There are several compelling reasons why the 2015-16 season has gone off the rails for the Montreal Canadiens, the continued absence of Carey Price being one of them.
However, for me the answer to the question "what went wrong?" begins and ends with Alex Semin.
Through he put up an unremarkable four points in 15 games played before being literally exiled to the Russian Far East, in the 15 games where Semin was part of the lineup, the Habs averaged 3.67 goals for per game. In the 31 non-Semin games so far, Montreal has only averaged an anemic 2.29 goals for per game. In case you were wondering, Montreal allowed 2.13 goals against/game with Semin, and 2.77 without, though much of that jump can be attributed to not having Price between the pipes.
The Horse Race
If facts and figures about Semin’s on-ice contributions don’t really move you, there is another way to make sense of why he was so valuable to the team.
My grandfather taught Chinese literature for about 35 years, and one of the first parables he read to me was called Tian Ji Sai Ma (Tian Ji’s Horse Race).
Horse racing was the most popular entertainment among Chinese aristocracy, many hundreds of years ago.
Both General Tian Ji and the King of Qi were race horse owners. They often spend lots of money betting on their races, but Tian Ji lost most of races because his horses weren’t quite as fast.
That’s when Tian Ji’s military advisor Sun Bin offered to help.
Sun learned that horses were divided into three different classes based on their pace: Regular, Plus, and Super. Each of the horses must be used in one round; the owner who won two rounds out of three was the winner. He also saw that, though Qi was victorious in every round, his horses were not much faster than Tian Ji's.
And so Sun Bin hatched a plan.
"My idea is very simple," He told Tian Ji, "If you used your Super horse against the king's Super, your Plus against the king's Plus, and your Regular against the king’s Regular, you will lose every time.
Instead, you should disguise your Regular horse as the Super, your Plus as the Regular and your Super as the Plus. You will lose the first round for sure, but your Plus will beat the king's Regular, and your Super will defeat the king's Plus. You will be the winner."
Tian Ji accepted Sun Bin's suggestion, applied it in his next race meet against King Qi and won handily. Their guile earned the king's respect. Joining forces in a military alliance, they won many battles and conquered many lands.
I think hockey coaches can draw inspiration from the story when it comes to player deployment. While the Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Semin unit assembled by the coaching staff did not score all that often and was not water-proof defensively, it freed up the Max Pacioretty - Tomas Plekanec - Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Fleischmann - David Desharnais - Dale Weise lines in ways that more than made up for Semin’s individual lack of scoring.
Semin’s departure meant that Weise (a good 3RW), Paul Byron (a good 4LW), Daniel Carr and Sven Andrighetto have all had to shoulder top-six responsibilities at various times, limiting the effectiveness of Fleschmann, Desharnais, Eller and Galchenyuk by extension.
Semin was like that Jenga piece you shouldn’t have pulled, or the Regular horse opposing defenses fretted over as if he were the Super.
At this point in the year, I’m not convinced that this very important gap can be bridged by players inside the Habs’ organization. So where would I look for help? Here are a few names:
Radim Vrbata (VAN)
Brad Boyes (TOR)
Kris Versteeg (CAR)
Cam Atkinson (CLB)
Brian Gionta (BUF)
These are far from being the best players available on the trade market, but, in their own ways, they are the right players for the Montreal Canadiens if the team wants to do some damage in 2016.
Vrbata and Boyes are likely to be moved before the trade deadline. They are both strong second-line right wingers at even strength, and can chip in on the powerplay and in the shootout – two areas where the Habs can use their help down the stretch.
Versteeg, at this stage of his career, is an inferior player to Semin in almost every way, but he is also an underrated playmaker who can increase Eller and Galchenyuk’s shot volumes the same way Semin did in his 15-game stint.
Atkinson is a highly-touted player in Columbus and won’t come cheap, but he is a similar player to Brendan Gallagher stylistically and can fit in well on almost any line in Montreal.
Gionta is likely in the final stretch of his career, but his history in Montreal means that the coaching staff will give him the trust that Michael Ryder, Daniel Briere, Thomas Vanek, P.A. Parenteau and Semin struggled to gain in past three years.
Assuming that Price will be back at some point this season, finding a 2RW on the open market could well save the season for the Habs. It will certainly give some interesting options to Michel Therrien and his staff. They can either slot the new guy in with Galchenyuk and Eller to recreate the Semin-era lineup configuration, or put him alongside Pacioretty and Plekanec and reunite the highly productive Galchenyuk-Eller-Gallagher "Kid Line." In both cases, Desharnais, Fleischmann and Weise will draw some weaker competition, and the Byron-Mitchell-Flynn unit is well-positioned for clean-up duties.
Can Marc Bergevin go get that player, and will Michel Therrien use him correctly? That remains to be seen, and time will tell if this is the hill the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens are willing to die on.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.