Looking Forward: Five keys to a 2018 Stanley Cup run for the Montreal Canadiens
The trade may be lost, the window shortened, but the Canadiens are still here, and still in with a chance.
With P.K. Subban and the Nashville Predators preparing to face off against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Stanley Cup, the mood among fans of the Tricolore has ranged from indignant rage to steadfast obfuscation to moribund acceptance.
As I talked about previously, the Montreal Canadiens' window is shorter, but certainly not closed. This off-season will present key decisions for the Habs’ coaching and management staffs in determining the shape and tenor of the 2017-18 version of the team and, in turn, their prospects, for parading a 25th Stanley Cup along Rue Sainte-Catherine.
1. No immediate help from this year’s draft
The Montreal Canadiens, by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division, have the 25th selection in the upcoming 2017 NHL Entry Draft in what has been broadly considered a weak year. Players chosen in the late first round are generally not expected to contribute at the NHL level for multiple years. The only players selected in the bottom half of the first round in 2015 or 2016 to have played over 40 NHL games so far are Jakob Chychrun (2016, 16th), Travis Konecny (2015, 24th), and Anthony Beauvillier (2015, 28th).
Assuming a three-year development period, the Canadiens 2017 pick will be expected to start contributing at the NHL level in the 2019-20 season. If Marc Bergevin is still present, he will be entering his eighth season as the general manager, making him the longest tenured Habs GM since Serge Savard.
Suffice it to say that this is not the most likely scenario, and that Bergevin may never reap the benefits of whomever he selects first at this year's draft. With that in mind, the Canadiens GM may be considering trading this year's first-round pick in order to maximize the assets available to him immediately. A late first-rounder certainly doesn't have the cache of a top-three pick, but precedence indicates that useful talent is available for that price under the right mitigating circumstances.
For instance, just last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired Frederik Andersen for the 30th-overall pick and a second-rounder the next year. Teuvo Teravainen was moved alongside Bryan Bickell for a second and a third. And of course, both Andrew Shaw and Lars Eller were moved for two second-round picks.
These examples by no means reflect what the Canadiens' needs are and what sort of players they should acquire, just that trades for NHL-ready talent can be made if a GM finds the right situation. In addition, the Canadiens do have moderate amounts of cap space for this year (and this year alone) to play with if necessary. The initiative lies with Bergevin to identify teams that are ripe for the picking, and to strike while the iron is hot.
2. The Canadiens need a first-pairing left defenceman
Much has been made about the Nashville defensive quartet of Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Montreal's defensive corps isn’t at that level, but it’s no slouch either. The duo of Shea Weber and Jeff Petry present a 1-2 punch on the right side that’s in the upper echelon of the league, and Andrei Markov is showing no signs of slowing down.
However, while Markov is certainly able to play with and augment the abilities of both Weber and Petry, the Markov-Weber pairing has one primary weakness: their lack of footspeed makes the pairing one-dimensional.
This year, through Brady Skjei, Erik Karlsson, and of course the Nashville quartet, we have observed how important activating defencemen is to sustained zone pressure and generating offence. It's no longer sufficient to just make a well-timed pinch to keep the puck alive in the zone. Teams need a defenceman capable of skating with the puck; a player who can sow chaos and confusion in defensive coverages by driving the net or taking a lap behind it. Markov and Weber are excellent players capable of many things, but an Ekholmian net drive is in neither of their repertoires.
The Canadiens certainly do have mobile left-side options in Nathan Beaulieu and the newly-acquired Jakub Jerabek. Both have extensive professional experience, but Jerabek will be making his NHL debut and Beaulieu can be prone to inconsistency. There are certainly question marks as to whether either can shoulder the burden of logging 20+ minutes on a nightly basis.
That said, both should get their shots. In particular, Jerabek's all-star performance in the KHL is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and his skill and creativity with the puck offers a complementary foil to Shea Weber's defensive acumen. A quartet of Jerabek-Weber and Markov-Petry would give each pairing a solid mobile puck mover and a more immobile lynchpin oozing with hockey sense.
