The Montreal Canadiens now find themselves at the midway point of the 2010-11 NHL regular season.
The Habs sit at 22-16-3, good enough for 47 points, but find themselves in eigth place, in the Eastern Conference standings. Conference positioning can easily change, sitting just a point back of the Northeast Division leading Boston Bruins.
The season thus far has had it's share of ups and downs. To give us a better idea of how things have gone, we called on the everyday beat journalists to give us their insight.
Marc-Antoine Godin of La Presse, Pat Hickey of The Montreal Gazette and HabsInsideOut.com, and CTV Montreal and NHL.com 's Arpon Basu were all kind enough to give their grades and perspectives on the team and answer a few other questions for us.
While they may agree in some aspects, you will see that these respective journalists do find a few minor differences in opinions on the Bleu-Blanc et Rouge.
GRADING THE HABS
Update: Mr. Godin emailed me after this post was published, and told me he assesed the Habs based on the second quarter. A bit of a miscommunication, but it will better justify his grades below.
FIVE ON FIVE: Currently 17th in the NHL (+1)
Godin (5):"Just before the game in Detroit, on Dec. 12, the Habs had scored 14 more goals 5-on-5 that they had given. But it was uncharacteristic of the type of team Habs have been for years. It’s likely that they’ve simply come back to Earth. Martin’s system relies on speed, quick transition and back pressure to provoke turnovers and create offense.
"For the Canadiens to be successful, they need to have fresh legs. But lately, spending too much time in the box and generally too much time defending has made it difficult. The 5-on-5 has become worrisome again, especially on the road where guys like Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn lose their touch."
Hickey: "Five on five is a major disaster. they cabn't the top two lines working togeter at the same time and there are some nights neither is working, They need to do better on faceoffs and they still don't have the big winger they need"
Basu (8): "Though the team has dipped in this area during the recent swoon, it still represents by far the most significant improvement from last year."
DEFENSE: 4th (2.35 G/A)
Godin (6):"We thought for awhile the Canadiens had passed the point where they were a different team without Markov. Obviously they haven’t. The minutes that are asked to the other defencemen is not a recipe for success. Veterans Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill in particular have been affected.
"James Wisniewski’s arrival will help logging important minutes – especially in the wake of Josh Gorges’ injury – but for the most part, there is a gap on defence between the inexperienced and the aging."
Hickey:"Defence has been excellent, particularly with all the injuries. Gill and Gorges will be good combo. Wisniewski is solid and the buig question is whether the Czechs can stay healthy and reelatively well rested."
Basu (7) :"Considering Andrei Markov has barely played this season, I’d says this group has done pretty well in spite of playing bigger than expected minutes for some of the veterans. We’ll see if the injury to Gorges pushes them over the tipping point."
POWER PLAY: 11th (18.9%)
Godin (8):"Considering how the Habs power play was struggling early on, there’s nothing wrong with a team that now ranks 11th in the league at 18,9%. P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber have been somewhat disappointing, but again, the arrival of Wisniewski will help. Although more talented, Kostitsyn deserved to be replaced on the PP by Mathieu Darche and/or Max Pacioretty."
Hickey:"Getting better. Wisniewski helps but 5 on 3 the other night shows what happens when you don't create traffic in front."
Basu (6):"Montrealers have been spoiled in this area for years, but the ineptitude seen to start the season would have been a disaster for any team. Improvements have been made lately in terms of number, but tactical and personnel issues remain. Wisniewski should help."
PENALTY KILL: 2nd (87.5%)
Godin (9.5): Still one of the top PK units in the league, but for how long? All is great with the penalty kill, the problem is all this time spent in the box! Before facing Boston, the team was 5th in the league for most powerplays given to the opponent.
"Jacques Martin has relied on Plekanec and other top-6 players to run his PK, but he needs more from his 3rd and 4the liners. Granted, Jeff Halpern and Travis Moen have been excellent, but Tom Pyatt as been used a ton on the PK even if he’s the forward that was on the ice for most PK goals."
Hickey: "Outstanding but will loss of Gorges make a difference."
Basu (9): "It would be impossible to expect much better than this."
Godin (6.5):"Lack of discipline and multiple breakdowns in front of him didn’t help, but Carey Price hasn’t made the game-changing saves he made earlier on. Before facing Pittsburgh on Jan. 6, he had three wins in his last 11 starts, and faced more than 30 shots only three times during that span. He has showed signs of fatigue. If the Canadiens had hired a backup they truly trusted, this situation could have been avoided."
Hickey:"Price went through a tough stretch but I think this year he;'s mentally touigh enough to hang in there. I'm hoping he doesn't go to the All-Star game and gets some rest."
Basu (8):"Same could be said of Carey Price, but Alex Auld needs to get some more regular action soon."
Godin (7):"When things don’t work, Jacques Martin asks for more passion, more involvement and more work. But in the second quarter, this group of smallish forwards and old defencemen looked tired. It was not a lack of passion, but a lack of energy.
