Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Month of October in Review

Well, how did October treat us Habs fans? 11 games were played and the team came out with a respectable record one would say. That record becomes even more impressive when the first 10 games did not feature the man who for the past five seasons was their most talented player on the ice in Andrei Markov. I've separated the Habs into the Plus, Even and Minus differentials just like you'd see on a player's stats over the night with their stats so far with an extra tidbit or two on each player outside the usual Goals, Assists and +/- details.

The Plus Column

Andrei Kostitsyn
, the revelation of this new Andrei Kostitsyn has allowed the Habs to create a powerful impact line that is causing its opponents to tremble when they hit the ice at present. Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec are smart offensive players, but they lack size and while skill can do a lot, sometimes you need muscle and so enters Andrei Kostitsyn. He's somewhat of a tank on skates, not that much taller at 6' but his wide frame and exceptional strength makes him the muscle to drive the efforts of the top line. He's grown quite a bit as a defensive player in the last year under the guidance of Jacques Martin, backchecking and quick retrieval of the puck in the Habs defensive zone has allowed his line more offensive opportunities by his turning the play around. Andrei's had the best start of his entire playing career this October, at present he's on track for around 80 points this season with at least 30 goals. The Habs have an impact line thanks to AK's excellent start and at present, that line is projecting to score over points this season and for those of you keeping score at home, that's top-line production by any standard. 6G, 4A, +5, 2 GWG with 18 hits thrown.

Carey Price, I have taken a massive amount of heat defending this young man since 2008-2009 but I did not waver because I remembered his mastery of the position. He had two playoff shutouts in his first playoff series win as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie in 2007-2008. He had 40 career wins in the NHL to 21 regulation losses before he suffered his setback in his sophomore campaign. He was cool, calm and collected in nets, a must for a Montreal netminder these days. He was accused of being unfocused, lazy and endless rumours about his off-ice activities haunted his name for a year and a half. I have always placed a great value in watching talent though and Price on his game, was one of the hardest goalies to beat in the NHL. Few knew what Price could deliver as a No. 1 goalie now that the reigns were firmly his and he had no real challenge to his position. Well now we know, Price prepared himself for the season and has rewarded management for their faith in him and his fans for their belief in him. If Price were to be a 65-70 game goalie this season, he could conceivably win 40 games or more and meet a new career benchmark, 100 career wins. At present, he appears to be prepared for such a task and while I am a stickler for goalies keeping their starts under the 70-game threshold, he could conceivably manage this and perform in the playoffs. I think a season or two while Price is quite young and with Jacques Martin's defensive scheme of limiting shots would allow Carey to be a pretty rested netminder. One can hardly complain about his performances considering how close some of those losses were, none being his fault. 2.38 GAA, .912 save %, 6-3-1 over 10 games.

Tomas Plekanec, some wondered after what he did last year, if he could raise his game or if it would diminish with his new contract. Well suffice to say, Tommy Jagr as some of us have come to know him seems intent on making his case for contract renewal in 6 years. He's the MVP of the penalty kill, he's creating plays every time he hits the ice and is just a cerebral player who can read the game. At present, he's arguably a candidate for the Selke Trophy in this humble blogger's opinion. He's got an ever-widening bag of tricks to showcase as well, he always seems to add a new element to his game to confound the opposition, some new move that is difficult to defend or predict. Last season it began with slick saucer passes to his linemates, probably the most spectacular being his pass to Roman Hamrlik for an overtime winning goal last season against the New York Islanders. His latest trick now seems to be half-slapping a rolling puck into a top corner of the net, first shown in the Game 1 overtime win of the Montreal-Washington playoff series and than again in the team's first meeting with the New York Islanders this season. If I had to describe Plekanec's play in one word? Crafty, he's always playing his game a move or two ahead of his opponents. 5G, 5A, +3 and tied for team lead in takeaways with 5, 49% faceoffs.

