The Montreal Canadiens continue to mismanage the puck in the offensive zone. It is not the first time we’re talking about it and it won’t be the last.
There is nothing wrong with a shot from the blue line — under the right conditions. Those with a heavy net-front presence, more attackers around the net than defenders, and an open shooting lane. The Canadiens have become so entrenched in their ways, however, that they rarely look to see if those conditions are met. As soon as the puck moves high, either to a defenceman or a forward, it slingshots back toward the net. The Canadiens hammer, blast, and smash with little forethought. The puck deflects off shin pads, hits teammates in various body parts, and bounces away from the control of the team.
Ultimately, by firing so much, the Habs only cut their offensive zone time and reduce the quality of their scoring chances.
You can see those tendencies illustrated on the chart below, in the bright-red spots where the blue line meets the wall and in front of the net where the puck ricochets on bodies, but ultimately rarely makes its way in the cage.
I get it, Montreal wants to make something happen, but they don’t take matters into their own hands with such poor puck management. They simply shoot over and over again and hope for the best, like the gambler who is already massively in debt, but keeps on betting because “the next one will pay off.”
The image below is a shot Phillip Danault decided to take in the first period. The puck came from the stick of Brendan Gallagher so there was a bit of pass movement prior to the release, but Danault’s shot remains a poor decision. The centreman barely crossed the blue line; he’s still at least two stick-lengths away from the slot, and his path there isn’t covered by Oilers defenceman. The opponents’ momentum is carrying them back. The ice in front is open. Danault can walk in and fire from much closer to the net.
Or, much better, he could use the threat of the shot to challenge and attract the defender standing near Gallagher and create a two-on-one with his teammate.
I think this is where Montreal is missing the most offensive opportunities. Teams expect them to fire from far away. They can play off that and confound the opposing defence by holding a release once in a while. The threat of a shot can become even more dangerous than an actual shot. A fake can freeze defenders and open space to walk around them, something we have seen Nick Suzuki pull off many times.
But this play isn’t reserved to highly skilled forwards. Take a look at this sequence.
Joel Edmundson’s first point shot was a good decision. He got the puck at the top of the zone in a difficult position, and firing released defensive pressure. The second time the puck comes to him, however, he has space. Edmundson can accelerate on his first touch and take the puck down the wall or attract the defender and slide a pass to his partner after faking a release. But, once again, he hammers the puck in the direction of the net. The disc stops short of its course as it deflects on the hands of the defender. The shot could have easily turned into a breakaway the other way. Fortunately, the dice didn’t fall that way.
A few seconds later, Chiarot gains the puck on the other side of the ice. He gets his head up, sees the heavy net-front presence, understands that the puck won’t thread through all those bodies, and goes to work.
He fakes a first release and does it again. The defender flinches, expecting to receive yet another puck in the chest. Chiarot uses the opponent’s hesitation to step wide around him and attacks the net from below the goal line.
His chance of scoring would have probably improved had the forwards in front of the net sprung toward the high slot as he drove in instead of clogging his path to the blue paint, but the effort was more than commendable anyway.
This long-lasting overuse of point shots as a default strategy doesn’t just have repercussions on the scoreboard, but also on the development of the Habs prospects. Alexander Romanov lacks creativity on the offensive blue line. It was a clear weakness as he came through the ranks of Russian hockey, and you see it now with the Canadiens, too. (I wrote this article on his offensive development in January, 2019.)
His combo of high mobility and confidence could serve as the building blocks of a better offensive game, one with more flow and movement, with attacks down the wall, and passes to the slot. But the current offensive system of the Habs just reinforces his bad habits.
A bit like Danault in the image above, in this sequence, the defence gives Romanov space to at least improve the location of his shot, or better, to take the puck in a lateral slide down the blue line that would stretch the opposing defence and allow one of his forwards to move high, possibly creating a puck exchange to beat a defender; the kind of movement that breathes some life into an offensive-zone presence.
But Romanov doesn’t look at his surroundings, doesn’t scan for a shooting lane, or for a better play. He gets his head down and blasts the puck. It hits a shin pad and creates a three-on-two the other way.
Of course, that is just one play at the very start of his career, but Montreal’s system isn’t tracing him a path to improvement. If he only follows its guidelines, like many rookies do as they try to survive and keep their spot, Romanov won’t receive the necessary push he needs to make the most of his skill set.
I talked about the Canadiens’ need to stay true to their identity in my previous article. But that doesn’t mean distilling down what made them successful in the early parts of the season. Montreal can shoot from the point, but that can’t be a default play. It has to remain a decision every time, a choice informed by a prior scanning of the offensive situation.
Am I being pressured? Do I have space to skate the puck and improve the location of a shot? Is there a seam to the slot or down the wall? Is a shooting lane open? Is there a teammate in a position to tip the puck? Are forwards outnumbering defenders near the net? These are some of the questions players have to ask themselves before they receive the puck at the top of the zone.
All in all, puck management isn’t the only issue for the Canadiens right now, but the team won’t get out of its funk until they start using each other in more productive ways.