Joel Armia

Where do Habs go from here?

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This season hasn’t gone the way many expected for the Montreal Canadiens. Last year, with expectations in the toilet, the Habs managed to push for a playoff spot until the final weekend of the regular season. Naturally, expectations were that they’d take a step forward and actually get into the postseason this time around. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t look like that will be the case.

Last night’s home loss to the Edmonton Oilers extended their winless streak to eight games. It’s now the second time this season that they’ve gone through that long of a streak.

The first losing skid, which coincided with forward Jonathan Drouin going out of the lineup with a wrist injury, occurred between Nov. 16 to Dec. 1. During that stretch, they picked up three of a possible 16 points. The biggest issue then was that they seemed to lose all of their defensive structure.

They allowed between three and eight goals in all but one game and they surrendered four goals or more in six of those eight contests. That’s pretty surprising for a Claude Julien coached team. Sure, they’ve been without Drouin, Paul Byron, Joel Armia for a while now (Jesperi Kotkaniemi also missed a good chunk of time), but falling apart like that is not acceptable.

This time around, they’re not bleeding as many goals, but they’re blowing leads, making mistakes at crucial times and their confidence seems to be in the gutter. For example, during last night’s loss, they had a 2-0 lead in the second period. As soon as Oilers forward Riley Sheahan scored to make it 2-1, you could just feel that the Habs were going to blow it and they did. It’s too bad because they were the better team for 40 minutes.

Even though they’re playing better this time around, they’ve accumulated just one of a possible 16 points.

“I thought we learned a lot of stuff from the last one,” forward Philip Danault said of the two eight-game winless streaks, per the Montreal Gazette. “This time it’s different because we’re playing well, but we’re not getting results. We play with the lead and we can’t keep it. Early in the year, the third period was our best, but not now.”

Montreal now finds themselves nine points out of a Wild Card spot. The other issue is that there’s five teams between them and that last playoff spot. That’s a lot of teams to leap over for a playoff spot.

So, where do they go from here? 

The Habs have four potential unrestricted free agents that they could move before the trade deadline. Dale Weise, Nate Thompson, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marco Scandella could all fetch a mid-round draft pick. Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Danault, and Jeff Petry all have just one more year on their contracts. All four of those players will be unrestricted free agents in July of 2021.

Now, keeping Gallagher and Danault is a no-brainer. The Canadiens should work on re-signing those two players as soon this coming July. Tatar and Petry are different cases. Tatar is having a career year, as he’s up to 16 goals and 38 points in 45 games this season. He comes with a reasonable $4.8 million cap hit (Vegas is retaining some of his salary). Any team looking for a top-six winger could do worse than Tatar. He could also fetch a nice return for general manager Marc Bergevin.

As for Petry, he’s been an important piece of the defense over the last few years. While She Weber was sidelined with various injuries, it was Petry who picked up the slack. The 32-year-old has struggled over the last little while, but he’s a solid right-handed defender has a $5.5 million cap hit. Petry doesn’t have to be shipped out of town. The Habs have a lot of young defensemen coming through the pipeline and having Petry and Weber there to help those youngsters wouldn’t be a bad idea.

The other situation that needs addressing is Carey Price‘s contract. The veteran netminder hasn’t had much help in front of him this season, but he also hasn’t played at the same level we’re used to seeing him play at throughout his career. He has a 16-16-4 record with a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .901 save percentage this season.

Price also has six years remaining on a contract that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million and he also has a full no-movement clause throughout the life of the deal. He won’t be going anywhere unless he wants to move somewhere else.

But if he is willing to somewhere else, can the Habs find a taker that’s willing him to give them something decent in return for their franchise netminder? Do they even want to trade one of their more important leaders in the locker room? So there are a lot of questions surrounding Price. The Habs need to decide which direction they want to go in.

Will Bergevin be the one to pull the trigger on these moves? Will they move on from their long-time general manager after this season? There’s no doubt that the pressure is on. The worst thing that could’ve happened was the team exceeding expectations last year. This group wasn’t ready to take the next step this year and they might still be a few years away from being a serious contender. This is a crucial part of the “reset”. Whoever the GM is needs to make sure he keeps/trades the right veterans.

It should be an interesting few months in Montreal.

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.

Lightning, Canadiens continue to head in different directions

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Right now the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens are two runaway freight trains heading in very different directions.

They continued their current streaks on Thursday night as we continue to get some clarity in what was once a jumbled and surprising Atlantic Division playoff race.

The Lightning, thanks to their 4-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes, extended their current winning streak to nine games on, while the Canadiens let an early two-goal lead slip away in a 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. It is the Canadiens’ eighth loss in a row.

Let’s take a quick look at what is happening with each team at the moment.

The Lightning are back

It is not just the fact they have won nine games in a row that matters. Or even the fact they have the second-best record in the league (14-4-1) since the start of December.

It is the way they are collecting those wins.

They are starting to steamroll teams much the same way they did during the entire 2018-19 season and are finally starting to shake off the early season rust that pushed them down the standings. Over the past three games alone they have outscored the Carolina Hurricanes, Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes (all teams currently in a playoff position) by a combined margin of 17-3. They are starting to tilt the ice in their favor and dominate teams in the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers. They are pushing the play in every game, they are dictating the pace, and they are playing on their terms. And no one is really able to match up with them.