Jeff Halpern, he has been a boon to the Habs penalty killing and their defensive zone faceoffs, a bargain signing coming out of the free agent market, the veteran center signed a bare-bones 600,000$ dollar contract to be the team's go-to man in the faceoff circle and center one of the checking lines. There's not much to complain about with numbers like those, he's also giving Tomas Plekanec a welcome respite from the PK by taking important shifts and allowing him to rest for his regular shifts, he's also yet to take a single minor penalty. 3G, 4A, +4 and 59% of Faceoffs won.

P.K. Subban, too easy to write too much? Probably so since I penned an earlier entry arguing for his candidacy for the Calder Memorial Trophy. However, let's examine what he's shown so far. He's fast, we knew this but going back in his own zone and covering his mistakes as well, he had a rocky start with his worst being the game against Tampa but his partnership with Alexandre Picard has shown him a few things about keeping his game simple. He's still shown rookie mistakes but hey, he is a rookie and the risk-reward ratio still heavily favours reward. His efforts have directly led to creating goals and offensive chances and with 6 assists already, you can find yourself just fantasizing about what this young gun will do with Andrei Markov on the power play unit on a full time basis. His summer workouts allowed him to build up the muscle to battle effectively in the NHL as well, he is not often overwhelmed physically and is ready to give as good as he gets in each game he plays. A high compete level, matched with talent that allows him to play a solid role for the team and improving the transition game has given the Canadiens a serious edge they were often lacking when Andrei Markov was out of the lineup. 0G, 6A, +5, 16 hits thrown.

Josh Gorges, whatever he's taking, he needs to keep taking it. Gorges is one of the most steadily improving shutdown defenders in the NHL. Originally in a 'you traded Rivet for who?' moment for Habs fandom a few years ago, Josh has since won over the city with an all-heart effort and a commitment to being a better player than he was the day before. He's the go-to guy on the penalty kill, he's seen time on the PP and has a game-winning goal on his stats. Bad decisions? Maybe once a game and that's about it. Quiet, effective and ready to go up against the top lines of any team he faces, Gorges is pretty much everything you want in a defensive defencemen in the key situations. 1G, 4A, -1, 32 blocked shots.

Alex Auld, he hasn't done a lot, but he did what he was asked to do, he stepped in against the Islanders in the 2nd part of the Habs home and away series and gave Montreal the chance to win the game. He's never going to threaten to be a No. 1 and replace Price, that isn't his job, it's wait his turn for a start, give veteran advice to Carey and sit on the bench without causing a problem. He did his job, there wasn't a problem so he gets a plus from me. 1-0-0, 1.00 GAA, .968 save %.

Even Column

Mike Cammalleri, finally relented and put him in the even, his improvement in the last bit as a member of the Plekanec line has allowed the team's impact line to open up even further as an offensive unit but he's not burying the puck himself. He's a shooter and while he still stands at 3 goals over his first 11 games, we know it's a matter of time before he goes into one of his hot streaks. He's still threatening the opposition with his shot and drawing attention to himself, meaning Tomas and Andrei still have room to operate as the opposing teams can't afford to ignore him. His simply being there and playing his game has allowed the top line to dominate as the opposing teams are faced with a true 3-pronged threat each time they're on the ice, they know he can go hot at any time and pick the top corners of the net. However, he's not that much of a threat at present and he needs to come through. 3G, 4A, +7, 36 SOG.

Hal Gill
: Hasn't been bad, hasn't been great either. He's been huge on the PK but the guy gives me serious pause every time he tries to pinch in the O-zone because you know that can backfire in a hurry. Against a fast team, he gets beat a lot and frankly, at 6'7", 250 pounds he should be moving a lot more people out of Carey's way when he's trying to see the puck. A key plank in the leadership and the PK unit, he's not by any means a bad player to have around but he's a playoff guy and it's the regular season, he's going to be hard to watch on some nights and there's not much one can do about it. 0G, 1A, -1, 19 blocked shots.

Roman Hamrlik, to close to call with the Hammer, especially since he missed training camp, pre-season and the first two games of the season. He's gotten better as the season has gone on, good positional play and hard work along the boards and since he paired with Subban on the power play, the back end play has notably improved despite the unit still struggling. He's still a solid man and can help mentor PK in the art of positional defence as is needed. Not exceptional, but he's been good enough in his role. 0G, 4A, +2, 19 blocked shots.

