership to the team and is a great mentor for the others. But can he teach guys who don't want to be taught or don't have the talent? Veterans Karl Alzner and David Schlemko have been waived through the league and sent down to the Laval farm club. They will not be missed.
That leaves the youngsters -- Victor Mete, Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly -- who have all done time in Laval and are with the big team "on trial"... and because the Habs don't have anyone else. Mete has speed but not size. Kulak has the size but not the smarts, same as Reilly. Mete seems like the best bet for a permanent spot on the blue line, but Bergie still needs to find a couple of good, big, fearsome guys to beef up the defence. Hint: Alexei Emelin is cooling his heels in Russia and would surely welcome a phone call.
Goal: To what I wrote above, I will only add that, as we saw a week ago, if Carey Price gets sick or injured, putting all the work on the aging shoulders of Antti Niemi, the Canadiens will be in big trouble. Charlie Lindgren is the No. 1 goalie on the Laval Rocket, but IMHO is not the one you want behind the Habs' D. Too "hot", compared with the ultra-cool Price. Young Michael McNiven sat at the far end of the bench when Niemi started three games in a row at New Year's, but (in spite of being endorsed by Don Cherry) is an unknown quantity. A seasoned, reliable backup goalie is needed... soon!
To all the Habs fans who read WWW, our best wishes for the New Year! Les Canadiens seront là!