Alex Galchenyuk

Canadiens, Subban bitterness showed in Gallagher comments

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If “living well is the best revenge,” then P.K. Subban is essentially going Charles Bronson on the Montreal Canadiens since the notorious Shea Weber trade.

Last season, the Habs watched Subban make the 2017 Stanley Cup Final during his first season with the Nashville Predators. Barring some absolutely staggering changes of fortune, it looks like Nashville will make another playoff run while the Canadiens will watch the NHL playoffs on TV with the rest of us.

Heck, the Predators couldn’t even throw the Canadiens a bone on Saturday, as a rowdy Montreal crowd saw Nashville win 3-2 in a shootout.

After the game, Brendan Gallagher clearly wasn’t happy about all the attention Subban was drawing … which essentially generated more attention for Subban.

You can see Gallagher’s full comments in the video above this post; he said “I don’t know why you’re asking about him” and mentioned Nashville’s other “elite” players, getting a jab in on Subban being a -1 in the game. He went further and said the sort of things that probably explain why the Canadiens (foolishly) traded the star defenseman.

This is the sort of feud that makes hockey more fun, but it feels like Subban almost has the Patrick Roy-ish fuel of team success to throw in Gallagher’s face, even if P.K.’s ears can’t be plugged by two championship rings.

When discussing the chatter between the two sides, Subban said “I’m sure it’s pretty quiet over there now” with the Predators getting the two points.

The Athletic’s Arpon Basu reports (sub required) that Gallagher’s beefing comments rank as some of the most frank statements Canadiens have made about Subban, at least in public.

No one from the Canadiens has ever come out and put that notion in such plain terms as Gallagher did Saturday, and that’s largely because the Canadiens have avoided talking about Subban at all costs ever since the June 29, 2016, trade. That silence, that unwillingness to discuss it, spoke volumes. But words are always more impactful.

You didn’t need to witness the post-game comments to see things heat up at times. You could see it when Gallagher was mouthing off after opening the scoring, and collecting his 20th goal of the season:

The hit Subban was speaking of happened here:

It’s worth noting that it’s clear that Subban had plenty of pals in the Montreal locker room, too, as you can see from him visiting with the likes of Carey Price and Alex Galchenyuk. (Aside: it’s still sort of funny that Galchenyuk is called “Chucky.”)

Here’s the thing about all of this: while it’s spicy fun for onlookers – this feels a lot like a high school squabble where the true winners are the audience members – it sure feels like sour grapes from Gallagher, who deserves credit for generating a strong season during a generally miserable one for Montreal.

While Subban is distinguishing himself on the ice (his team looks promising and he’s generating Norris buzz) and off of it (Subban’s sparkling personality made him an All-Star delight, not to mention his fantastic work for charities), the Canadiens are languishing with serious questions about their future direction. Maybe Subban’s personality rubbed some players the wrong way, yet can you really float superior chemistry when your team is plummeting down to mediocrity?

It seems like a feud Gallagher (and maybe the Canadiens as a whole) are bound to lose, but hey, we’ll take a little drama in a sport that often removes the sizzle from the steak.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

A look at Claude Giroux’s glorious rejuvenation

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Hockey fans get a chance to see a rising Philadelphia Flyers team as they take on the Capitals in Washington on NBCSN tonight, and they also get a chance to witness one of the best new lines of 2017-18 in action.

It’s funny how things happen in sports sometimes. Back in training camp, sliding Claude Giroux to the left wing, placing Sean Couturier as the Flyers’ top center, and filling out the trio with Jakub Voracek seemed like it might just be an interesting experiment. Even if Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol praised the way Giroux embraced the move.

“When your captain is as selfless as ‘G’ is, he [goes] all in,” Hakstol said, via NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer back in September. “Whatever the role is, he’s going to attack it… It’s early, but he’s had a very high-level camp.”

In this age of more analytics-minded writing, it’s often a goal to identify how much a player succeeds with or without another player, hence the use of “WOWY” stats.

PHT’s discussed how Giroux has factored into Couturier’s leap to stardom, but the beauty of certain hockey combinations is how well certain players blend together. Giroux and Voracek already formed quite the kinship – heck, there have been times when they’ve even looked like each other – yet it’s been profoundly interesting to see how Giroux and Couturier have served as catalysts beyond even optimistic expectations. (Again, Voracek probably helped quite a bit, too.)

While it’s fair to speculate that Giroux has rebounded thanks in part to better health (see here), it’s resounding to see the difference between 2016-17 and this season.

Last season, according to Natural Stat Trick, Couturier and Giroux played just five minutes and fifteen seconds together at 5-on-5. This season, just under 65 of Giroux’s minutes have been away from Couturier, while almost 645 have come with him.

You can see a change in Giroux’s game in a few ways.

