Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive

Raise your hand if you expected the Montreal Canadiens to be sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division after 51 games this season. Anybody? I didn’t think so.

After finishing 28th in 2017-18, expectations for the Habs this year were fairly low. They traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, and they were without Shea Weber for the first two months of the season. So you can understand why no one thought they’d be in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The acquisitions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar have really helped. Carey Price‘s performances in December and January have also propelled the Habs up the standings and career year’s from Jeff Petry, Phillip Danault and a few others haven’t hurt, either.

But one of the biggest reasons the Canadiens have had so much success, is because head coach Claude Julien has them playing faster than ever. They’re at their best when they’re aggressive on the puck and on the forecheck. Julien has admitted that this edition of the Canadiens isn’t the most talented or skilled, but when they work hard, they know they can go head-to-head against anybody.

“We’re a team that came into this season with the intention of changing the perception of our hockey club and what’s expected of us,” Julien told the Montreal Gazette after his team dropped an ugly home decision to the Boston Bruins in December. “And the only way we could do that was to go out and compete hard and that was the No. 1 thing we wanted to do and that’s the No. 1 thing I think people appreciated from our team. We’re a fun team to watch, we competed hard, and lately it’s just been on and off. We can’t think that all of a sudden we’re a skilled team and we can get away with just half efforts because this is too good of a league. With the parity, you’re not going to survive that way.”

And that consistently aggressive forecheck might not be easy to maintain, but they know that when they’re able to execute on that part of their game, they can force their opponents into making mistakes.

“We put a lot of pressure on teams and when you can close on a player, you force him to make decisions quickly,” Paul Byron said back in October, per the Gazette. “When you have the forwards we have — Max (Domi), myself, Artturi (Lehkonen) — pressuring the other teams it forces them to make mistakes and cough up pucks. We want to get on them fast. The more we can take time and space away from the them the more advantageous it is for us.”

Adding Luke Richardson to the coaching staff has also helped change the identity of the Canadiens. Richardson has found a way to get his group of defensemen into the rush to help create offense.

Here’s an example of Petry not being shy about handling the puck deep in the offensive zone:

The defense has also just played faster in the way they skate with the puck and move the puck, which has led to an increase in puck possession and quality scoring chances.

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens are the fourth best possession team in the league behind San Jose, Carolina and Vegas. They’re also fifth in FF%, sixth in SF%, sixth in GF%, and sixth in SCF%. Those are impressive numbers considering they don’t have a superstar forward like a lot of the other teams around them in the standings. Julien has put his team in a position to succeed and he’s done it by using all five skaters on the ice.

Even though there isn’t one specific way to measure this, it’s become increasingly clear that they’ve found a way to shoot from more dangerous areas on the ice. Last season, the Canadiens outshot their opponents fairly regularly, but a lot of those pucks came from the perimeter, where you just won’t score often enough. Now, they aren’t shy about getting to the dirty areas to make life more difficult for the opposing goaltender.

If Julien’s team can continue to hold on to the puck as much as they do, while getting incredible goaltending from Price, the Habs will continue to have success.

Are they legitimate Stanley Cup contenders? No. But they’re way ahead of where many expected them to be at this point in their re-tool project.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Ron Francis speaks about handling of Peters situation while Hurricanes GM

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NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis has responded to how physical abuse accusations against former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters were handled when he was the team’s GM.

Speaking with The Seattle Times this week, Francis said he addressed the issue with Peters and defended giving him a two-year extension after the fact.

“We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that (physical-abuse) situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”

“I think you deal with it the best you can with the situation you have at the time,” Francis said. “I think within the last week there have been some changes the league has made. I think that’s positive moving forward. I don’t claim to be perfect. I make mistakes. I try to learn every day from the people I talk with in situations. That’s what I try to do and take that knowledge moving forward. And hopefully you’re never in that situation again.”

Last month, after Peters was accused to uttering racial slurs at Akim Aliu, whom he coached in the American Hockey League, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan said that Peters kicked him in the back and punched another player during a game. The allegations for were confirmed by current head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was an assistant under Peters.

Former Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos told The Seattle Times that he would have fired Francis “in a nanosecond” had he been made aware of the allegations against Peters, even though Francis, who added there was a full vetting process during the hiring process, said he informed management of the situation.

Peters resigned as Calgary Flames head coach days after the allegations went public. In a statement that week Francis acknowledged he was made aware of the incidents and that he “took immediate action to address the matter and briefed ownership.” He did not reveal what he did to correct the matter in either his statement or in the interview with the Times’ Geoff Baker.

“When you look back, there were some things we did well and certain things we need to improve on to get better,” he said. “That’s part of the learning process, I think.”

The NHL revealed a four-point plan this week at the Board of Governors that will provide a guideline for teams in handling abuse allegations and other inappropriate conduct.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.

Our Line Starts podcast: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins’ stars workload; Shero’s hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• “Akim Aliu’s story of enduring racism inside hockey includes an incident in which a minor-league team staffer dressed up as him in blackface.” [Wall Street Journal]

• “It feels like this examination and accounting of hockey’s ugly underbelly is in its infancy, as if a light has shined on the game’s conscience for the first time in decades, with the holder of the flashlight realizing just how much cleansing there is to do.” [TSN]

• The Bruins stars are carrying a heavy offensive load. [RotoWorld]

• What players need to avoid the regression monster and which ones are ready to bounce back? [ESPN]

• The name, colors and logo of Seattle’s NHL expansion team could be revealed in February or March. [NHL.com]

• How hot is Ray Shero’s seat now becoming in New Jersey? [All About the Jersey]

• Well-travelled Eric Comrie looking to make mark with Red Wings. [Sun Media]

• Speaking of hot seats, how much longer does Jeff Blashill have in Detroit? [Freep]

• Ranking the all-time jersey designs of the Vancouver Canucks. [Hockey by Design]

• Could the Canadians be potential trade partners with the Blackhawks? [NBC Sports Chicago]

• A look at the best player at every age in the NHL. [Yardbarker]

• Finally, here’s Brett Ritchie with the quote of the season:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.