"Martin must find solutions for that. He’s known to trust veterans and to approach youngsters with caution, but he must find a balance by not overusing the veterans he wants to keep on his side. And just as important, he also has a selling job to do to convince some key players that his system is still fit for this club."
Hickey: "Hey,. the system is boring but they are playing the kind of hockey then need to play if they hope to win."Basu (7): "The loss of Markov needs to be taken into account when discussing the performance of the coaching staff. Yes, some personnel decisions are puzzling, and at times the style of play can be maddening, but overall this team is still doing far better than it should in light of the fact its best player is gone."
The Canadiens were surviving briefly, in the absence of Andrei Markov, but quickly fell apart on the December roadtrip. The recent acquisition of James Winsnewski is showing promise of strengthening the blueline on the power play, but is that enough to fill the void short term?
Godin: "Pierre Gauthier isn’t about to start a complete overhaul of his defense brigade before the end of this season. I like Wisniewski’s acquisition, not only for his offensive abilities and occasional toughness, but also for the minutes he’s able to log. Reducing Hamrlik, Spacek and Gill’s workload is key in putting things back on track in the second half. Then again, with the loss of Gorges, how Subban and Weber will react to bigger responsabilities will go a long way in telling if the void is filled."
Hickey: "Wisniewski helps. Would like to see a little more size. Gauthier will be monitoring the situation and he'll look for another guy if things are working but I think they have the guys they if they don't wear down."
Basu: "On top of Wisniewski’s impact on the power play is his impact on the minutes played by Hamrlik, Spacek and Gill. Even without Gorges around, Wisniewski’s presence creates a balanced defence corps where all three pairings should be able to share ice time more evenly.
"Fact is, defencemen who can replace a Markov or a Gorges aren’t exactly available by the bushel. This could be a problem area going forward, but what else would you expect when you lose two out of your top four?"
The trade of Maxime Lapierre to the Anaheim Ducks was a bit of a surprise to many. What was your reaction and your thought on Lapierre's contributions to the franchise?
Godin: "An insider had told me Lapierre would get traded over the course of the year. I wasn’t convinced, but I was wrong! I heard negociations for his contract last summer didn’t go too well and it set the tone for the season. Not only Lapierre was removed from the PK last year, but there was a sense among management that he wasn’t as energetic between whistles than he was after. He had to use his speed and grit on a regular basis, and we simply didn’t see that."
Hickey: "I was surprised because Lapierre had some size although he didn't always use it. The problem is that he had a career year two years and some hints of thast in the playoffs last season but he wasn't getting any better and he was very unhappy."
Basu:" I thought Lapierre was largely defined by inconsistency. When he was at his best he was a very effective player. When he wasn’t, he was invisible. Problem was that you didn’t know which player would show up at the rink on any given night."
Who is the player that has impressed you most, and been disappointing in the first half of the Canadiens season?
Godin:"Not many candidates for the most impressing. On some nights, Plekanec elevated his game compared to last year. He’s such a tireless worker. Price impressed me with the way he attacked the season, but he’ll impress me more if he shows he can rebound from this rough patch.
"And Darche, with very limited abilities, has convinced his coach not only that he wasn’t the 13th forward on the team, but that he was worthy of powerplay time.
"But Darche is beaten at the finish line by Josh Gorges. What a warrior. How can a guy sustain tough hockey for seven years with a torn ACL
"The most disappointing? A three-way tie between Moen, Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot. If it wasn’t for his PK work, you’d really wonder what Moen brings to this team. His toughness is strickly reactive, it doesn’t initiate anything. Kostitsyn and Pouliot both have loads of talent, but their lack of will and urgency prevents them from being dependable players."
Hickey:"Most impressive is plekanec but I know he's good. Darche and Halpern have been surprises in support roles. Biggest disappointment has been Andrei Kostitsyn with Gomez a close second."
Basu:"Impressed? Easy. Carey Price, no explanation needed. Disappointment being largely based on expectations, I won’t name Andrei Kostitsyn, but rather Michael Cammalleri. I really thought last year’s playoffs were a sign he was going to enter the elite, but he hasn’t played like it so far."
Do you expect Pierre Gauthier to make any further moves, before the February 28 trade deadline, and if so where do you think he needs look to improve the team?
Godin:"For the time being, I expect the Canadiens to look at how Subban and Weber react to additional workload before making a move on defence. Let’s not forget the addition of Brett Festerling as a depth defenseman.
"More than actual assets to trade, Habs’ biggest weapon is their cap room. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gauthier use it on a winger that would improve the top two lines. But there aren’t that many interesting candidates available out there."
Hickey: "Gauthier will make defence is solid and they may make a deal for a veteran forward at the deadline."
Basu: "I think he will make a move long before the deadline, and I’d imagine it would be to pick up a forward. Ideally he would be big, but a scorer would be my top priority."
You can find Mr. Basu on NHL.com as well as his Daily Hab-it on CTV Montreal's Habs Hub. Mr. Godin can be found on LaPresse's website, and for non-French speaking readers, a simple Google translation is well worth the read.
Mr. Hickey can be found on HIO, as well as the Montreal Gazette website.