Jonathan Drouin

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Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

Despite finishing with 96 standings points – more than the Golden Knights, Stars, and Avalanche out West – the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As much as they might be tempted to grumble about the East being deeper than the West last season, the Canadiens should instead turn that “What if?” discussion inward, and wonder: what if we figured out our power play? The Habs finished the season with a +13 goal differential overall, and their even-strength heartiness becomes even more impressive once you realize that Montreal was -14 when you consider the sum of its special teams.

Fittingly for a team that once saw P.K. Subban as a scapegoat, you can’t blame the PK, either.

Instead, the penalty kill stood out like a sore thumb that was throbbing with pain. Montreal’s 13.2 power-play percentage was the second-worst in the NHL, and they actually scored the fewest PPG overall with just 31.

While it’s dangerous to assume that the Canadiens will remain a possession powerhouse in 2019-20, it’s something Claude Julien frequently manufactures in his teams. If Montreal can stay at least strong in that area, then the power play is a big X-factor: can it at least rise to the level of average, or even good, after being a huge detriment last season?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Questions of personnel

For the most part, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was justified in not being too busy in free agency (although he can be charged with not taking advantage of teams who were capped out and had to get rid of valuable players like Nikita Gusev, Erik Haula, and so on).

It would have been nice if the Canadiens might have gone after a mid-level sniper, though.

Montreal has some strong playmaking talent in the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, but when you look at that roster, you don’t see a ton of finishers. Apologies to Joel Armia, but when he’s a key triggerman for your power play, you’re not exactly going to leave opponents cowering in fear.

What might change

So, it’s important to weigh the lack of improvements against the instinctive assumption that things are almost bound to get better just by natural regression.

And, truly, there are signs that things should at least bump closer to average.

There are telltale signs that Montreal was a little unlucky. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens’ power-play shooting percentage was 10.23, the fourth-lowest in the NHL last season.

Again, the personnel question looms large, as Natural Stat Trick puts Montreal’s expected power play goals at 34, instead of 31, so it’s not like that would be a night-and-day difference if luck leveled out. Simply put, the Canadiens are going to need to improve.

One personnel difference could be more Shea Weber. The defenseman with a bazooka shot only played in 58 games last season, and while it’s risky to demand Weber hit close to 82, he might be healthier in 2019-20.

The thing is, just about every successful power play unit creates the meat of their chances from high-danger areas, whether those come from right in front of the net on dirty rebounds, slick plays starting behind the net, or sweet snipes from “Ovechkin’s office.”

Relying too much on Weber howitzers would be a mistake.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Weber cannot benefit this unit. It would actually be intriguing if the Canadiens decided to experiment a bit, including maybe having Weber slip into that “Ovechkin office” for the occasional scoring chance. If not Weber, the Habs should probably try to find someone who can bury opportunities at a higher rate, perhaps even prospect Nick Suzuki.

Overall, the Canadiens’ power play is a big X-factor, and it remains to be seen if they can improve from within in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 need more from Jonathan Drouin

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

On the surface, Jonathan Drouin‘s 2018-19 season doesn’t look too bad. The 24-year-old finished with 18 goals and respectable 53 points in 81 contests, but there was plenty of disappointment, too. When the Canadiens needed him most, he was a no-show.

The Habs were in a fight for their playoff lives over the final quarter of the season. Despite picking up 96 points, they still missed the postseason by a hair (Columbus finished two points ahead of them in the chase for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference).

Drouin, who is arguably the most talented player on the roster, turned in a big four-point performance against the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 26, but he vanished after that point. For a lot of players, picking up points isn’t the only way to contribute to your team’s success, but Drouin doesn’t offer much else. Don’t get it twisted, being a key offensive cog is important, but when you aren’t scoring, what else are you doing to help?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor | Three questions]

If you include the four points he picked up in the game against Detroit, Drouin finished the year with seven points in his final 26 games. If you start counting his production after that game, he had three points in his final 18 games (two in one game against the Islanders and one in a meaningless game on the final night of the season).

Yeah, those numbers aren’t pretty.

“From that stretch of not being consistent and not producing, you can gain from that if you look at it the right way,” Drouin said in May, per the Montreal Gazette. “I think I’m able to look at it the right way and in the summer I will look at it the right way. What happened? What changed? I’m not just going to blow that off and go do my summer. I want to look at why. What were the reasons why I wasn’t producing? There was something going on. For me, it’s just to look at that stuff and make sure you’re mature about it and take the good from the bad a little bit. Not just look at how bad it was. For me, if I can take some good stuff and positive stuff — I don’t know really right now what it is and can’t give you a really special word for it — but you got to find a way to gain from that.”