Tom Pyatt, okay he's not really meant to be an offensive player and his defence is solid but he's not going beyond his job description at present and I was hoping he was going to show a little more with stick skills this season, an improvement in passing the puck, stealing the puck just or putting it on net because hey, sometimes a goal happens like Halpern's GWG against the Islanders. I know he's not meant to bury the puck and he's a defensive forward but I can't say he's really giving me cause to chant his name. He's been good, but not good enough to rank in my Plus column. 0G, 0A, -2, 4 takeaways to 1 giveaway.

Alexandre Picard, he's a lot better than we thought he'd be. Since he partnered with P.K. Subban, the young man has simplified his game a little, while Subban is still managing some wild offensive moves, he's maintaining dutiful coverage in his own zone thanks to the influence of Picard's modest game. He's working hard, making simple but effective moves in his own end and even managed a fluke goal along the way. Not an ace, but as a 3rd-pairing defencemen and giving a little advice about keeping things simple to the organization's rising star, you can't really complain. 1G, 0A, +7, 11 blocked shots.

Lars Eller: He hasn't done much, but he hasn't had the TOI to do a lot either and he was the guy who helped create Andrei Kostitsyn's OT winning goal against Phoenix. He's done reasonably well with his ice time, making good moves and you can see the qualities of a Top-6 player in his play even though he's not being used in that role. Some very good hands in the offensive zone and while he's not burying chances, this is a learning curve for him, being a full-time NHLer after leaving the NHL so there will be some adjustment time as Martin figures out how Eller works in his lineup. Easy to like what he could do, but we'd like to actually see that potential a bit more I think, but he hasn't done anything be a negative to the team either. 0G, 1A, -2, 5 takeaways to 1 giveaway, 47% faceoffs won.

Travis Moen: He's been solid in some aspects, a pair of goals in the month is about all you can ask from your 10-goal a year players albeit his contributions to the Gomez/Gionta line have generally been underwhelming, although that's not his fault since it's not really a role he is suited for. I would say I've soured a bit on his physical play though, being 11th on the team with 1 hit per game on a speedy, skill-based teams Habs team with few very physical players isn't really what the Canadiens were looking for when he was signed. He needs to start pasting more opposing players, it's part of his game and he needs to deliver it more often where it counts. He needs to hit out there to be effective long-term. 2G, 1A, 20 PIMs including 2 fighting majors.

Benoit Pouliot: He just got himself out of the minus column thanks to his winning goal over the Islanders on Friday night, he scored a goal-scorer's goal and hopefully we'll see more of that from here on in. He's also throwing a lot of checks and hopefully that will help him leap on to the Gionta-Gomez line if he continues to show good moves in the offensive zone. He's got to fix his skating though, he falls down far too often for anyone who doesn't have something physically wrong with them. 2G, 4A, +1, 25 hits thrown.

Minus Column

Brian Gionta, I didn't want to list our new captain here, but it's warranted. He has 1 goal on his record and he's telegraphing his shot and shooting it like the previous #21 Chris Higgins. He's snakebitten and a bit nervous about wearing the C perhaps, but he needs to get it going. He is a lead by example player and while the top line is getting it done, the Habs would like their captain to put in around 30 goals this season if they want to contend for the NE division title. He needs to be better, period. 1G, 2A, 0, 44 SOG.

Scott Gomez, the issue when you have a passing player who doesn't have anyone to pass to is he makes it hard to like him, really hard. He's got a terrible scoring instinct, he can set up others but he's never going to be a goal scoring ace himself. He's shown a lack of compete in half his GP so far and while he's a magnificent player to work an end to end rush, he's got to make better decisions with the puck sometimes if he's going to be the go-to playmaker for the team. 1G, 2A, +1, 49% faceoffs won, 4 takeways to 2 giveaways.

