Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Your Canadiens: State of the Habs Update(s)

Admittedly, I wasn't able to watch last night's Montreal Canadiens game as I was travelling for business-related pursuits. As such, I have to base my opinion on highlights, reviews from various sources, and statistics. But even from only this, it isn't hard to understand that Habs fans could be slightly frustrated from a pair of losses in games that could have easily gone either way on the heels of a 4-game win streak.

So where does this leave the team and organization at large in the second month of the NHL season? Here is my take on a number of fronts:

1) The Forwards in Montreal

- Erik Cole has consistently been one of the team's most dominant forwards on a nightly basis over the last 7 or 8 games. His numbers may not be overly impressive, but he is "bringing it." He is providing the physical, big body presence the team lacked up front, and generating plenty of scoring chances by cutting to the net. The signing - at least for now - looks like a good one that is part of "the solution" to building a winning team.

- Max Pacioretty, the team's leading goal scorer with 6 and second-best-point-getter with 11, is developing into the top 6 power forward fans hoped for. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, however: we still haven't seen the best of Max. Last year, he would cut to the net the way that Cole does, or that Brendan Gallagher did in training camp. He has been hesitant to make those moves at times this year, to be expected after returning from such a significant injury. But if he re-finds that confidence, then look out, cause we'll be looking at a young and dominant player.

- Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta are players the Habs need more out of. Gionta is on pace for just 17 goals and less than 50 points, while Cammalleri may have 7 points in 11 games, but is a -5. These players are paid to lead the way up front, and though Jacques Martin was quick to point out the inexperience of his young players as part of a cause for the loss to the Oilers, it is the Cammalleris and Giontas that need to pick it up most. Still, if the NHL ever decides to award half a point for hitting the goal post, the Habs would have two perennial Hart Trophy candidates in these guys.

- Injury Updates: It seems like Andrei Kostitsyn will miss (or is questionable for) at least one more game as the Habs called Aaron Palushaj back up from Hamilton today. Palushaj has gone back and forth all season long, collecting 8 points in 7 games with the Bulldogs. The other injured forward, Scott Gomez, rejoined his teammates in practice earlier this week wearing a non-contact jersey, but hopes to get medical clearance for physical play as soon as today. With the green light, he could be back in action as soon as Saturday, though it'll be interesting to see where Martin plays him. Though he has produced, David Desharnais is a clear weak spot in the line-up to me, and giving some of his responsibilities to Gomez could upgrade the team. This situation will be an interesting one to monitor, as per Martin, both Kostitsyn and Gomez are considered day-to-day at this point.

2) The Defense in Montreal

- If Desharnais and Mathieu Darche have earned Martin's favoured status amongst forwards, Raphael Diaz somehow found a golden ticket on the back end. I don't dislike Diaz - I do see potential there - but on a defense that is already too small and soft, he doesn't fill a dire need. Having both him and Yannick Weber in the line-up is redundant at best, and that has nothing to do with the fact that they're both Swiss. Alexei Emelin may be caught out of position at times and not overly impressed in his North American debut, but if he is given some experience and allowed to develop properly, his mix of size and hitting ability are skills that would greatly improve the D group (see his hit on Ales Hemsky from last night).

- Injury Updates: Per the training staff, Andrei Markov is still "progressing well" and is nearing a return. He has been skating daily (with increasing duration) and working hard in the gym. Signed to be the team's clear #1 blueliner, his addition will be a huge one, even if he needs a few games of lesser minutes to get back into top shape. Given that Markov will take over powerplay duties (more on that later) from one of the current pointmen, I would like to see Diaz being the one sat when he returns, with either Josh Gorges or Jaroslav Spacek shifting over to the right side to accommodate the change.
There is more good news, being that Chris Campoli (remember him?) skated for the first time since his injury yesterday. While he is still a while away from a return, it is good to see that his rehab is progressing. He will be a welcome upgrade on either Weber or Diaz as an offensive defenseman who is less of a liability in his own end due to added strength. So while I still consider defensive zone play a big weakness on this team, there are a few solutions on the horizon.

3) The Powerplay

- Why Tomas Plekanec remains on the point on the powerplay, I do not understand. Yes, he does have two goals from there, which is more than Mike Cammalleri or Raphael Diaz have with the man advantage. But Plekanec is the team's top face-off man after Petteri Nokelainen, and his best offensive skills relate to being shifty with the puck as opposed to a big shot or precision passing. Sure, he is a two-way player, but as evidenced on the Oilers shorthanded goal yesterday, that doesn't mean he is a natural to play at the point.

- Similarly, I don't get the continued use of Mathieu Darche on the powerplay either. At least it's not at the expense of Erik Cole any longer, but once either Kostitsyn or Gomez are back in the line-up, they deserve those minutes far more than Darche. He can go to the net, sure, but so can Cole, Pacioretty, and Gionta. Darche is not an offensive player; he is a fourth liner at best who can occasionally fill in on another line. He would not be on any other team in the league's powerplay.

4) The Prospects

- Injury Updates: Jarred Tinordi returned to the London Knights line-up after missing a couple of weeks due to cuts suffered on his face during a fight. In his two games back, Tinordi turned in strong performances, finishing each game a +1 and picking up his third assist in 8 games to date.
Michael Bournival is nearing a return for the Shawinigan Cataractes. The young center was hoping to be ready for the Subway Super Series this week, and told staff he'd play at less than 100% if it would help his chances to make Team Canada for the upcoming World Junior Championships. Bournival was told not to worry, that his spot at the December camp was already assured, and that he should take his time to heal in full. He expects to be back in the line-up within a week to 10 days.

- Who's Hot?: With Bournival out and Danny Kristo blanked in consecutive games for the first time this season, Brendan Gallagher stepped back up to remain the hottest future Hab. With 8 points in 3 games so far in November, Gallagher is now at 16 goals and 27 points in just 15 games with the Vancouver Giants.
Also hot are a few NCAA prospects. Dustin Walsh, who showed good size and power forward instincts at Montreal rookie camp in September, had a 5-point weekend, giving him 7 points through 4 games with Dartmouth.
In Michigan, Greg Pateryn had back-to-back 2 assist games to sit at 2 goals and 10 points in 10 games, while frequent defense partner Mac Bennett scored a goal in each of those games giving him 2 goals and 9 points in the same time period. Pateryn is a senior and should be a lock to be signed and join the Hamilton Bulldogs next season, while Bennett might return for another year of college.

5) Oddball

- For anyone in the Dallas area, the Stars will be giving former Canadien Mike Ribeiro the bobblehead treatment on December 1st. The first 7,000 fans in attendance at that night's game against the Ottawa Senators will receive a bobblehead. For those (LIKE ME) who collect Canadiens-related memorabilia, this is good news as it is the first figure of Ribeiro ever produced. I'll certainly keep my eyes peeled to find one online!

Finally, with two losses dropping the Canadiens back below the .500 mark, the upcoming two game swing down to Phoenix and Nashville could be critical in determining how the team will fare this season. They have played well enough to win but come up pointless on numerous occasions, but unless they can pick up 4 points this week, they will continue to dig a hold in the Eastern Conference standings.

Thus, it's a big week for the Habs and their fans, so GO HABS GO!

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