Their superstars are also starting to get rolling.

Steven Stamkos (24), Nikita Kucherov (21), Alex Killorn (20), Brayden Point (20), and Victor Hedman (18) all have at least 18 points in the 19 games since the start of December, while Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .922 save percentage in net.

Add in strong contributions from players like Ondrej Palat, Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, and Tyler Johnson and they are just unstoppable right now.

Thanks to Thursday’s win they are now up to second place in the Atlantic Division and still have two games in hand on Boston (first place) and Toronto (third place).

They look to win their 10th game in a row on Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Canadiens might be out of it

Canadiens fans have seen this story play out before.

Strong start to the season that is followed by a complete meltdown that eventually takes them out of playoff contention.

After turning a 2-0 lead into a 4-2 loss to Edmonton on Thursday, the Canadiens have now lost eight games in a row and are just 6-15-4 in their past 25 games.

That stretch includes two different eight-game losing streaks. All of that comes after an 11-5-3 start to the regular season.

In the end it all comes down to a lack of high end, impact talent at forward. The injuries this to players like Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, Brendan Gallagher, and Joel Armia have simply been too much to overcome. This was never a particularly deep team to begin with, and when you take some of their top forwards out of the lineup for any stretch of time it is going to hurt in a big way. Add in the fact that Carey Price has not been able to bail them out like he has so many times in the past and you have a perfect recipe for the mess that is currently playing out in Montreal.

They are now nine points out of a Wild Card spot with five teams ahead of them.

Without some sort of a drastic change that deficit seems almost impossible for them to overcome the way things are going.

They have a chance to snap their losing streak on Saturday against the Ottawa Senators.

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.

 

PHT Face-Off: Kovalchuk’s impact on Habs; Bruins shootout struggles

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It’s Monday, which means it’s time for PHT’s Weekly Face-Off column. We’ll break down some of the significant trends and topics in the NHL for the upcoming week.

Here we go:

• What can Ilya Kovalchuk do for Habs?

Kovalchuk has a lot to prove heading into his tenure with the Montreal Canadiens. As general manager Marc Bergevin pointed out last week, this will be the Russian winger’s last chance in the NHL. If he blows this opportunity, it’ll be Europe or retirement for him.

Montreal is so banged up right now that all they need is an NHL caliber forward. With Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron all out, the Canadiens had no choice but to bring in a veteran off the street. Bergevin made it clear he wouldn’t sacrifice picks and prospects for immediate help, so this was the logical next step.

What are realistic expectations for the 36-year-old though? In 64 games with the Kings last season, he managed to put the puck in the net 16 times. Those are the facts. If you break that down over an 82-game season, it adds up to 20.5 goals for the year.

The Habs can’t be expecting much more from Kovalchuk. It’s just not realistic. Since we’re at the midway point of the season, it seems reasonable for Bergevin and the Habs to expect 10 goals out of their new winger. Anything more would be a bonus.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is starting to heat up

It’s been a tough year for Vasilevskiy. He simply hasn’t looked like himself for most of the year. But things are finally starting to turn around for the Lightning netminder. He’s now won five games in a row. He’s given up four goals in two of those games, but he’s also held the opposition to one goal in the other three contests.

Even though it’s unfair to suggest that he was holding the Lightning back in the first half the season, there’s a little bit of truth in that statement. He wasn’t living up to the $9.5 million cap hit that he’s commanding and that was a problem. If he can keep this going, the Bolts will continue to climb the standings in a hurry.

This is how tough things have been for him, Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price this season:

It’s a weird year for the high-end goalies.

• Bruins not so good in shootouts

The Boston Bruins are currently second in the NHL standings, but they couldn’t possibly be any worse in the shootout. Heading into this week, Boston has an 0-6 record in the glorified skills competition. That’s odd and kind of surprising considering the amount of talent they have on the team.

If we break their team down by attempts, here’s what we come up with:
Brad Marchand: 0-for-6
Charlie Coyle: 2-for-4
Chris Wagner: 1-for-2
David Pastrnak: 1-for-4
Jake DeBrusk: 0-for-2
Patrice Bergeron: 0-for-1
David Krejci: 0-for-1
Charlie McAvoy: 0-for-1

On the goalie’s side of things, here are how the Bruins stack up:

Jaroslav Halak has given up five goals on 13 shootout attempts (61.5 percent)
Tuukka Rask has given up five goals on 11 shootout attempts (54.5 percent)

They’re ranked 32nd and 34th respectively in shootout save percentage. Not so good!

• Arizona’s Taylor Hall vs. New Jersey’s Taylor Hall

Since joining the Coyotes last month, Hall has seen his advanced metrics improve quite a bit. That’s not exactly shocking when you consider how bad the Devils have been though.

Hall has a modest six points in nine games with the ‘Yotes, but they’re way more dangerous when he’s on the ice. Here’s the breakdown via Natural Stat Trick just to give you an idea:

When Hall is on the ice, they have 54.47 percent of the shot attempts, 57.58 percent of the expected goals for, 56.2 percent of the scoring chances and 58.49 percent of the high-danger chances.

