January 24, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) is congratulated by teammates after the Canadiens game against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center. The Canadiens won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Thoughts after the first week

No numbers in this one. In fact, let’s make this my first thought: this early, with so few games played, sample sizes are very small, so every statistic and every conclusion should be considered with extreme care.

The Habs have yet to face a genuinely good team, not that there are many in their conference. They’ve done very well in those three games, though I would not expect Price to keep a save percentage in excess of .950, of course.

More encouraging was the team’s system of play. They have shown a stark preference for crossing both blue lines in puck possession. They do not often chip the puck out of the defensive zone, instead preferring to handle it and working it out by a series of passes, preferably one that ends on the stick of a speeding forward. Likewise, they have shown a strong preference towards avoiding the dump-and-chase and instead favor passing or carrying the puck in the offensive zone. Even when it fails because of the lack of coordination (such as in the game versus Toronto), the Habs have stuck with this passing game rather than revert to the “safer” chip-and-chase hockey, seemingly determined to make it work. It’s a refreshing change from Cunneyworth’s simplest-play-available system, and not just from an aesthetic or entertainment perspective: analysis suggests that carrying the puck in is far more likely to result in scoring chances than dumping it in.

Another encouraging sign with the coaching is that Therrien does not hesitate to make mid-game adjustments. I felt the Eller scratch was premature, but the willingness to rejig lines, move a deserving Bourque up, and adjust his 5-on-5 defensive pairings is welcome. Much has been made of Francis Bouillon’s icetime, but the total is mainly due to the fact that he and Markov are the only players playing both special teams; having Bouillon on special teams at all can be questioned, and it is something Nashville didn’t do with him, but it’s unlikely to continue once the Habs have Subban available. Nevertheless, after the first game, Bouillon was moved out of the top-4 and used in a third-pairing role with Kaberle, which suits him better and better reflects the emergence of Raphael Diaz. Accordingly, Bouillon is second behind Markov for total icetime, but an approrpiate fifth in even-strength icetime, and a minute and a half or more behind Markov, Emelin and Gorges.

Markov is still the holy harbinger of divine wrath that we’ve come to expect him to be on the power play, which is encouraging. More importantly, he’s also shown himself to be capable of facing top competition at even-strength. I’m not convinced that the Markov-Emelin pairing is quite as good as Subban-Gorges, but hopefully the Habs will not have to choose; they can simply have one or the other out there for 45 minutes a game. This will give the Canadiens an excellent set of blueliners, one that can favorably compare in a shallow East.

Another encouraging sign is the play of Bourque. It has only been three games, of course, but in these three games he has looked like a top-6 player, much to my surprise. Therrien has accordingly started using him as one. If this continues, then not only will the Habs be able to fill their LW hole from within, but he will allow them to consider retaining him (his salary is appropriate for a second-line winger) and amnesty someone else, perhaps Tomas Kaberle. I should point out, however, that it is quite unusual for a player to suddenly elevate his level of play at Bourque’s age; unless this is due from injury recovery, some prudence would be in order.

Galchenyuk has looked like a NHL player, enough so that the Habs may be tempted to keep him. For Galchenyuk, it’s all about where he will develop more, not so much what saves the team the most money in the short term. Subban situation notwithstanding, elite players will get their money whether they are RFAs or not. For the Habs, if it can be managed it’s better to shorten Galchenyuk’s development cycle.

On the negative side of the ledger, the “first line” of Cole, Desharnais and Pacioretty has failed to produce any goals. Pacioretty has 4 assists and over three shots a game so he doesn’t worry me; likewise, for all that he’s struck people has sluggish, Cole has managed to ring the post twice in three games. The goals will come for those two, which will serve to lift Desharnais as well. The Habs’ center, however, seems to be having some trouble adjusting to the tougher minutes he is facing this season. Perhaps this will pass, or perhaps the line could be rejigged or its role shifted, though having a “kid line” built around Galchenyuk and Gallagher leaves precious few softer minutes available.

The rumored offers from the Habs to Subban, reported both by the CBC and by Renaud Lavoie of RDS, have him being offered a contract equivalent to Michael del Zotto’s. I, of course, believe this is far below his real value, to the point that I would empathize with Subban and Meehan if they felt insulted by it. I am not sure what the Habs’ strategy is, or indeed, if they truly believe their offer reflects the value of the player (which strikes me as a grave and obvious mistake). I do know, however, that if this is the offer from which the Habs will not budge, it would not be in Subban’s best interests to sign. If those rumored offers are indeed correct, perhaps the problem isn’t so much that of a greedy player, as Subban has been cast by many.

Finally, a consideration regarding a league-wide trend: the Habs have averaged 5.67 PP opportunities a game, and an equal number for their opponents. Last season, the Habs had 3.67 PPs a game  and were shorthanded 3.84 times a game — numbers that were respectively third and second most in the league. If the referees continue to call penalties to that extent the rest of the season, special teams will greatly increase in relative importance. From a strict hockey standpoint, this favors the Habs, who have strong units for both special teams but are suspect at even-strength. The possibility of a 2007-2008-style, PP-fuelled season exists, should those penalty numbers hold.

Tags: Montreal Canadiens

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