The Montreal Canadiens are currently 5-1-0, but there are some fairly obvious knocks on how they've played so far, in spite of all those wins. The biggest one has been the number of goals they've allowed, tied for 24th in the league with 3.33 goals against per game. The Canadiens also rank poorly in shots allowed per game, at a whopping 32.2, placing them 23rd in the league.
This has led, so far, to some soft criticism of the supposed improved defense in comparison to last season. Tom Gilbert has been lambasted at every turn, whereas Alexei Emelin has been the one criticized most in this site's comments sections, and the criticisms would likely be a lot stronger if the Habs weren't off to such a great start in terms of wins.
On paper, the defense is obviously improved over last year, but the Canadiens just aren't seeing the benefit of it yet, so what's going on? Well six games isn't enough to judge much, and hockey is a sport prone to wild fluctuations, but let's compare this year so far to last year a little bit and see what's different.
So the defense is paying dividends so far in terms of keeping the puck away from their own net, but the Canadiens had a sparkling .930 save percentage at even strength last season, the fifth best mark in the entire league. This year so far they're clicking in at .904, the seventh worst mark in the league. This huge fluctuation has taken the spotlight away from the Canadiens' (so far) improved shot suppression.
So what gives then? Is is it all on Price?
I would guess that anyone who has watched the first six games would agree that until the game against Colorado, we haven't seen Carey Price at his best yet, however he also hasn't been bad. There haven't been many goals going in on Price where you're cursing him out, but he also hasn't been making the show-stopping saves that we're all accustomed to seeing, or at least not as often.
Price's slow start is definitely part of the problem when it comes to the Canadiens bleeding goals against, but the bigger reason is a little more subtle.
Tom Gilbert, Nathan Beaulieu, and Jarred Tinordi are undoubtedly better as a group than Josh Gorges, Douglas Murray, and Francis Bouillon. They move the puck more efficiently, they skate better, and they produce more offense. However those changes represent a big change in the way the Canadiens play defense as a team.
Last season the strategy in the defensive zone was essentially to front attackers near the net, get in lanes to block shots, swarm on the loose puck, then slowly chip it up the boards until you cleared the zone. It wasn't terribly effective at reducing shots against, or chances against, but it was predictable and everyone on the team knew where to be.
This year you're seeing far fewer shots getting blocked with the absence of Gorges and Murray, both of whom were shot blocking machines, so the Canadiens needed to rework what their game plan was in the defensive zone. If you listened to the postgame interviews in the preseason, a few of the players talked about that.
It may take awhile yet to get things where they want them to be, but there's no reason to think that the Canadiens defensive strategies won't catch up to their shot suppression rates and cut down the rate of scoring chances.
The other major adjustment the Canadiens are facing are on special teams. They seem to be improving there, but as of yet both the powerplay and penalty kill are underwhelming in terms of shot generation and shot suppression. While Murray was a huge liability at even strength due to his immobility and complete lack of puck handling or puck moving skill, staying in tight lanes and recklessly hammering the puck away is actually pretty effective while a man down, and Gorges was a flat out penalty killing star.
That transition period on defense is likely most strongly felt on the penalty kill, where players are still getting used to their roles. Tom Gilbert can't replace Josh Gorges shorthanded, it's just not his strength, and while the Canadiens have been leaning on Mike Weaver there early, he's been struggling as well.
The Canadiens coaching staff may end up being forced to give P.K. Subban big minutes on the penalty kill this season to cut down the chances against, and with players like Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert also available, if Subban can't play quite as much on the powerplay as a consequence, it shouldn't be that much of an issue.
The personnel the Canadiens are working doesn't have the giant anchors they had last season, and although the early returns aren't as inspiring as expected, there's nothing to panic about.