The Montreal Canadiens have played five games in eight nights, and it has been a good stretch in terms of both results and development.
General manager Kent Hughes has much to be pleased with as his blue line of the future is taking shape.
The Winnipeg Jets were in town on Saturday night with the Canadiens stealing that one in a shootout, 4-3. It is only two losses in eight games this season for Montreal.
One aspect of the rebuild that is easy to appreciate is Martin St. Louis’ desire to improve playing a creative and enjoyable brand of hockey.
Often when a head coach knows that he is outmanned for talent, he will try to take the game out of the game. Jacques Martin would make sure the final shots were 18-15 with five players defending throughout.
That makes the coach look good to keep it competitive, but it doesn’t help the player learn how to play the brand of hockey that wins cups and playoff series.
The right way to play hockey these days is, five players can attack and five players can defend. It’s “total” hockey in 2023, and it’s infinitely more exciting than the dead puck era when the league’s scoring champion didn’t even have a point-per-game season.
The freedom that Justin Barron is being given seems to be turning him into the player that the Canadiens were hoping for. Barron is joining the rush — in fact, in the first period, when he scored, he led the rush. That’s three goals for Barron, and all were with offensive freedom and creativity, and essentially from good coaching.
Barron is playing much smarter in the defensive zone as well. He is slowing the game down, and making better decisions to clear the zone. It was a slow start for Barron as a Canadiens player, but rearguards need a very long leash. They can take time to show their best selves. It feels in the last two weeks like Barron is arriving.
In the third period, there was more “total” hockey as Kaiden Guhle led a rush. He carried it to between the dots, then fed Joel Armia for an open look. It was his first of the season in his first game for a 3-3 tie.
Sean Monahan is close to a point-per-game player for the Canadiens — just like he was when he was healthy for the Calgary Flames. Monahan added his fourth goal of the season in the second period as he is becoming a staple on the power play with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.
Monahan takes position in front of the net where he manages to angle out checkers and make himself available, mostly to Suzuki but also Mike Matheson. That’s exactly what he did on the 3-2 goal.
The return of Christian Dvorak to the centre position when he is healthy should lead to Monahan also playing 5-on-5 with the top line. That would allow Alex Newhook to go back to the wing. The top six of the Canadiens can be quite a lot more effective when everyone is healthy.
Call of the Wilde!
Juraj Slafkovsky must start shooting the puck. When they drafted him first, they believed that he had a quality shot. They believed he could score at the NHL level.
As Wayne Gretzky said, “You don’t score on 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take,” and Slafkovsky refuses to take shots.
In his rookie season, Slafkovsky had 42 shots in 39 games before getting injured. Essentially, a shot per game. This season, he has eight shots in eight games.
To have success in the NHL as a scorer, a player will have a shooting percentage of 10 per cent as a minimum standard. That means you need 240 shots, or three per game, to have a 25-goal season. If a player gets only one shot per game, all other things reverting to the mean average, that’s an eight-goal season.
In the first period, Slafkovsky was on the power play, and the Jets were clearly playing him to pass. He had a clean lane to the net, but simply refused to take the puck to the goal to take a shot. He saucer passed the puck back instead, through the Jets player cheating to cover the Habs defenceman. The pass was still a foot off the ice and it left the offensive zone.
This is likely a confidence issue. It could also be a hockey instinct issue, but not likely. He knows to go to the net, but he just couldn’t make his mind go there successfully. He wasn’t ready.
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Slafkovsky is getting more touches. He is winning far more puck battles. He is improving as a player, and, of course, he is extremely young still. Guaranteed, though, Gretzky would note that Slafkovsky is not going to score on an impossible saucer pass that goes to centre ice.
Three shots per game is the goal. For now, winning puck battles and getting touches are the first two phases of development, and that is coming along. However, at some point, he’s got to take some shots. He’s a forward trying to score goals. Simple concept to success.
Call of the Wilde!
The Buffalo Sabres are a good example for the Canadiens of how not to complete a rebuild. The Sabres are full of young talent, but, somehow, they forgot to have a goalie ready for the last two seasons. The Sabres should be in the playoffs this year. They should have been in the playoffs last season as well. They have some outstanding talent all over the ice, except the crease.
They were waiting for Devon Levi this season, but it is too much too soon. A GM can’t ask a goalie to go straight from college to the NHL — not as a reliable number one. The road to being comfortable in the NHL is a long one for goalies with 24 a respectable arrival age. Some work in the AHL and then an NHL back-up role for a goalie like Levi is a fair expectation.
However, the Sabres didn’t just over-rely on Levi. The other two Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen are also not experienced. There isn’t a .900 save percentage in the entire organization.
Adding to the Sabres’ woes, Comrie and Levi are both injured. Luukkonen and his .881 will try to keep the ship righted. However, a word to the wise, you have to score five goals in an average 30-shot game to win when your goalie is an .881. The Sabres are good, but they’re not that good.
Enter Jake Allen.
The Canadiens have a goaltending issue they need to sort out. Allen is the Sabres’ best option in the NHL presently. Buffalo needs to find a veteran. They’re not interested in seeing if Samuel Montembeault can string together a second straight quality season, and they obviously don’t need another uncertainty in Cayden Primeau. Allen has been through the wars.
If the Sabres don’t get a goalie soon, it’s another year of underachievement and frustration for long-suffering fans. Buffalo’s plight is also a warning to the Canadiens rebuild attempt: the goalie comes last, but don’t completely forget to have a good one ready.
The next move is yours, Buffalo. Seasons slip away fast.