Habs waive Alzner as rough season continues

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Last summer, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin decided to open up the vault to sign free-agent defenseman Karl Alzner to a five-year, $23.125 million contract. Alzner struggled mightily in his first year as a Hab and he’s had a hard time getting into the lineup in year two. Less than a year and a half into this contract, the Canadiens have finally admitted that it was a big mistake.

The club has decided to place the veteran on waivers. The 30-year-old has one assist and a plus-2 rating in eight games this season, but his $4.625 cap hit through 2021-22 basically means no team will be willing to touch him. The move was necessary because Shea Weber (lower body) is getting set to return to the lineup this week.

The Canadiens need Alzner’s roster spot, which means he’ll be heading to AHL Laval if he clears waivers. Even with Alzner off the roster, Montreal is still carrying eight defensemen.

Alzner was brought to Montreal to replace Andrei Markov, who signed with the KHL, but that obviously hasn’t worked out too well for him or the team. According to Cap Friendly, buying out Alzner after this season would cost the Canadiens some dead money on the cap. It would cost the Habs between $1,069,444 and $4,194, 444 in cap penalties over the next six seasons.

Things will become even more interesting once Paul Byron, Nikita Scherbak, Noah Juulsen and Joel Armia are ready to return from injury. The Canadiens will have to make a trade or they’ll have to expose someone on waivers that they don’t want to lose.

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.

What’s going on with Carey Price?

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The Montreal Canadiens were expected to be one of the bottom-dwellers in the Eastern Conference this season. Instead, they’ve proven everybody wrong by getting off to an 8-5-3 start. Nothing to complain about in Montreal then, right? Guess again!

After they traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, the expectation was that they’d have a hard time putting the puck in the net. That hasn’t been an issue. The Shea Weber injury was also supposed to derail their season, but the defense has sort of held up until now. So what’s the big issue that has fans up in arms? Apparently, it’s Carey Price.

Let’s make one thing clear: Price hasn’t been good enough this season. That has never been more evident than over the last few days, as he gave up bad goals in the third period against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night.

And he also gave up a couple of stinkers in Thursday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on home ice:

Canadiens using speed to overwhelm opponents

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Heading into the 2018-19 NHL season, the expectations weren’t very high for the Montreal Canadiens. After all, a team that has struggled to score goals five-on-five traded away Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk. But thanks to their newfound identity, they’ve managed to exceed all expectations  and boast a 5-2-2 through nine games.

The Canadiens don’t have a superstar up front or an elite player on defense (Shea Weber is still injured), and Carey Price hasn’t even been dominant yet, but they’ve managed to remain competitive thanks to their ability to move the puck quickly. Also, newcomers like Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Xavier Ouellet have fit in really nicely, and they’ve all contributed to the speed the team is playing with.

Not every player on the roster is fast, but Claude Julien and his staff have found a way to change their approach after a horrendous year in 2017-18. Coaching additions like Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson have also helped with that change.

When things are going well for the Canadiens, you can tell by the little time they spend in their own end. Last season, it seemed like they would get hemmed in the defensive zone all the time. Now, their defenders have found a way to move the puck quicker. The fact that the forwards have made themselves more available to receive those quick passes has helped the team get out of their own end with relative ease. Moving the puck allows the Canadiens to play a quick transition game, which eventually leads to some offensive output.

That’s why a veteran like Karl Alzner hasn’t been able to get into the lineup consistently. The Habs have favored skating defensemen like Jeff Petry, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen, Mike Reilly and Ouellet, and it’s made all the difference.

The other interesting thing about Montreal, is that they can come at you with four lines. Some nights, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Tatar will lead the way. Other times, it will be Jonathan Drouin, Domi and Artturi Lehkonen. The team has also used Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia and Paul Byron together, and they have fourth-line options that include Andrew Shaw, Matthew Peca, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak and Nicolas Deslauriers.

“I wouldn’t say we’re superstars, but everybody is working hard,” Tatar said. “That’s the key. Without that, you’re not able to win a game. We have four lines rolling and everyone is chipping in. That’s a strength for sure.”

Even though they’re coming off a loss in Buffalo last night, no one predicted that they’d have just two regulation defeats in their first nine games, especially because they went up against Toronto and Pittsburgh (twice).

The biggest question mark surrounding the Canadiens is whether or not they can keep this up. Playing fast and being aggressive on the forecheck every night takes its toll on a team. Keeping that in mind, they’re not an overly big team, either, so they might wear down a little quicker, too.

When they hit the dog days of the season, they’ll need Price to be stellar. For now, they just have to find a way to keep this going for as long as they can.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Changing face (and pace) of NHL underdogs

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Sports fans love underdogs, yet for far too long in the NHL, defying the odds meant slowing hockey down to an agonizingly boring level.

As surreal as it was to see the 2010 Canadiens shock the Capitals and Penguins thanks to an out-of-body experience by Jaroslav Halak, you wonder if upsets like those sent the wrong message: just turtle and hope your goalie can save the day. Such tactics made fans of the sport as a whole shudder back to the Devils trapping the Red Wings into oblivion during the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, and probably long before that. Maybe a team could steal wins with such tactics, but viewers became the biggest losers.

We’re still very much in the “don’t get fooled by early results” portion of the 2018-19 season, yet I can’t help but wonder: are NHL underdogs becoming … fun?

Pushing the pace instead of lagging behind

Amusingly enough, the current rendition of the Montreal Canadiens could be the latest example of a team realizing that they’re not particularly imposing on paper, shrugging their shoulders, and throwing caution to the wind.

The Habs are off to a 3-1-1 start, and while gravity will almost certainly pull them down a bit, they haven’t been riding good luck alone.

