It’s well known at this point that the Montreal Canadiens weren’t great by any measure last year. The offence was stagnant, and defensively they were woeful.
This isn’t a new bit of news to many people, as for years under Michel Therrien the team was consistently out-shot and it was an issue in need of being addressed. The main reason it went unaddressed for so long is that the team kept winning because Carey Price was in net, and when Price is on his game he becomes some sort of goaltending demi-god.
The issue finally boiled over last year. After losing two major cogs in their defence over a two-year period, and replacing one of them with a less-than-capable player in the case of Karl Alzner. At even strength and on the penalty kill, the Canadiens bled so many high-danger chances against that even at his best it would have been nothing short of a miracle for Price to have covered those flaws. It was his worst professional season, and between the ineptitude of the special teams in front of him and a multitude of injuries over the course of the year, Price bottomed out.
Even with last season looming large ahead of his mega-deal kicking in this year, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Price will be back on his game going forward. All-world goalies don’t just suddenly forget how to be amazing puck-stoppers.
The biggest key is that he’ll be healthy heading into this season after battling various ailments most of last year, including a concussion after taking a puck off the mask. Staying healthy for the full season will be a massive boost for the Canadiens’ playoff hopes, as the team seems to play a little bit taller when their Hart-winner is on the ball every game.
Perhaps even bigger is that during this tenuous off-season, Montreal revamped their coaching staff, leaving Claude Julien and Kirk Muller in place while firing everyone else. Out went Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Dan Lacroix, who oversaw the special teams systems of the team, including a penalty kill that was at the bottom of the league in efficiency. Not only that, but the defensive system as a whole seemed to be an abject mess. Even without players like Subban and Markov, the Canadiens are far better than what they showed last year, even if they are lacking true gamebreaking pieces.
In come Dominique Ducharme, and Luke Richardson. Ducharme was widely regarded as one of the top coaches in the CHL, and brings a much needed boost of energy to Julien’s staff. Richardson has a bit more experience at the professional level, serving as an assistant coach in Ottawa for three years from 2009 to 2012, then taking over as the head coach of their AHL affiliate for four more years. After taking a year away from the sport he returned last season to serve on the New York Islanders coaching staff as an assistant.
What this means for Montreal is that they have a chance to start fresh with their defensive systems this year, especially on the penalty kill. That was arguably their biggest anchor last year, as they gave up one goal every four times they were short-handed.
The above chart highlights where exactly the issue was, and it’s obvious: the Canadiens did next to nothing to prevent shots against from the slot and goalmouth area. That is something that over the course of the year never changed; at no point in time did the coach in charge of this special-teams unit make an adjustment for this obvious flaw. This of course led to a massive workload for Price and the other goalies who had the misfortune of taking the net, and very likely altered how they played the game. By being forced into overreacting, or trying to compensate for out-of-position teammates, Price deviated heavily from what made him an effective netminder for years.
With new blood in the system, the defensive structure will hopefully tighten up, especially on the penalty kill. This in turn should allow Carey Price and the other goalies to get back to their way of playing, and for Price that’s being the cool, collected presence between the pipes 60-plus times per year.