  • Giroux is becoming more of an even-strength threat again. He already has more even-strength goals (nine versus six), assists (21 to 12), points (30 to 18), and first assists (11 to 5) in 49 games in 2017-18 than he had in 82 games in 2016-17, via Natural Stat Trick.
  • His possession stats are up, even with more shifts starting in his own zone.
  • Giroux isn’t as dependent upon the power play for his production, yet he’s still dangerous on the man advantage.
  • He’s been more of a playmaker than before. Via Hockey Reference, his .88 assists per game average is a career-high. Giroux’s been firing the puck less lately, but it’s especially pronounced now. He averaged 2.43 shots per game in 2016-17, and now it’s down to just 2.08. That’s a big drop from 2015-16’s 3.08, not to mention 3.44 from 2014-15. You can see the difference in Couturier’s game; he only averaged more than two shots on goal per contest once before (2.01 per pop in 2013-14), yet this season he’s averaging exactly 3.00 this season.
  • Couturier’s already blown away career-highs with barely over a season down, and Giroux is looking to have one of his best years in ages, if ever. Last season, Giroux scored 14 goals and 44 assists for 58 points in 82 games. He could eclipse those marks with a strong display on Wednesday; he currently has 14 goals and 43 assists for 57 points in just 49 games.

At 30 years old, Giroux’s $8.275 million cap hit was starting to look scary for the Flyers, considering that his contract won’t expire until after the 2021-22 season. Voracek, 28, has a similarly scary deal ($8.25M cap hit) expires way off in 2023-24.

That’s not ideal, but it’s easier to stomach a top line that also includes Couturier’s bargain $4.33M cap hit, which runs through 2021-22.

As time goes along, Giroux’s contract could look ugly again. Players can sometimes age drastically in the NHL, and that seemed to be the direction for him, until he lined up with Couturier (and got healthier).

That said, the good news is that Giroux is willing to change his role for the good of the team. Maybe his story is also a lesson to the Montreal Canadiens with Alex Galchenyuk and other situations: getting moved out of the center position can be more warmly received if it puts a player in a better position to succeed. In Giroux’s case, he wasn’t seeing a major drop in ice time or opportunities; instead, Giroux was merely being asked to take a simpler, more offensive-minded role after being asked to do a lot as the center and captain.

If only every experiment could go as well for the Flyers, NHL, and sports teams in general …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canadiens end Avalanche winning streak at 10 games

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If asked to guess, just about any honest hockey fan would expect the Colorado Avalanche to be surrounded by rebuild talk and the Montreal Canadiens to be reeling off winning streaks in 2017-18.

Instead, the roles have been reversed; the Avs came into Tuesday with a 10-game winning streak, while Montreal is facing some serious soul-searching during a huge letdown of a season.

They flipped the script again tonight, however, as the Canadiens ended the Avs’ run at 10 games by winning 4-2. Colorado’s 10-gamer is the longest winning streak in the NHL so far this season.

The game followed the sort of script Habs management envisioned for 2017-18. Carey Price didn’t need to do a ton, amassing 20 saves. Jonathan Drouin played like the star they pictured, scoring a game-winning goal and collecting two assists. Offense came from four different goal-scorers, with Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and Nicolas Deslauriers also chipping in.

Montreal flexed its muscles with the Avalanche closing off a back-to-back set. The Habs generated a 40-22 shots on goal advantage, and even with that much puck control, also hammered Colorado with 43 hits.

Even with this win, the Canadiens’ playoff hopes look pretty dim. Meanwhile, the Avalanche really cannot rest on their laurels even after that incredible run; despite piling up 10 consecutive wins, Colorado is just ranked fifth in the Central Division with a slim lead on the Minnesota Wild.

Considering how dour things have been for Montreal, they’ll gladly take a night like this, even if they’ve been in shorter supply than they expected.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rebuild or re-tool: The Canadiens should tear it all down

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At this point in the season there are really only seven or eight teams that you can safely say are out of the playoff race.

The Montreal Canadiens, sitting nine points out of a Wild Card spot and in 14th place out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, are almost certainly one of those teams.

The entire season has been a disaster on the ice.

Carey Price, the most important player and perhaps most important person in the organization, has had an uncharacteristically down year. The Canadiens have proven over the past few years that they only go as he goes, and when he is not one of the top-five goalies in the league their chances of success are virtually zero.

Shea Weber, the team’s best defenseman, has been limited to just 26 games this season due to injury, and even when he has played the team is only 10-13-3. That means they actually have a better record, 9-9-3, when he doesn’t play.

Max Pacioretty, the team’s best forward (and still one of the best bargains in the NHL under the salary cap) went through one of the worst goal droughts of his career in the middle of the season. He has since snapped out of it in a big way, but his struggles still hurt.