If neither Beaulieu nor Jerabek are able to handle being Shea Weber's partner, or if management does not intend for either of them to ever play that role, then Bergevin needs to prioritize locating a puck-moving first-pairing LD. This will be no small task, as for the most part, NHL GMs have learned to prioritize blue-line mobility. In addition, this year's standout UFA puck-moving defenceman, Kevin Shattenkirk, is an RD, while the rest of the free-agent crop are unlikely to offer significant upgrades on Beaulieu and Jerabek.
3. Alexei Emelin no longer has a place on the team
Unfortunately, with an ideal defensive corps comprised of Jerabek (or Beaulieu, or an acquisition)-Weber, Markov-Petry, there would only be a single opening left for both LD and RD. I think it's fairly safe to say that the RD opening is Jordie Benn's to lose coming out of training camp, meaning that Beaulieu/Jerabek, Mikhail Sergachev, and Alexei Emelin will be competing for the final LD spot on the roster.
In this horse race, Emelin should be the decided long shot. His play has been below the accepted standard since his injury and subsequent knee surgery at the end of the 2012-13 season, to the point where this past season, the Canadiens recorded a 5v5 goals-for percentage (GF%) of 58.4% with him off the ice and 48.8% with him on it.
To put those numbers into context, that 58.4% would have been second in the league, behind only the Washington Capitals (61.4%) and substantially ahead of the third-place Columbus Blue Jackets (55.9%). That 48.8% would have ranked 20th, tied with Winnipeg and just ahead of Los Angeles (48.6%). Finally, the differential of 9.6% between Emelin-on-the-ice and Emelin-off-the-ice was roughly the difference between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres (10.4%).
Even setting the numbers aside for a minute, Emelin's play-style is a mark against him. Playing him on the third pairing with Jordie Benn, who is similar to Emelin but generally superior in every facet except hitting, would create a redundant one-dimensional pairing with similar issues as Markov-Weber, but lacking the skill or hockey sense to compensate. Worse, having Emelin as the third LD would not only relegate Jerabek or Beaulieu to the press box in a situation reminiscent of the 2013-14 playoffs and Douglas Murray, but also limit playing time for Sergachev, who won’t develop any further in the OHL but isn't yet eligible for the AHL.
Ultimately, to enjoy a modicum of success, Emelin would need to play with Weber, Petry, or Markov. Doing so would neuter a Canadiens’ offence that already has difficulty scoring goals. The stout Russian is not utterly and entirely bereft of value as an NHL-level hockey player, he simply no longer fits within the ideal Canadiens roster framework, and needs to be moved for assets yielding actual benefit to the current club.
4. Alex Galchenyuk needs to either be a centre or exchanged for one
For the first time in years, the Canadiens have solid winger depth. On the left side, Max Pacioretty, Artturi Lehkonen, and Paul Byron should (conservatively) give the Habs 70 goals this season. On the right, Brendan Gallagher and Andrew Shaw are solid top-9 forwards, and Alexander Radulov's importance to the CH after only one season cannot be understated. In contrast, absent Galchenyuk, the Habs would only feature Phillip Danault, Tomas Plekanec, Michael McCarron, and Torrey Mitchell down the middle. This disparity is even present with the prospects, where the wing is occupied by the likes of Daniel Carr, Charles Hudon, and Nikita Scherbak, but the Habs top centre prospects are the less heralded Jacob de la Rose and Daniel Audette.
Given this situation, there is therefore no logical reason not to convert Galchenyuk into a badly needed centre, either by playing him there or by using him to upgrade at the position.
Clearly, the first option is preferable. Galchenyuk's ceiling is higher than any centre the Canadiens could logically hope to obtain in a trade (put your Claude Giroux or John Tavares for Galchenyuk and Beaulieu trade proposals away). His point production is on par with that of leading trade candidate Matt Duchene, and while one can argue that Duchene plays for a terrible Colorado Avalanche team, one could argue just as well that Galchenyuk likewise plays for a Montreal Canadiens team that simply does not promote offensive production.