When he was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, he was expected to be a first-line offensive talent that the Habs were badly lacking. Yes, Drouin made progress from year 1 in Montreal (46 points while struggling at center) to year 2, but they’ll need him to take a massive leap this upcoming season.

And although Montreal’s brutal power play shouldn’t fall on one player’s shoulders, Drouin has to take part of the blame for that, too. The Habs were consistently bad on the man-advantage throughout the year. Only the Nashville Predators had a worse success rate on the power play. When you miss the postseason by two points, that’s one of the things you look back on with regret.

All in all, it wasn’t a disastrous season for Drouin, but the vanishing act he performed over the final quarter really hurt his team. He can’t afford to do that again.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Canadiens on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Montreal scored a huge win on Tuesday with a 4-2 victory over the Presidents’ Trophy winning Lightning. The Habs rebounded from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits before outscoring Tampa 2-0 in the third. Their previous win came against the Central-leading Jets. They face their third straight division leader tonight.

The Canadiens enter Thursday one point behind the Hurricanes for the first Wild Card and tied with the Blue Jackets in points for the second Wild Card, but still on the outside looking in due to the ROW tiebreaker. After their game against Washington, they’ll end the season at home against Toronto.

With two games to play, the Capitals lead the Metro by three points over the Islanders. Washington is vying for its fourth consecutive division title.

Three-time MVP and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin is aiming to break a tie with Bobby Hull (7x) to become the first player in NHL history to finish atop the goal-scoring race eight times. Ovechkin (33 years old) can also become the first player since Phil Esposito in 1975 to lead the league in goals at age 33 or older.

On Saturday against Tampa, Ovechkin found the net twice, registering his 50th and 51st goals of the season. Those 51 goals are the most in the league, four ahead of Toronto’s John Tavares and Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, who both have 47. Ovechkin joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players to record eight or more 50-plus goal seasons.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Thursday, April 4, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Canadiens-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip Danault –  Brendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiAndrew Shaw
Jonathan DrouinJordan WealJoel Armia
Jesperi KotkaniemiNate ThompsonPaul Byron

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Jordie BennChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

John CarlsonNick Jensen
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

John Walton (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

Putrid power play might doom Canadiens’ playoff dreams

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Most times, when an NHL team is struggling, players will try to explain things away with buzzwords.

You’ll hear the sort of phrases that will get a lot of heads nodding – probably that of the head coach, in particular – which Andrew Shaw deployed in pondering the Montreal Canadiens’ struggles in trying to cement a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We’ve had bad starts, we’ve had bad periods, we’ve had bad shifts,” Shaw said after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Islanders, according to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “That hunger, that bite, it’s not there. It’s not where we need to be. We need to be a playoff team right now, and it looks like we’re just going out there and playing.”

Most signs point toward success

Talking about “that hunger, that bite” works, and probably gets some stomachs rumbling around dinner time. But effort (or a lack thereof) isn’t really a useful explanation for why the Canadiens have gone 6-9-0 in their last 15 games, placing them in what looks to be a really tight battle with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the East’s final playoff spot.

[More: The Push for the Playoffs details where the Habs rank.]

Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to look at numbers and tell the story of effort, but some of the telltale signs are there that Montreal’s still playing hard.

Since Feb. 9, Montreal’s been a high-end possession stat team by Natural Stat Trick’s metrics, just like they have overall the long haul of the season. While they “only” rank 11th since Feb. 9 at controlling the percentage of high-danger chances in a game, generating 52.05 percent is still very healthy.

What’s been going wrong, then?

If you’re wondering about goaltending, it’s not the biggest problem. Carey Price hasn’t been at his peak lately (.911 save percentage since Feb. 9), but he hasn’t been totally letting the Canadiens down.

The glaring problem

Instead, it’s pretty simple: Montreal’s power play has been abysmal.

During this slump, the Canadiens have gone 3-for-41 on the power play, which ends up being a putrid 7.3 percent success rate. That’s the worst mark in the NHL during that span since Feb. 9, with the Vancouver Canucks (8.3 percent) ranking as the only other team below double digits.

While Shaw can bring up elbow grease and sticktoitiveness, Claude Julien should be exploring answers to the power play question. To be specific, what’s been going wrong?

  • To some extent, this is just bad luck. Even the league’s most predictable, skill-low power plays should operate at much higher than 7.3 percent over the long haul.
  • That said, maybe there’s something systemic.

Personally, when I see that a team’s power play is ice cold, I usually check to see who’s shooting. Chances are, a power play might struggle because too many shots are coming from defensemen firing on low-quality opportunities.