Ryan O'Byrne, a man possessed for the 2009 training camp, he showed little of the solid physical power in his frame and checking opponents coming out of the 2010 camp and in the few games he has seen, he has disappointed. The bad delay of game penalties and lack of willingness to just pick an opposing player and thunder them with all his strength makes him a liability on the ice and the resident of Jacques Martin's doghouse. At his size, he should be out to hit everyone in sight but he hasn't when he had the opportunities. He doesn't have the positional smarts and shot-blocking skills of Hal Gill to excuse it either. A big man who won't play like a big man is not a luxury the Habs can afford on their blue line. 0G, 0A, 0, 11 hits thrown, 5 blocked shots.

Dustin Boyd: He hasn't shown a ton since notching a goal against Toronto in the season opener, picked up in the Sergei Kostitsyn trade, he's shown some promise but not enough to keep himself a fixture in the lineup ahead of Tom Pyatt or Mathieu Darche. That's not a total damning of him, it is early in the season after all but to date, he's done little to show he deserves to play every night. 1G, 0A, -2, 4 hits thrown, 4 blocked shots.

Maxim Lapierre: He's been a tenacious, onery SOB on the ice as his job description and don't get me wrong, I love that but I wish he'd start passing the puck a bit more rather than just take shots that 99% of the time go nowhere but in the goalie's equipment. He's had his on games and his off games but he isn't a skill player who can get away with that, Maxim needs to be a 100% effort player to succeed every night. He's a good agitator and he's served some solid defensive forward shifts but for him to truly succeed, he can't have nights where he's not fully committed to his game. Giving him a minus for only 2 points in 11 games and lacking effort on important nights. 1G, 1A, 30 hits thrown (leads team).

Jaroslav Spacek: Far too much rust for a guy who had training camp and pre-season to get ready to go. He's been bad on some nights and worse on others, probably about 2 good games for the month and while I respect his self-sacrificing style with his body, he's simply making too many mistakes as a veteran to be allowable. Alexandre Picard is currently outplaying him and wherever Spacek's offensive abilities have gone, they're definitely not in Montreal. Getting a little tired of being pleased that he gave up his body to prevent a play or used a nice stick move to put the puck off the carrier's stick and only to be disappointed when he's beaten 2 or 3 times on positional defence. For someone who's been in the NHL as long as he has, there's really no excuse for not knowing how to stay on position, especially at 3.8 million a season. 0G, 2A, +2, 11 blocked shots.

What it all means:

The Habs are better than their critics thought they would be to start the season, for all the mocking of Jacques Martin's system, we have seen it in action. Shots have been limited against Carey Price, making his average night in nets much less hectic than it was to start last season. That's a pretty solid indicator of the defence the Canadiens can present for the season to make both their goaltender's job easier and frustrate the oppositon by keeping shots to the perimeter especially since Andrei Markov just returned to the team.

The team is presenting the opposition with a challenge. Stop Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri, at once. Hasn't been very easy for them and it at present, means the team has a line capable of producing over 200 points combined for the season, that's top-line production that many NHL teams would be envious of.

The second line isn't getting it done except for a few isolated incidents, Gionta's just telegraphing his shots too much and Gomez isn't being nearly enough of a playmaker to make himself a truly effective center. Too many passes going to no one or in the feet of his linemates, if he's going to be a 15-goal a year player, he needs to make at least 55 assists this season to offset that. Travis Moen, Tom Pyatt and others have all tried out on this line, not a lot has stuck but I think for his confidence and ability to perhaps even bury a chance, Benoit Pouliot needs to play with them beyond the 2nd-wave PP.

The checkers? Well they've been mixed in their assignments and results. Jacques Martin has been going for the right mix in his combinations and has replaced personnel as needed. They've been far more effective than they were to start last season, purged of bodies that can't play defensive hockey and everyone seems ready to give their best efforts on most nights. It's allowing Martin to rest his Top-6 more often and only shorten his bench as needed rather than just about every night as was so often the case last season. A 4-line team is essential to success for a strong regular season campaign and JM is so far getting the most he can out of it.

