I’ve managed to stop chuckling barely long enough to bang out another blog post. This time I’m taking aim at three arguments that are currently fan favorites when describing the present-day Habs woes:
- “They’re still ahead of last year’s pace”
- “Look at what happened last year”
Spare me. These are all weak arguments that do nothing more than slather plaster over gaping cracks.
Let’s dismantle the arguments one by one, shall we?
By now we can all agree that the Canadiens have been the walking wounded this year. Just about every defenseman has been on the shelf…even the guys brought in to replace injured regulars have found their way to the shelf. But we Habs fans tend to look at things with a very narrow lens. When one looks at the full picture, it shows that the Habs are actually in the bottom half of the league when it comes to man-games lost to injuries – that is to say that 16 teams (including 7 playoff teams as of last week) have suffered more man games lost to injuries than the Canadiens have. You can cite the quality over quantity argument if you’d like, but the fact is that Markov and Gorges have both been “replaced” with acquisitions (Wizniewski, Mara, Sopel) and while those 3 likely aren’t quite as good as the other two combined, the drop off isn’t so severe that it should affect the team’s fortunes to any significant degree. Up front, it’s pretty evident that Plekanec, and Cammalleri aren’t themselves, but as I mentioned here, when a player decides to play wounded, he is signing an implicit agreement that he’s good to go, with no excuses. If the player is hurt badly enough to prevent him from being a productive member of the team, stay home. Rest up, and come back when healthy. Having Pacioretty out of the lineup is also a big blow, no doubt. He was the Canadiens most productive forward at the time of his injury, and any time a guy like that is lost, there’s bound to be some pain. However, the loss of Pacioretty does not in any way explain why the Canadiens are 4-7 since losing him, while being badly outplayed in nearly every game over that stretch (the only games in which the Habs looked good, are games in which the opposition was dreadful – Pittsburgh and Minnesota). It also in no way begins to describe the lifeless, emotionless, complacent manner in which the Canadiens have taken to the ice in many games. Are they exhausted? Some guys probably are…in which case we need to ask the coaching staff why some guys were so foolishly overused. Nevertheless, who did the Penguins have to turn to in the absences of Crosby and Malkin?
No matter how you slice it, injuries are not the reason why they’re in such a funk. The Canucks have lost more than a hundred man games above and beyond the Canadiens. While they are certainly deeper offensively, their defensemen have been ravaged WORSE than the Habs all year. This has not prevented the Canucks from not only continuing to play well – but they are running away with the much tougher Western Conference, and will easily win the President’s Trophy as the top poing getting team in the league. They haven’t used injuries as a crutch. What’s that? They play in a weak division? Ok, ok, you got me. Sort of. It is a weak division, but the Canucks have beaten up on everyone all year, regardless where they play. Many teams have sacked up and played on to success - why can’t the Habs? Is it talent? Is it coaching? Uncontrollable circumstances? It’s certainly your right to decide. I simply choose to look at stats, and try to take a bigger look around before making blanket statements.
2. They’re Still Ahead of Last Year’s Pace
Today, the Canadiens sit 5 points ahead of their pace from last season. Is that really relevant? I’m not so sure. Last season, the Canadiens mark of 88 points in 82 games was enough to get them in to the playoffs, but it was the lowest point total for any playoff-bound team since the lockout ended. So if you want to measure this year’s team against a team that had set the bar so very low – more power to you. But let’s continue the charade.
The Habs are up 5 points over last year. Goodie! Again, using a wider lens, here’s how the other seven playoff-bound teams in the Eastern Conference (as of today) stack up in terms of points earned when compared to this point last year:
Of those teams, only the Capitals and Sabres have had a big drop. Yet most would agree that this year’s Capitals team is much more balanced and well-rounded than last year’s juggernaut. As for the Sabres, well if you’re one of those that leans on injuries as the grand reason behind the struggles, the Sabres can also use that excuse – they sit in 18th in terms of man-games lost to injury, right behind the Canadiens.