That seems to be the case with Montreal, leading to a hypothesis: Shea Weber‘s booming shot is probably a curse disguised as a blessing.

During the 16 games since Feb. 9, Weber has 16 PP SOG, double that of the second-highest total (Jonathan Drouin‘s eight in 15 GP).

In the 54 games before this slump, Drouin leads with 33 SOG on the power play, followed by Tomas Tatar‘s 31. Weber’s numbers are more limited because of his lengthy bout with injuries, yet it’s interesting see that he generated 14 in 31 games. That’s less than one every two games, versus the one-per-night Weber has averaged during these tough 16 games.

None of this is to say that the Canadiens should stop Weber from shooting on the power play altogether. He really does boast a pretty unique weapon. Despite missing all of those games, he still has 11 goals in 2018-19, and actually just scored the 200th of his fantastic career.

But maybe the Canadiens are telegraphing their attempts to Weber too much.

Things were more effective when shots were dispersed more communally, with the highest-end scorers like Drouin, Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Max Domi leading the way. Maybe the Canadiens would be best served pretending that Weber is just another PP QB, and use him a lot like they did with Jeff Petry?

***

Since Feb. 9, the Canadiens’ 43 goals ranks 12th-worst in the NHL, but if you zero in to even-strength, Montreal’s 39 goals comes in at 13th-best.

So, the comforting part of all of this is that the Canadiens have generally been playing well, only that their power play’s been a disaster. The less-comforting part is that, if they don’t figure things out soon, that man advantage might be enough of a disadvantage to derail their playoff hopes.

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.

The Buzzer: Maximum Domi; Night of blowouts

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Three Stars

1. Max Domi

Consider this a collective award for the Canadiens, who throttled the Red Wings 8-1, even though they played the night before.

Domi led the way two goals and three assists for five points, with three shots on goal and a +5 rating in that lopsided win. This pushes his breakthrough 2018-19 campaign to 22 goals and 59 points in 64 games.

By the way, Domi’s the first Canadiens player to score at least five points in a game since some obscure player named Guy Lafleur did so in 1978.

Other Canadiens players could make credible arguments for spots in the top three, too. Jonathan Drouin was among the non-Domi leading scorers of Tuesday, generating four points (all assists). Andrew Shaw wasn’t far behind, generating his first hat trick.

Those three didn’t just tear things up, they also scored with startling efficiency. Looking at goals alone, they combined for five on just seven SOG. By my calculations, that is … very good.

2. Teuvo Teravainen

Teravainen is to the Hurricanes what Domi is to the Canadiens for Tuesday. He had the best game of anyone on a team that dominated the competition, and thus Teravainen’s teammates deserve mentions, too.

Teravainen scored one goal and three assists for four points. Remarkably, the Teravainen – Domi connection continues over the full season view, as Teravainen has 59 points in 2018-19 (in 63 games). The Hurricanes probably already felt good about signing Teuvo to a five-year extension with just a $5.4 million cap hit when they inked it in January, but it only looks better now.

Two of his teammates deserve recognition, as well. Both Dougie Hamilton (two goals, one assist, game misconduct?) and Jordan Staal (three assists) generated three-point nights. Hamilton was especially dangerous, generating nine SOG in Carolina’s impressive 6-1 win against Kings.

3. Brad Marchand

Marchand scored a goal and two assists, with his tally being his 25th career shorthanded goal, tying Rick Middleton for the Bruins’ franchise record.

The 30-year-old now has 25 goals and 74 points in 62 games this season. Marchand’s now 11 points short of his career-high of 85 points, which he generated in both 2016-17 and 2017-18.

A lot happened in this game, even beyond Marchand helping the Bruins dominate the Sharks. Erik Karlsson looked a little slow on Marchand’s goal, maybe because – you know – he might be dealing with an injury that requires rest. There was also a fight between Evander Kane and Zdeno Chara. Yeah, a lot was going on.

Highlights of the Night

Matthew Tkachuk might not suffer from many more slumps when he can score like this.

Vinnie Hinostroza has a lot of moves, which Roberto Luongo unfortunately found out.

Factoids

  • Jordan Binnington only needed to make 19 saves for his fifth shutout, so that wasn’t quite good enough to get him in the three stars on a high-scoring night. He’ll have to settle for being on a pretty lofty list.

Scores

BOS 4 – SJS 1
CGY 3 – NYI 1
PHI 5 – BUF 2
WSH 7 – OTT 2
CAR 6 – LAK 1
PIT 5 – CBJ 2
MTL 8 – DET 1
STL 2 – NSH 0
MIN 3 – WPG 2
ARI 4 – FLA 3 (SO)
VGK 4 – DAL 1

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.