Yes, we’re working with a pretty small sample size, but if those trends continue he should be lighting the lamp quite a bit for his new team.

Since landing Hall, the Coyotes have a 5-4-0 record which isn’t great. The positive part of that, is that they’ve now won three games in a row against St. Louis, Anaheim and Philadelphia.

What’s coming up this week?
Semyon Varlamov revenge game: Avalanche vs. Islanders, Mon. Jan. 6, 7 p.m. ET.
Marc-Andre Fleury revenge game: Penguins vs. Golden Knights, Tue. Jan. 7, 10 p.m. ET.
Joe Pavelski revenge game: Stars vs. Sharks, Sat. Jan. 11, 10 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Oilers vs. Maple Leafs, Mon. Jan. 6, 7 p.m. ET (live stream)
• Stars vs. Kings, Wed. Jan. 8, 10:30 p.m. ET
• Predators vs. Blackhawks, Thu. Jan. 9, 8:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey
• Flyers vs. Capitals, Wed. Jan. 8, 7:30 p.m. ET.

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.

Ilya Kovalchuk signs one-year, $700K contract with Canadiens

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Ilya Kovalchuk has a new home for the rest of the season and it will be with the Montreal Canadiens.

The team announced on Friday that they have signed the 36-year-old Russian forward to a one-year, two-way deal worth $700,000. The Canadiens also noted that the deal is worth $70,000 in the AHL, but if this partnership goes that bad we’ll probably see another mutual termination like what happened in LA.

“We’re trying to improve the team in the short-term without hurting the organization in the long-term,” Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said on Friday. “You have high-risk, medium-risk and no-risk moves. Bringing Kovy to Montreal, there’s no risk.”

Kovalchuk’s time with the Kings ended last month after a lackluster 81 games over the last two season. He signed a three-year, $18.75M deal in 2018 after spending five years in the KHL and mustered over 19 goals and 43 points in LA. The marriage came to an end after being put on unconditional waivers as the team was terminating his deal.

Since he signed the contract as a 35-plus player, Kovalchuk’s $6.25M cap hit stays on the Kings’ books through the end of the 2020-21 NHL season, per Cap Friendly.

The Canadiens, currently missing Jonathan DrouinBrendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, and Paul Byron, sit seven points out of the last Eastern Conference wild card spot and are desperate to make a second-half push. This move by Bergevin allows him to try something without giving up assets in return. If Kovalchuk doesn’t work, then that could open the door for a trade or two. A third straight spring without playoff hockey would up the temperature on the GMs seat and likely mean big offseason changes for the franchise.

“I’m trying to help them in the short-term to stay in the playoff race until our injured players come back,” said Bergevin. “Those guys probably won’t return before the All-Star break. That’s the main reason why we signed him this morning.”

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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.

NHL injury news: Good for Bruins, bad for Jack Hughes and others

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The 2020 Winter Classic began the next decade of NHL action, and that action included violence, a comeback, and Texas-sized fun. Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020 feels more like the first full round of hockey in this new decade, though, and it’s not surprising that there’s plenty of NHL injury news to consider, from returning Boston Bruins to less positive developments for the likes of Jack Hughes.

Let’s get to the tidbits like Brian Boucher seeking fried Snickers.

Plenty of good Bruins injury news updates

The Bruins hold a significant lead in the Atlantic Division, but can’t be happy about a 4-2-4 stretch, and their generally mediocre end to 2019.

That said, as much as the Bruins rolled with the punches over the last few seasons, you can only hold off injuries for so long. Boston buckled after a while, so the Bruins must be heartened to start 2020 a little bit healthier. It certainly looks that way right now.

The Bruins’ website shared plenty of promising updates:

Even if McAvoy can’t quite return, that’s quite the slew of returning players. Danton Heinen is also expected to be back in the mix after being a healthy scratch.

More bad breaks for Blue Jackets

The Bruins face the Blue Jackets on Thursday, and Columbus stands on the other end of the spectrum. The Blue Jackets keep finding ways to earn standings points, even as injuries pile up, and John Tortorella receives more fines.

The Blue Jackets placed intriguing young forward Alexandre Texier on IR on Thursday with a lumbar stress fracture. “Lumbar stress fracture” translates to a back/spine injury, so it’s no surprise that Texier is sidelined indefinitely.

Texier adds to an increasingly ridiculous Blue Jackets injury list that also includes:

Combine injuries with all of those free agent loses, and Columbus deserves credit for hanging in there. Sadly for Torts & Co., they face tough odds to actually persevere to the playoffs, though.

Setback for Jack

Jack Hughes looked like he was heating up with three points in his last four games, but now he’s hurt. The top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft suffered an upper-body injury, leaving him day-to-day.

Considering the sorry state of the New Jersey Devils, there’s no sense in risking Hughes’ long-term health by rushing him back. Honestly, Hughes might benefit from a break.

The Devils face the Islanders as part of NBCSN’s doubleheader on Thursday, with coverage beginning at 6 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

[MORE: Devils – Islanders preview]

Assorted injury 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.