Breaking down the numbers further, the average playoff team from this year is 4.75 points ahead of last year’s pace. Also of note is that 4 of them (Rangers, Penguins, Flyers, Capitals – 2 division leaders, don’t you know?) have had more injury troubles than Montreal. Can we round up 4.75 to 5? Presto!
So while the Canadiens remain ahead of their pace from last year, it doesn’t make them any better of a team relative to the other playoff teams in the conference.
3. Look at What Happened Last Year
There’s not much that can be said here. The Canadiens surprised everyone with their improbable 7-game upsets over Washington and Pittsburgh. The Canadiens discovered that a suicidal game plan can work – and it did - for a while. Offensively gifted (selfish?) players like Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Green, Malkin, Crosby were totally befuddled by their inability to beat Jaroslav Halak. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, it was mostly panic that forced them to shoot from the outside, and they allowed Habs defenders like Hal Gill and Josh Gorges to block a large portion of their shots. Halak, for his part, was unbeatable when he was on, but was awful when he was off. I don’t care what era you’re playing hockey in, when you ask your goalie to stop 40 to 50 shots in the playoffs, against some top players in the world - you’re asking for trouble. When they hit a deep, skilled, big team like the Flyers, they were summarily trounced, being shut out in 3 games of the series.
There’s a well-known adage that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. Hoping for the Habs to get hit again when they go up against the likes of Philly, Boston or Washington may be ok for some, but it doesn’t work for me. Yes, I will be there cheering for the team as hard as I can and willing them to whatever success I’m able to.
But I’m not going to blindly join those who ignore signs of concern, or choose to stay quiet about it since words (of any blogger/journalist/fan/twitterer) are for naught. It doesn’t make one a bandwagon jumper, nor does it make one a bad fan if they choose to shine a light on what they perceive to be some serious issues. Some would rather see nothing but unicorns and ice cream type posts. “Stay positive!” Sorry, that’s not for everyone. Some of us bring a critical eye to the web when it comes to the Habs, and that’s ok. The glass half-full crowd is fine, too. Where the whole house of cards falls apart is when both sides attack each other and resort to personal attacks. It isn’t a sin to expect better from the Habs, who had their eyes on 3rd place in the conference less than 2 weeks ago, only to drift lifelessly in to 8th place without a whimper. Some are satisfied with 8th, and more power to them for it. Others aren’t. We have to live with each other’s viewpoints, or employ the unfollow button (or any other form of avoidance that is available to everyone).
Today, there aren’t any outside of the Habs locker room. This is the team that will enter the playoffs (so indicates this site). The coach is the guy that will rubber stamp the game plan. The players will have to deliver, stifling system be damned, or hit the links early. The solutions lie in the room. That’s why I won’t hit the panic button.
Looking ahead to next season, it is in my view imperative that if he isn’t going to be replaced by a more progressive-thinking coach, somebody needs to convince Jacques Martin to loosen the reigns and allow his offensively-minded players to explore and maximize their talents. It’s been proven that his system sacrifices offense in the name of defense. With a goalie like Carey Price, you can afford to open things up. The Canadiens also desperately need more size up front. Even with a system that focuses on speed, the small forwards would skate themselves to death trying to go around much bigger defensemen before long. They also need size in order to penetrate opposing defenses to make life miserable for the other goalie. It goes without saying that they also need somebody with that nasty demeanor, too. This means that a player or two from the current top 6 is likely going to have to leave to make room. That’s a post for another day. Martin must also improve his in-game management skills. Put players in positions to succeed. Let Halpern, a league leader in faceoffs, take faceoffs whenever possible. Use Subban on the powerplay as often as possible. Use timeouts appropriately. Make discipline a priority. Show some emotion once in a blue moon!
Injuries will always be an issue. That’s not going to go away for anyone, so the Habs need more depth to replace battered bodies when they can’t play. With all due respect to guys like Halpern and Moen, they aren’t top-6 players any day of the week, on any team in the league. The Canadiens are certainly heading in the right direction in terms of depth, but they aren’t there yet.
Listening to call in shows, and reading fans on twitter, it’s as if the sky has already fallen for some. Others simply shrug and wait for mid-April. Again, it’s all good, but for everyone’s sake we all need a thicker skin at this time of year.