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.

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

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.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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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.