If the second option is taken, the Canadiens must obtain the best player in the trade. After the Subban-Weber trade, there is no excuse for another wild-goose chase in the name of "intangibles" or "character." Acquiring a two-way centre would just create redundancy with Phillip Danault and Tomas Plekanec. No, Galchenyuk must be traded for a centre with greater immediate offensive output than him. Based on last year's scoring race, that limits the number of candidates to a very select group, the vast majority of them untouchable in a trade.
It must be said that Galchenyuk did not play particularly well over the final 42 games of this season (36 regular season, six playoffs). However, he had been an offensive stalwart for the Habs over the 187 games prior to that. Unless a clear and unequivocal upgrade can be obtained, Galchenyuk deserves an opportunity as the Canadiens #1 centre to see what he can do with a new coach behind the bench and a new system on the ice.
5. The club can help Shea Weber get even better
Shea Weber scored 17 goals, logged heavy minutes, and generally did everything that anyone could expect him to do. He’s also been heavily targeted as a candidate for an eventual (or more rapid) future decline.
But although the fall of Shea Weber from the pantheon of elite NHL defencemen may appear inevitable, Weber is not finished yet as a useful and key element of the Montreal Canadiens, and I believe that the Habs have a responsibility to utilize him in a way that actually maximizes the unique skills that he brings: namely, his shot.
By most standards, 12 power-play goals in a season is a success. Indeed, it matches Weber’s second-highest single-season total throughout his career. However, Weber’s power-play production was significantly hampered by the Canadiens inability to ice anything resembling a cohesive special-teams unit. As opposing teams realized that the the power play funneled almost exclusively through Weber, they were able to neutralize him. Case in point: Weber recorded 8 power-play goals from the start of the season to December 31st, 2016, but only four thereafter.
Weber’s deployment and position within the Canadiens PP scheme was also substandard. Despite his goal total, only 60 of the 125 shots (48.0%) he took on the power play reached the net, a notable decline from the previous year (55 of 98, 56.1%).
This discrepancy certainly isn’t Weber’s fault, and it’s not necessarily even unique to the Montreal Canadiens.
Two years ago in Nashville, Weber only hit the net with 72 of 148 shots (48.6%). What do 2014-15 (first image in the gallery below) and 2016-17 (second image) have in common? In both years, Weber played the role of a static point man who remained near the blue line and closer to the boards.
In contrast, in 2015-16, Weber was allowed to creep closer towards the net into a region similar to Alex Ovechkin’s wheelhouse. Peter Laviolette’s power-play scheme also rotated Weber to the centre of the rink as the top man in an umbrella formation, and this movement likely opened defensive gaps and allowed more shots to reach the net (third image).
Montreal needs to take proper advantage of the unique weapon that is Shea Weber’s shot, and to do so, they need to get that shot positioned and lined up correctly. I talked about how similar 2014-15 in Nashville and 2016-17 in Montreal were, but even in that comparison, Weber’s deployment in Nashville was superior.
In 2014-15, Weber moved somewhat towards the centre of the rink (below, red arrow) and shot while located between 40-50 feet from the net. In 2016-17, Weber’s shots mainly came from between 45-55 feet and he remained firmly glued to the left point (second image, gallery above).
If Weber is utilized correctly and if the Habs manage to develop a scheme that can simultaneously take advantage of both his shot and a Pacioretty/Galchenyuk one-timer, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Weber could hit 15-20 PP goals over the course of the season. Not only would this catapult Weber into Norris Trophy discussion, but it would make opposing teams very hesitant to commit infractions against the Canadiens, freeing up space for the forwards.
The Canadiens aren’t finished yet
Given the tumult that has already emerged, it’s clear that Marc Bergevin will likely enter the 2017-18 season with talk of “the trade” still buzzing in his ears. But the Canadiens will likely go into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft with more winger depth, more defensive depth, and a better salary cap situation compared with this point a year ago. Most importantly, the Canadiens will have a superior coach, and will no longer be tethered to the obsolete strategems of Michel Therrien.
The Habs are still a house of cards, but just as a few bad moves can send the structure crumbling down, a few good moves can result in an impressive display.