We still don’t really know how good Alex Galchenyuk is, and neither, it seems, do the Canadiens. He hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t really taken a big step forward, either. He’s a good, but not great player. Maybe this is what he is?

Jonathan Drouin, their biggest acquisition of the offseason, has spent the season playing out of position (something that has hurt him by the Canadiens’ own admission) and currently has fewer goals and points on the season (seven and 22) than the 19-year-old rookie defenseman he was traded for (Mikhail Sergachev has eight goals and 27 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning). That’s not to say the trade can’t ever work in the future, but if this is what you expected from him this season you’re lying.

There is probably more — there is definitely more — but those five developments alone are enough to sabotage an entire season for any team.

Now the Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin are left with the difficult task of trying to figure out how to fix it. According to Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column Bergevin is looking to be active ahead of the trade deadline, and that outside of Price, Weber, Drouin and 19-year-old defenseman Victor Mete they would probably listen on anyone.

There seems to be some debate as to what it should be called — a rebuild, a re-tooling, something else — but the end result should be the same: The Canadiens should probably burn it all to the ground.

Here’s the problem with the way the Canadiens are currently constructed: They not only have some devastating flaws, from not having a No. 1 center, to being overly dependent on their goalie, to having an older and expensive defense, but it’s hard to see a path that will enable them to quickly turn it around fast enough to still be able to win with the core they have committed to.

Starting next season Price’s new $10.5 million per year contract kicks in. That will run alongside the $7.8 million per year price tag that Weber will carry for another nine seasons. After next season Pacioretty — assuming he has not been traded by then — will be playing on a new contract that will probably be paying him close to double what he is making now.

I am generally all for teams spending big bucks on their core.

The concerns over teams committing too much salary cap space to a small handful of players are almost always overblown because the teams that win Stanley Cups all do it. They have to do it.

But the Canadiens’ roster construction is a little different than the teams that have won Stanley Cups with that sort of roster construction. Most teams are paying that money to players (usually forwards — and specifically centers) that are still in their mid-20s or still closer to the prime of their careers.

Starting next season the Canadiens are going to be paying more than $18 million to a 33-year-old defenseman and a 31-year-old goalie through the end of the 2025-26 season.

No other team in the league has built its core around similar players. Certainly no successful team.

[Marc Bergevin a firm believer Canadiens can turn season around]

Bad news, folks: No matter how great Weber and Price have been in their careers, they are going to start slowing down and perhaps even breaking down. Their best hockey is probably in the rear view mirror. And again, the best forward on the team is going to need a new contract within the next year, at which point he, too, will be over the age of 30.

They have six defensemen under contract for next season (at more than $23 million in combined salary) and only one of them will be under the age of 30 (Victor Mete will be 20).

This is a team that this season is giving up more than 32 shots on goal per game. This is a team that is giving up 60 total shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Both place them in the bottom half of the league. In other words, it is already a mediocre at best defensive team and it’s not likely to get much better with the current cast of characters because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is what they are.

In his 31 Thoughts column Friedman mentioned the Colorado Avalanche and their turnaround as a reason as to why the Canadiens don’t want to use the word “rebuild,” and that it’s possible to turn things around quickly. And that’s fair. But are the really a lot of parallels here between this Canadiens team and the Avalanche? Is Jonathan Drouin capable of becoming a potential scoring champion and MVP next season the way Nathan MacKinnon is? Does Montreal have a Mikko Rantanen ready to break out? Are they going to pluck an Alexander Kerfoot out of free agency and get an immediate impact? Then there is this: Even with a 10-game winning streak and all of the things just mentioned, Colorado is still only a fringe playoff team more than halfway through the season and far from a lock to actually make the playoffs.

There just doesn’t seem to be a lot here to inspire much confidence that a sudden turnaround is right around the corner.

Sure, Carey Price could very easily rebound and return to form next season, but even if he does that only puts the Canadiens right back to where they were in recent years — a flawed team that has to rely on its goalie to carry them.

That recipe won the Canadiens one playoff series the previous three seasons and only got them out of the first round twice in seven years.

If you’re willing to even consider trading a player like Pacioretty at this point, what’s the point of keeping Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron, or really anyone else on the roster?

This team probably needs more than just a few tweaks here and there. It needs core players. It needs young core players.

It is not a great spot to be in, and the Canadiens really shouldn’t take any half measures. They need to go all in in one direction. Given the makeup of the roster the most sensible direction at this point would seem to be to just put up a for sale sign in the front yard.

Then comes the big question: Do you trust the current front office to actually orchestrate that type of rebuild? This roster pretty much belongs entirely to Bergevin. The only players that predate his time as general manager are Pacioretty, Price, Gallagher and Galchenyuk. The rest of it, including the defense, belong to him.

He brought you here, Montreal. Can he get you out of it?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.