The Montreal Canadiens can breathe a little easier knowing that when they return from a week-long break, it will not be with a three-game losing streak. On Saturday, the team rallied late into the third period and played to their strengths to comeback against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. By playing to their speed and utilizing the style of play that they found success with earlier this season, the Canadiens were able to break out of their slump.
Prior to Saturday night, the Canadiens had dropped three out of their last four outings. This began with a shutout loss against the Calgary Flames, a slow-paced reality check against the Ottawa Senators that saw them barely squeak by in a second matchup, another shutout loss to the Edmonton Oilers and a loss to the Maple Leafs.
In that span, the Montreal Canadiens found themselves falling into old habits that had plagued them that they were unable to break out of in previous years. While they were able to do so this time, a sign of changes being made to the roster, the question that remains is why this occurred in the first place. The short answer is that this was nothing more than a mere slump.
The long answer concerns a system that has often been easily exploited in years past and that has been unable to adapt in the face of adversity. When looking at the latter, we see similarities in the issues that had befallen both during their last five games and throughout the last two seasons.
We see that these issues with the Montreal Canadiens can be solved so long as the system they play is subject to a more modern change that allows for the full potential of their best players to be realized. This particularly concerns their offensive capabilities when breaking out of the neutral zone and how they must utilize their defensive core to create further scoring chances.
A Lack of Offence Nothing to Be Concerned of Just Yet
In the previous two seasons, the Montreal Canadiens coaching staff have often turned towards Tomas Tatar, Philip Danault and Brendan Gallagher as their top line, and rightfully so. The top line has been one of the best throughout the NHL, often at the top of the standings in xGF%. Tatar as the dynamic offensive, Danault as the shutdown centre with offensive potential and Brendan Gallagher as the 20 to 30-goal scorer.
While this line often found success, it was all the team were able to rely on. This often led to nights where if the top line was not at the top of their game, the Canadiens would lose more often than not.
Coming into this season, general manager Marc Bergevin made two critical moves in signing goal-scoring winger Tyler Toffoli to a four-year deal and trading Max Domi for power forward Josh Anderson. Both players have the capability to score at least 20 to 30 goals in full NHL seasons. These recent additions have allowed the Canadiens to improve their offensive output as well as allow for each of their top-nine centers to skate with a scoring winger.
However, there are times where the best offensive players are often hampered by a system that does not allow them to play to their strengths. This is often the case when they are tasked with playing a ‘dump and chase’ style of play that continues to go out of style, as the game steer towards relying on speed and skill.
In the past, the Canadiens had no choice but to utilize this system, as they often did not have the offensive depth that many of the other teams possessed. While they still do not have a superstar, that can change the course of a game. They nonetheless have depth throughout their lineup with top-six quality forwards throughout the first three lines.
As this is the case, there is no longer a need for the Canadiens to rely on this style of play, as the team Marc Bergevin has built up front is one that is skilled enough to perform without it. In fact, playing under this system now may be detrimental in the long-term.
We saw this throughout the last five games played by the Canadiens, where they were unable to win the board battles they had created by dumping the puck, thus nullifying half of their system. Moreover, the dynamic forwards such as Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Toffoli, players who can drive the play through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, are left without being able to make use of their full skillset.
This is not to say the Canadiens should eliminate the dump-and-chase system completely, as it may still serve its uses, particularly come the postseason when the games become tighter and more physical, or when a lead requires defending. Instead, this system should be secondary as opposed to main route the Canadiens take when they are facing pressure from their opponents. As the young players continue to take strides and we see graduates from the Laval Rocket earn roster spots, a team playing a modern style of hockey based on skill, the old system will have even less of a place in the game, let alone the Canadiens organization itself.
Head coach Claude Julien has shown a willingness in the past to adapt his system to take a more modern approach, as can be seen with the use of several young players all throughout their special teams. However, the core of coaching style has remained the same. If the Canadiens are to take full advantage of the direction their roster is headed in, it is best to further modernize a system, which has often been exploited in the past, leaving the team without an answer. And with the amount of depth the team has throughout their lineup, the Canadiens can score at a consistent rate unseen in previous seasons, although not at an unsustainable four goals per game.
Finding the Right Balance on Defence Through Trial and Error
The acquisitions of Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson were not all Marc Bergevin had accomplished in the offseason. In September, the Montreal Canadiens acquired the rights to negotiate with defenseman Joel Edmundson from the Carolina Hurricanes. Edmundson is stay-at-home defenseman with experience and a Stanley Cup pedigree that Claude Julien quickly used alongside Jeff Petry.
The problem on defence for the Montreal Canadiens is a more complicated one than with their forwards. Over 10 games in, the team has yet to find the right balance between the big-hitting, stay-at-home defensemen and the puck-movers who can create plays from the backend that forwards otherwise could not. For a team with the likes of Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson in their top-four pairings, the team is left with all but Jeff Petry as the puck-moving defenseman, albeit an effective one. That role has then often been left to the third pairing, which for the majority of this season, has seen a juggling act of Brett Kulak, Alexander Romanov and Victor Mete.
As Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber continue to be one of the top shutdown defensive pairings in the league, with Shea Weber contributing offensively as well, that line should remain untouched unless we see significant struggles on their part. Instead, we should turn our attention towards the pairing of Edmundson-Petry. While Jeff Petry is off to one of the best starts in his career, as he continues to improve with age, it may not be in any plans nor their best interest to break up the pairing. However, as the games continue to add up, we are seeing Petry’s offensive numbers dwindle, particularly during the last stretch of games.
If the Canadiens would like to continue creating offence through defence, a style Claude Julien has often relied on, it may be time to rotate Joel Edmundson with one of the puck-moving defensemen from the third pairing. As Alexander Romanov is still learning the ropes of both the defensive and offensive sides of his two-way game, Joel Edmundson could be a prime candidate to aid with any defensive errors when the rookie falters. Furthermore, the likely candidate to take Edmundson’s spot alongside Jeff Petry is either Brett Kulak or Victor Mete.
Having found success with Petry in the past, Kulak could be an ideal candidate for Petry, as they can both carry the puck through the neutral zone and increase the Canadiens time in the offensive zone. On the other hand, Claude Julien could make use of one of his top puck-moving defensemen in Victor Mete. As we saw against the Maple Leafs, Mete has often excelled at breakout passes, an issue the team had been struggling with during their recent skid. Likewise, Mete took part in several high danger scoring chances that he had created himself through his puck moving abilities in breaking through the neutral zone.
Is it Time to Continue Steering in a Modern Direction?
When looking at the season so far, one thing is for certain with the Montreal Canadiens. The team is not as good as the team that was capitalizing on every defensive breakdown and scoring at an unsustainable rate in the first few games, but they are also not as bad as their recent slump that saw their numbers dwindle entails. However, regarding the latter point, the team needs to avoid falling into the same traps, as they have in previous seasons. In order to do so, the best case would be to continue steering the roster towards a modern-style approach, but also finding the right balance in doing so.