The much-talked-about slump that the Canadiens are currently playing through has been analyzed as much as humanly possible. While there exists a consensus that the streak is a terrible situation, there is no agreement on who exactly is to blame. Well, it may be everyone's fault simultaneously.
So why are the Habs are not winning? Why? Let's explore some avenues.
It's the injuries
In past seasons where Michel Therrien coached the Habs, the team was relatively fortunate in the injury department. Carey Price was injured on a short sequence after the last Winter Olympic Games, and during the playoffs when Chris Kreider crashed into him, after which the Habs were quickly eliminated.
It was clear that without Price there was no salvation. It was also clear that a solid backup goalie was needed; otherwise an injury to him during the regular season could spell the end of things until the next year.
The Rangers made the playoffs last year with Cam Talbot. Minnesota couldn't do it until Devan Dubnyk came to the rescue, but both of those situations prove that you can make it without your best goaltender. Mike Babcock made the playoffs in Detroit multiple times without Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and Dan Bylsma managed the feat through injuries to Kristopher Letang, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin.
Those injuries didn't all occur for those coaches at the same time, but they serve to illustrate the point that most successful NHL teams can win without their key players. Injuries happen to every team in the league, and it seems the Habs have simply run out of luck in that department.
That being said, the Habs did lose Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price for significant periods of time, the latter being out much longer. Is it fair to stack most of the blame on bad injury luck?
It's the calendar
Yes, the injuries to Price and Gallagher happened at the wrong time. The Habs responded by going on one of their longest losing streaks. All teams go through some bad times during the season, and have to play back-to-back games while doing so.
The Canadiens schedule isn't great, but it's far from being the worst in the league, and every team is likely to have a bone to pick with their calendar. But the Habs did have a long stretch of games away from home while dealing with injury problems. Could this be the true reason for their lack of success?
It's the West
In their sequence of losses they played eight games out of 21 without their best player against teams from the Western conference. They lost all of those games, and managed to get only one point by losing in OT to the Blues.
I can't bear to hear that the West is better that the East, but this year the Canadiens record against the West is 4-11-1 (9 points / 32). Yeah, they even lost to the powerful Coyotes with Mike Condon in nets. Only 7 of the 16 teams in the East have more wins than losses against the West, but none are as bad as the Habs. The closest is Boston with 5-6-3 (13 points / 28).
It's the coaching staff
Since his return to the Canadiens, Michel Therrien's regular seasons have been surprising. He has much better even strength possession numbers this year than he did, but the power play is still abysmal. I understand that Therrien doesn't run everything, but as head coach, he has to be held accountable.
Other teams have clearly adjusted to the Habs, but there seems to be no reciprocal action on Therrien's end. Many have noted the constant use of dump-and-chase style by the Canadiens, which often yields little production, yet Therrien seems mostly calm when discussing tactics with the media.
Player usage and deployment have also been called into question. Alex Galchenyuk looked great at centre, but he has been moved back to the wing. Why not allow him to skate with one of the team's top wingers like Brendan Gallagher or Max Pacioretty? It seems highly likely that Galchenyuk could blow up offensively, if given a real chance with solid linemates.
It's the power play
The Habs have had 71 power play opportunities, and have scored 7 times (9.7%). That’s good for the 29th place in the league during their slump. Before that, they scored 21 times out of 88 opportunities (23.9%) which was good for fourth in the league. That was unsustainable, but why can’t they be closer to the league average? Let’s say they clock around 18%, they would have six more goals, which could easily represent around three more victories.
It's the goaltending
Goaltending would be a tough thing to blame for the recent streak. Both Mike Condon and Ben Scrivens have been victims of screened shots or defensive breakdowns on almost all goals against. They've given the team a chance to win every time, but the run support simply isn't there.
Since the beginning of December, the Habs have scored 40 goals in 22 games for an average of 1.81 goals per game. There is probably only one goaltender who could post a winning record with that support, and his name is Carey Price. Sure, they could start playing a hard trap to lessen the goals against, but that would conversely serve to lessen their goals for even more, in all likelihood.
