Around the Atlantic: Don’t look now, but the Montreal Canadiens are right in the thick of things

Eyes on the Prize’s Scott Matla provides some insight into how Montreal has surprised everyone this season.

Today, Around the Atlantic tackles the most storied franchise in NHL history, the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal has had a rough go of it the past two seasons, but this year they’ve managed to put themselves right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. After some big-time trades where Marc Bergevin moved P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin, Max Pacioretty for Tomas Tatar (and Nick Suzuki), and Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi, Montreal finally looks like a team that could make things interesting come playoff time.

For this piece, Habs Eyes on the Prize writer Scott Matla was kind enough to sit and talk with me about the Canadiens’ season and what he thinks about the team moving forward.

ME: How in the world is Montreal third in the Atlantic and battling for a wildcard spot? Their numbers at 5v5 are top 10 in the league.

SM: Amazingly, Claude Julien’s system seems to have been changed from last year. It’s not this old school dump and grind it out, they’re playing the game with speed and pace and being relentless on teams. Instead of being passive, they’re putting the pressure on the opposition. Even on their penalty kill, they’ve been aggressive in games. It’s an aggressiveness that they’ve been missing, and behind that they’re backed by a defense where Shea Weber and Jeff Petry have been nothing short of phenomenal for them. Add in Carey Price’s return to form since Weber’s return with a .950 save percentage, which is utterly ridiculous, and it’s almost unfair for a team that’s already playing well at 5v5.

ME: I did some digging into their numbers and this Canadiens team looks great at 5v5, but when I dug a little more I found the problem; the power-play. What can you tell me about their power-play struggles?

SM: The power-play is atrocious. Not only is it bad, it’s historically bad for a team that’s been around for 100+ years. They’re very slow and methodical, trying to find their passing lanes, which isn’t bad, but it allows opposing defenses to just settle in place. They don’t force the opposing goalie to move that much. They’re trying to beat them with power over finesse and passing.

At this point, it’s pretty clear it’s not working. The irony of things being that their AHL team’s power-play scores at least two to three times a game and has been for the past month and change. It’s like—look at what they’re doing and DO THAT THING! They have enough talent to do it. If their power-play was functioning at even half of what it could be this team would probably be ahead of Toronto at this point.

ME: You say that, and you’re just one point behind Toronto in the standings, albeit you’ve played two more games than they have at this time. Your penalty kill isn’t bad, it’s about league average, but one thing I noticed about Montreal is that they’re tied for the third worse penalty differential at 5v5.

SM: Yea, some of it is defensemen kind of getting caught not moving their feet. Shea Weber’s magical penalty immunity thing is gone. Things he didn’t get called for in the past, he’s getting called for this year. Whether it be giving someone a shoulder or a stick, and a lot of it is stick infractions on Montreal. Holding and tripping penalties because someone got caught on a play, and a lot of that comes on the power-play.

The puck goes the other way, and whether it’s Drouin or Victor Mete or anyone else at the point they’re only option is to turn and hack the guy and hope it doesn’t turn into a further breakaway. That comes with Claude Julien’s teams—he likes his teams to be physical and to play with that edge and he’s got the guys for it. They’ll take a penalty for you to take a penalty, but then they’ll get dinged for an extra two minutes because they went just a little too far.

ME: Do you feel as though that’s detrimental to the team given their struggles on the power-play and their mediocre play on the penalty kill?

SM: It is. It depends on who is in the lineup. With Joel Armia out, the penalty kill suffered because he was a huge piece of that. Having him back gives them a weapon to counter attack with. It made their penalty kill a whole lot less threatening when opposing teams didn’t have to worry about the puck going toward their net. Last year the penalty kill was so bad I assumed the puck was going into the net within 30 seconds—it was so bad.

I’m so glad they fired everyone related to that over the offseason. My main thing is that I’m hoping with this week off is they’ll refresh, come back, and be focused. I know they have the pieces to make this power-play lethal. I don’t see why it’s not clicking yet, but it’s very capable of doing so. It’s just a matter of getting a little bit of confidence and then boom you have a team that is terrifying at even strength and the power-play.

ME: When I made my preseason predictions, I had Montreal as a wildcard team because I never count out Carey Price. Until he shows me he isn’t an elite goaltender I’m not banking against Price. I look at the forward corps and the top six is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but when you go deeper into the lineup I question “is that good enough against the top tier teams in the league?”

SM: Going into this year, our biggest thing was “our forward corps are good”. Matthew Peca is the 13th forward, there are worse options to have than that. The top nine with Domi, Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Andrew Shaw, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Arturri Lehkonen, Paul Byron, Phillip Danault, and Tatar is a solid group. They’re not going to be spectacular though. Gallagher is on pace for another 30 goal season and you haven’t even heard about it. His goals come from whichever way he can get them. Same with Shaw and Tatar. They don’t score highlight reel goals like Nikita Kucherov or Steven Stamkos. They’re an unspectacular group, but they’re solid.