The defence, age is showing itself. Roman Hamrlik's been better since he got back than Jaroslav Spacek, but that's not a huge compliment to Hamrlik. If I had input, I'd bench Spacek for a couple of games and play Alex Picard since he's been more effective and been far less prone to large gaffes. We don't know how effective they can be since Markov's only been back for 1 game and I didn't even see it due to my having dinner out with visiting family, suffice to say we shouldn't hang too much on Markov's debut. They've been good enough thanks to the diligent work of Josh Gorges and the exciting, if not heart-attack inducing play of P.K. Subban's adventurous style. Gill's been a PK ace as usual, but I wouldn't call it the defence of a 100-point team with secondary scoring being an issue without Markov returning and having a solid impact. With Markov I'm sure they'll rise to the level of being where the Habs need them to be to win each night but the age of a third of the team's defence has too been too visible this season.

Goaltending, not much to say that I haven't already said except it's goaltending that gives us a chance in every game the Canadiens play so far and with that, the team can play and win knowing their goalie is playing with them and on his game.

Habs are 7-3-1 in 11GP, good for 15 points, the lead in the NE division and 2nd overall in the Conference. November will be harder, but the team just got Markov back and have worked out most of the kinks in their checking line configurations, there are a lot of attainable points from November, but there will be some very tough fights ahead as well.

The Big Tests for Montreal in November: Bruins on November 11th, Flyers on the 16th and 22nd, LA Kings on the 24th.

My Top 5 Habs prospects so far:

1. RW Brendan Gallagher, a sleeper pick out of the 2010 entry draft and at 5'8" it's not exactly a slam-dunk for this young man to make the NHL but he's certainly got some attributes you can't ignore. With 16G, 13A already this season and in his first 16 games of the season before his points streak snapped, he was scoring at least a point in each game. Gallagher has a nose for the net. Sometimes that's all that matters, with two more years to develop his game in the WHL, he's got time to improve his skating and hopefully gain an inch or two to make his move into the NHL easier. His dominance in the WHL, the junior league best known for being physically punishing and turning out tough players speaks to his seemingly relentless attitude towards scoring. He's building his case to be a selectee for the 2011 World Junior Championships right now and he could make it because sometimes, you need a guy who just can put the puck in the net.

2. D Yannick Weber, Weber was drafted a round after Subban in the 2007 draft, a 5'11" puck-moving defencemen, he's now in his 3rd AHL season and seems intent to make sure it's his last. He has scored 6G and 4A in 8GP. His defence still needs work but right now he's working on being the offensive catalyst from the back end for Hamilton. He leads the entire AHL in scoring by a defencemen.

3. C Louis Leblanc, his entrance to the QMJHL with the Montreal Juniors is not a disappointment. He's scored 9G, 11A in 13 games so far and notched 2 shootout winning goals along the way as well. Credited for a very high compete level and hard work in the corners, he is also being considered strongly already for a spot on Canada's 2011 WJC team. It is likely this will be his only year in QMJHL hockey as it's a stepping stone to his joining the Hamilton Bulldogs as at present, he is showing the capability to dominate the league and a step up to a professional level following this season is logical. One critique would be his weakness in the faceoff circle and while I still think he's a complete tool, Pierre Mcguire believes Leblanc is likely to be a winger at the NHL level and he's only 2nd in knowledge about the junior ranks to Bob Mackenzie at TSN.

4. D Alexei Emelin, the Russian defender is entering his 3rd season in the KHL and is making a statement. He's got 3 goals and 6 assists in 19GP when last season, his total scoring was a goal and 6 assists in 46GP. His club, Ak Bars Kazan seems to be having a solid campaign and the 6'1" defender is probably a very good option to lure over from the KHL next season and made a new addition to the Habs roster. With increasing offensive potential and size, he could help fill in the gap that Roman Hamrlik will be leaving in the blue line for next season.

5. D Brendon Nash, A free agent signing who completed 4 seasons of NCAA hockey at Cornell University, he's a big story already for the Hamilton Bulldogs after just 8 games played. He's scored 2 goals and 4 assists already after his best offensive total for a season at Cornell was 2G over 34GP. Credited with being smart with positioning and better than expected offensive instincts, he's a good rising star in the organization if he continues at his current pace.

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