Your Montreal Canadiens are off to a nice start to the year by all accounts. The team sits in a four way tie for first in the Eastern Conference with a 5-2-1 record heading into action Wednesday night against the New York Islanders. And while the team went on a run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, it was far from a sure thing that they'd be able to come out and post a lot of wins out of the gate. The team relied heavily on special teams and goaltending last year, a formula that isn't exactly likely to hold up over time. The team's league worst even strength offense was a big concern, as was their seeming inability to draw many penalties. In short, they stunk at even strength, and with Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Bergeron not on the team anymore, and Andrei Markov injured, the team's formula from last year (if it really was the team's strategy) was immediately thrown out the window.
The Habs have only scored twice on the PP this year so far, so the team's strong start has been keyed by even strength play. The team has also managed to mainly avoid the embarrassing shot discrepancies, save for that OT loss to Tampa Bay. So what has been the key to the success so far? The top line of Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri has been very strong, while the team seems to have found a reasonable defensive rotation in Markov's absence. Certainly, Carey Price has helped as well, but there's more to it than that. Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta have yet to make a real impact on this year's team after last year's strong playoff performance. While the fans like to focus on Jacques Martin's utilization of rookie Lars Eller or inconsistent scorer Benoit Pouliot, one man's contributions are either going unnoticed or simply aren't getting properly valued: the man that is doing the dirty jobs for the 2010-11 Canadiens, and coming up smelling like roses, is Jeff Halpern.
One of the last free agent signings in the entire NHL, signing on Sept. 7, Halpern didn't have a lot going for him heading into the offseason. In the 2008 World Championships, playing for Team USA, he ruptured his ACL. That injury set him back a lot: after the 2008 Trade Deadline, he had 18 points in 19 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning, notching his second ever 20 goal season. In 129 games following the injury, Halpern had only scored 16 times. While offence was never his specialty, in his prime he was a very solid two-way centre, able to play on the top PK unit, line up against the other team's scoring line, and even play on the 2nd PP wave. But coming back from injury, and playing for the woeful (and terribly coached) Lightning the past two years did him no favours as a UFA this past summer. His brief stint with the Los Angeles Kings did little to help. This year, however, things are different.
Halpern is Jacques Martin's go-to-guy in the defensive zone. He leads the team in both defensive zone draws at even strength, as well as penalty kill faceoffs. And he's winning them: his faceoff percentage is at 60.9%, including an astonishing 77.3% shorthanded. His zone start stats, taken from Gabe Desjardins' Behind The Net site, are equally impressive. He's getting the short end of the stick when he starts his shift: every offensive zone draw he has taken, he's taken nearly three defensive zone draws (a 0.273 ratio). But he's winning the battle:
|Offensive||17||32 (incl 5 GF)|
|Defensive||45||40 (incl 3 GA)|
He's suffering very little damage while on the ice, moving the puck out of the defensive zone with great efficiency. Despite playing at this territorial disadvantage, he's been a plus player to date. His presence has helped Martin roll four lines, and has helped Tomas Plekanec's line get more offensive zone time as a result. Which, as we know, has led to more goals.
It's not hard to believe that his contributions haven't gotten much praise in the press to date. He's a low key veteran now, a former team captain who is on a mercenary contract. He's never been close to winning a Cup, so he hasn't stood out in people's memory too much, and he's played in very low key markets: Washington before Boudreau arrived, Dallas after Hitchcock, and Tampa Bay in the freefall era. He was once good enough to represent the USA internationally at five different World Championships and the 2004 World Cup, but never has been an Olympian. As an amateur, he attended Princeton, hardly a place to get noticed as a hockey player.
I don't believe I've heard his words in a post-game scrum yet, and I have no idea if he's even been asked for comment. He's about as unsexy as players get: he's old, so he's not a part of the future, and he's never won anything in his hockey career. He may be the anti-Subban, but he's still a darn good hockey player. And he's turning into a heck of a pickup for Pierre Gauthier, even if he was an afterthought. Without his contributions so far, I don't think we'd be so bullish about the Habs' situation right now. It's time he got his due.