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Canadiens spent too much time getting tougher, not enough time getting better

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For several years now the Montreal Canadiens have been a very good, but very flawed hockey team.

Before this season their biggest issue was an overreliance on starting goaltender Carey Price, where they would be content to allow him to make as many saves as he had to make for the team to squeeze out a bunch of 2-1 or 2-0 wins. When he was healthy and on top of his game, his performance masked a lot of the flaws and the team won a lot of games (and he won a lot of awards). When he wasn’t there a year ago, the entire thing collapsed on itself and the Michel Therrien-led Canadiens were exposed for the house of cards they always were. If they were ever going to make the leap to serious Stanley Cup contender they were going to have to find a way to offer their All-Everything goalie some additional support and give him some help.

Their apparent strategy in doing that for this season only seemed to create more flaws. They were on display in their six-game first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers.

From the very start of the offseason the Canadiens’ plan for this season seemed to revolve around getting bigger, tougher, stronger, grittier and more difficult to play against. Before the start of the 2015-17 season they traded Lars Eller for draft picks. They traded different draft picks for Andrew Shaw and his playoff experience and “hate to lose” mentality. They traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber in a deal that will be dissected, analyzed and second-guessed for decades.

To be fair, they also added Alexander Radulov during the offseason, and he not only proved to be the best free agent signing by any team this summer, he was almost certainly the most impactful move the Canadiens made. But even with that addition, the direction general manager Marc Bergevin and then-coach Michel Therrien wanted to take the team in was clear.

It became even clearer at the trade deadline when almost every move the Canadiens made was centered around adding size and grit to the bottom six as opposed to some much-needed offensive punch. Along with adding Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson to their defense, they made the following changes to their forwards before the deadline.

  • They traded for noted cage-rattler Steve Ott, a fourth-line forward that has scored just six goals and recorded only 14 assists in 152 games over the past three seasons.
  • They traded for 6-4, 229-pound winger Dwight King from the Los Angeles Kings.
  • They traded for 6-3, 220-pound winger Andreas Martinsen from the Colorado Avalanche

After the deadline Bergevin talked about not being able to add offense because the price was too high, and that a lot of their goal scoring issues could be fixed by improved confidence from within and that because playoff hockey gets tougher there would not be as many goals scored anyway.

From the Montreal Gazette:

“For us, we felt we had a good start (and) we had four lines producing,” said Bergevin. “Of late, that hasn’t been the case but I feel comfortable that, as guys get more confidence as we move forward, they’ll be able to chip in. And down the road, there won’t be as many goals and there will be those one-goal hockey games 2-1, 3-2, 1-0. It’s a tight league.

“I always say you can play with a bad shoulder or a bad foot but if you have no confidence, you can’t play,” said Bergevin. “Also down the stretch, it’s hard to score. You look at Columbus last night, one of the highest scoring teams in the league. You have to grind it out to score goals down the stretch.”

In other words: We might as well just try to embrace continuing to win every game 2-1.

As for the players they did add, those three forwards (Ott, King, Martinsen) combined to score 15 goals this season. These were their big trade deadline acquisitions.

The Canadiens played two games in this series where all three of them played in the same game. They lost one 2-0. They were 18 seconds away from losing the other one if not for some late-game (and overtime) heroics from Radulov to set up the tying goal in the closing seconds then score the winner early in overtime.

When it came to the decisive Game 6, when Martinsen and Shaw were out of the lineup (and Torrey Mitchell, who had played well in his limited action in this series was, also scratched) Brian Flynn and Michael McCarron (seven combined goals between the two this season) were inserted in.

The Canadiens were basically playing as a (at best) three-line team when it came to creating offense, and that is simply not good enough, especially when the whole mindset of the team seemed to be focussed on getting bigger and tougher. It runs counter to most everything the NHL’s most successful teams have done in recent years. The Pittsburgh Penguins are 20-9 the past two seasons with one of the NHL’s smallest, least physical rosters. When the Chicago Blackhawks had their mini-dynasty they were consistently one of the smallest, least physical teams in the league. Even the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that reached the NHL’s final four in two of the past three seasons, did it with a collection of forwards that can be described as “undersized.”

It is a speed, skill league, and you can’t beat teams anymore by simply grinding them down with bigger, stronger players (you could argue there was never a time that was possible, but that’s a different argument for a different day). The Canadiens seemed to lose the plot on that one from the start, and then doubled down on it later in the season just before the playoffs began.

The Canadiens added their size and grit. But the end result was the same as we have seen from them in recent years: A flawed team that couldn’t produce anywhere near enough offense to make a deep playoff run with arguably the NHL’s best goalie playing at a high level.

Oilers coach on Draisaitl negotiations, cap crunch and more

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As NHL.com reports, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan doesn’t seem too worried about Leon Draisaitl‘s contract negotiations.

“I’m confident we’re going to see Leon in an [Oilers] uniform,” McLellan said at a charity golf tournament. “We want him to be there, he wants to be there, and it’s just a matter of getting a few things done over the summer.”

Granted, as confident as McLellan is, he also admits that he doesn’t really get involved in that side of the hockey business, preferring to leave that to GM Peter Chiarelli.

On that note, McLellan said he’s aware that locking down Drasaitl, Connor McDavid, and other key members will likely leave the Oilers with a “tight wallet … and that’s not going to change for many years.”

(For an in-depth look at the Oilers’ salary structure, check out this deep dive.)

McLellan faces the challenge of aligning those big-ticket items with bargain signings, something that’s likely only to become a more common situation as time goes along. He also must deal with an obstacle that isn’t new to him considering his Sharks days, but will be unusual for many Oilers: no longer slipping under the radar.

“Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club, mentally and physically, and we haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us, our fans in particular, to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”

If they fail, McLellan will shoulder much of the blame, even if management makes some poor decisions with that “tight wallet.”

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.