It's the players
As aforementioned, the players have scored an average of 1.81 goals per game since December. Yes, the system of play definitely has an impact, but perhaps there is a lack of confidence as well. They typically outshoot their opponents, but can't seem to turn those shots into goals.
Maybe it's just an epically bad streak of shooting luck, but the fact of the matter is that the goals just aren't there. You can have the best goaltender in the world, but if you don't score, you can't win. Goal scoring is definitely a glaring issue, and perhaps the biggest of all.
It's the GM
It cannot be said that Marc Bergevin hasn't made every effort to sure up the goaltending position. Mike Condon had his coming out party this year, and Bergevin even went so far as to acquire Ben Scrivens as an insurance policy in Price's absence.
The Jarred Tinordi for John Scott (and Victor Bartley) trade obviously wasn't the answer for getting wins, but he has been quite responsible working within the cap. He signed guys like Tomas Fleischmann and Alex Semin on bargain contracts, and executed a great trade for Jeff Petry, who he promptly resigned to an affordable contract. Only one of those ended up working out, but the fact is he has made more good moves than he has bad ones. It would be hard to lay every problem on him right now.
It's the farm team
Sylvain Lefebvre can't boast a winning record, that much is obvious. Aside from Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn, there are no players on the Canadiens roster who have played under him in three years. Is it possible that the AHL coach is stifling development, and limiting what reinforcements can be relied upon from St. John's?
Well, consider the cases of Sven Andrighetto and Daniel Carr. Is it Lefebvre's fault that the two of them have been bounced back and forth this year? Last year, Charles Hudon was one of the best rookies in the AHL, and this year Michael McCarron is the same. Are these players succeeding in spite of their coach? It's rather hard to say.
It's the player's association
No trade clause (NTC) and no movement clause (NMC) are an extra obstacle for a GM to execute trades, and upgrade their team. These, however, are realities that every team must deal with, so the Canadiens cannot possibly claim that they are the problem right now.
It's the salary cap
The Habs have money to spend, but they are limited because of the cap. The salary cap limits some organizations to go shopping for players in the bargain section. Because of the salary cap, we have parity. Every year you have a maximum of two teams per conference that will not make the playoffs for sure. The salary cap pushes you to keep the service of certain players, based on an uncertain future regarding performances, and the size of the cap itself.
It's the captain
Max Pacioretty has been the recipient of much criticism this year. In his first year as captain, he is once again on pace to lead the team in scoring, with likely more than 35 goals. Blaming the team leader at this point seems silly, since he's one of the few skaters producing real results.
It's the amaeur scouting staff
Jarred Tinordi is a blatant example of how bad the scouting team might be. It's the same team that picked Brendan Gallagher in the fifth round that same year. It's the same staff that drafted Max Pacioretty, Ryan McDonagh, and PK Subban. It's the team that took Carey Price. It's the same team that took Alex Galchenyuk who is the best in points of his draft. Hard sell if you're trying to fault them.
It's the professional scouting staff
That staff got us DSP for Sekac, and Zack Kassian for Brandon Prust; admittedly bad trades in hindsight. But they are also the ones who got Dale Weise for Raphael Diaz, the latter of which hasn't found a regular spot in the league. It's the staff that claimed Paul Byron off waivers. Again, very hard sell here.
It's mother luck
Last year the Canadiens won a whole lot of games they probably didn't have any business winning. This year they've lost a whole lot of games that they probably deserved to win. As much as luck is an intangible, it's clearly not on their side this year.
Who's fault is it, really?
Who knows? Having Carey Price back would be great, having some better shooting luck would be great, and having some better injury luck in general would be fantastic. You can blame injuries, coaching, systems, luck, or whatever else you can point your finger at. The simple reality is that the Habs have entered the perfect storm for losing hockey games.
Ending this streak likely requires a combination of luck and ingenuity. Either that or some heroics from the reigning league MVP. Since he's going to be out a while longer, it seems that the Habs will have to rely on the hockey gods to smile on them a little.
Here's to hoping that they do.