Our biggest question entering the season was, what is this defense going to be without Shea Weber at the start of the season? Jeff Petry is great, but what else do we have? As everyone’s gotten healthy, they’ve managed to solidify the lineup. I still don’t think they’ve optimized the lineup because I don’t think Mike Reilly is a top-four defender—he’s not. They have these pieces in place and it appears to have meshed. I think teams shouldn’t take them lightly because they have guys who are good at very specific things throughout the lineup on both sides of the puck.

ME: Talking about Marc Bergevin, a general manager who has drawn the ire of Montreal fans with his roster moves—the Subban trade, the Sergachev trade, the Galchenyuk trade—as someone who covers the team, do you still feel as though Bergevin has a long way to go to fix his reputation with the fanbase? Or do you feel that since the team has exceeded, at least preseason expectations, that he’s bought himself more time?

SM: This goes to the Subban trade—it sucks. However, I look at the other one-for-one trades that have occurred and I go, “at least Weber is a top pairing defensemen”. What frustrates me is that there was a rumored package with Vancouver that would’ve been really good. The Canucks would draft Pierre Luc-Dubois and trade him, Bo Horvat, and Chris Tanev for Subban and Montreal’s first. I’d be running to the phone for that package.

Bergevin was in a similar place this offseason as Peter Chiarelli entering the season—things are bad, I need to make a shakeup, what do I do? Chiarelli did nothing, and got fired. Marc Bergevin took a huge roll of the dice. The Galchenyuk-Domi trade was one I did not like at first. We traded a goal scorer for a playmaker on a team that doesn’t have any goal scorers. Then Max Domi said, “shut up I’m good” and scores 44 points in the first half of the season.

Then the Pacioretty trade was a tightrope—everyone knew Pacioretty wanted to stay but Bergevin wanted to move him. The value he got back with Tatar, Suzuki, and a second round pick was phenomenal. Especially with how Tatar has played. This year he’s had a bit of a Midas touch. He traded two AHL defensemen and got Brett Kulak who’s playing in Montreal regularly. He got Joel Armia for a prospect who isn’t even in the Jets system anymore and is playing U-Sports in Canada. This year bought Bergevin a lot of breathing room for how good the team has been.

ME: In regards to the Sergachev-Drouin trade, I called it a win-win for both teams. They both got what they wanted. Tampa got a player who is a top-four defender and Montreal got a gifted offensive forward. If there is one thing the Yzerman-BriseBois management group has struggled to do, it’s develop defensemen at the NHL level. The last defensemen this management group drafted and developed was Slater Koekkoek who is now playing for Chicago because he couldn’t break into the defensive rotation often enough. That’s why I was fine with Drouin being sent away because the Lightning have been supremely good at developing forwards. I mean we have Mathieu Joseph with double digits goals and he was a fourth round pick.

SM: Yea, I watched enough of that coming through Syracuse. Covering the AHL for so many years, it’s like, “Oh ok, Syracuse, well Cirelli’s up, Joseph’s up, and Erne’s up. Who’s there now? Katchouk, Raddysh, Volkov. It’s just like [expletive] off already”.

ME: (Laughing hysterically) You forgot Alex Barré-Boulet!

SM: Don’t get me started on that one.

ME: You guys are in the thick of the playoff race. You’re a point behind Toronto, two ahead of Boston, three ahead of Pittsburgh (wildcard), and have a seven-point buffer between you and Buffalo. The biggest thing you need to worry about is what Metro team falls into the wildcard battle, because the Metro is a cluster of teams.

SM: It’s the strangest thing that the Atlantic this year is what the Metro is most years. Where there is a murder team—either Pittsburgh or Washington, who is Tampa this year. Then a bunch of good, then fringe, and then doo-doo butts. Ottawa and Detroit are doo-doo butts, but then Buffalo is right behind Boston and Montreal, who are right behind Toronto. All I needed last night [this was recorded last Thursday evening] was Washington to win to watch Montreal pass Toronto in the standings just so I could watch hockey twitter collectively burn itself to the ground.

ME: (Laughing) The trolling would’ve been fantastic.

SM: The thing is, everyone was ready to give Toronto a Stanley Cup—they got John Tavares, which duh he’s great. Toronto’s defense? Still not that good, and that’s from a Montreal fan. Toronto can outscore their problems, for so long, but then regression comes in. That’s why I’m confident in Montreal this year. They’re not on a PDO bender—they’re actually good.

I want to thank Scott for joining me for a fun session of hockey talk. We conversed for almost an hour and the insight he provided for Montreal was great to hear. If any of you have questions about Montreal feel free to contact me or Scott on Twitter and we’d be happy to discuss whatever comes to mind.

Scott Matla is the senior AHL reporter for Habs Eyes on the Prize and also does in-depth features and breaking news for the site’s Montreal Canadiens coverage. You can contact Scott via his Twitter handle: @scottmatla.