So far, they’re firing a hail of pucks on opponents, averaging 36 shots on goal per contest while giving up just 26.6 against. Even the NHL’s elite teams don’t tend to generate such a massive differential of scoring chances over the long haul of an 82-game season, but the point is clear: through five games, this Canadiens team has been relentless.

[How the Habs could exceed expectations this season]

That stretch included an overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, plus two impressive wins against the Penguins. In the past – and in past editions of the Habs – they probably would’ve merely tried to slow down those seemingly mighty teams.

Dice up the numbers in any variety of ways (high-danger chances, shots, scoring chances), and it’s clear that the Canadiens have been very aggressive to begin the season. It makes earlier comments from Claude Julien seem like more than just boilerplate material about playing with more speed.

“We’re trying not to get painted on the wall and stopped,” Julien said in late September, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “I think we’re in movement a lot more this year and our transition game is better because of that. We talked about our speed and we just want to use our speed more. When you have to stop and take off again, it takes away from that speed. So it’s not about going in circles; it’s about making sure that you’re in movement all the time so that when you do get the puck you’ve already got some of that speed.”

Julien added that “with good transition and quick play you’re able to catch teams off balance,” and in all honesty, the Canadiens caught me off balance, too. It’s fascinating to see this Montreal squad shake off an ugly season and summer to just play, and this could be the latest example of what we should all hope is a larger trend of teams pushing the pace even during perceived rebuilds.

Young legs

Now, again, we aren’t even in November. The Canadiens are certain to cool off, with the main question being how much they slow down.

Early on, they’ve been embracing a youth movement. One thing that sticks out is how their defense is playing a more modern style.

While Shea Weber continues his murky knee injury rehab, slow-footed, expensive defenseman Karl Alzner hasn’t managed to suit up for Montreal yet this season. Instead, the defensive minutes are going to Mike Reilly, Jeff Petry (as usual), and Noah Juulsen. While Petry is 30, Reilly is 25 and Juulsen is 21.

There will be growing pains with such an alignment, and the Canadiens probably can’t manufacture too many wins with Antti Niemi in net instead of Carey Price. There’s also the very real threat of slipping into old, slow, habits once older, slower players return to the mix.

Still, it means a lot that this team is at least bringing energy and enthusiasm to the rink. Other fledgling teams should take note: let your young players play, and let them make mistakes. More often than not, the pros outweigh the cons when you allow skilled athletes to take chances. Really, wouldn’t it be better to lose and be entertaining than to lose and put your fans into a sad slumber?

Excusing mistakes and growing pains hasn’t always been Julien’s calling card, but by going younger on defense and embracing fresh faces like rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, this Canadiens team has been far more exciting than expected.

“I just never knew where I stood; it was one mistake, you’re coming out of the game,” Reilly said, via The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required). “That’s kind of the way it was, it was one mistake and no trust. So it feels good that you can kind of come in here – obviously you’re going to be held accountable – but if you make one little mistake you’ve got to move on. That’s what I like about this.”

[More on the burst Montreal receives from Kotkaniemi]

To some extent, the Ottawa Senators have also been more refreshing than expected, with Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, and Thomas Chabot powering a respectable start. Their numbers indicate that there’s been more smoke and mirrors involved than with Montreal (again, the Habs have been dictating play).

The point that hopefully gets across to NHL teams – particularly coaches and GMs – is that you don’t need to bog down the game to try to save face, even if your team enters a season looking weak on paper.

Embracing the reality of a faster NHL

Refreshingly, there are examples with larger sample sizes.

The Colorado Avalanche essentially paralleled the Senators and Habs expectations entering 2017-18, only to make the playoffs and occasionally give the Predators fits with their speed and aggressiveness. The New Jersey Devils also carried low expectations into last season. Instead of, well, playing like most people expect the Devils to play, they went for a run-and-gun style that fit their roster and camouflaged a shaky defense. Both experiments were brilliant successes, and each team is off to promising starts in 2018-19.

Amusingly, this emphasis on skill and speed – or even “outscoring your problems” – could possibly be traced back to the repeat champion Penguins, who haven’t ranked as underdogs in ages.

The Penguins and other teams are forging a more lightning-fast NHL, so other teams must decide if they want to adapt or be left behind. Underdogs like the Canadiens aren’t likely to keep pace over the marathon of an 82-game season, but it’s more fun (and probably more effective) to see them race along rather than making like the tortoises of old.

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.

How Canadiens can exceed expectations this year

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PITTSBURGH — Maybe you looked at the Montreal Canadiens roster at the start of the season and had the same thoughts that I did. Among them: This just isn’t a very good team. Who is going to score the goals out of that group of forwards? What exactly is the long-term plan here? And that defense without Shea Weber to open the year … woof. 

But if there is one thing we should have learned by now when watching the NHL it’s that if there is one sport where seemingly improbable and unthinkable results can happen, this might be the one. Given where this team is coming from a year ago and the roster it is putting on the ice to start this season the Canadiens being a seriously competitive team would probably be a pretty big surprise.

It is important to point out that we are still in the first week of the NHL season, right in the thick of that time period on the schedule where it’s easy to jump to bad conclusions that can make you look like a doofus a few months later when we look back on it. But it’s still better to start the season with some success than it is to start the season without it, and through their first two games it would be fair to say that the Canadiens have done that.

Opening the year with games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, two of the best and most talented offensive teams in the league and a couple of Stanley Cup contenders, the Canadiens have managed to collect three out of a possible four points. They turned in their most impressive outing of the two on Saturday night in Pittsburgh when they absolutely demolished the Penguins by a 5-1 margin, leaving Mike Sullivan in a little disbelief as to where his team is in the early stages of the season.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the performance on Saturday is that the Canadiens entered the third period with a 4-1 lead, and instead of sitting back on their heels and nursing the lead, they took it to the Penguins, added another goal, and outshot them by a 14-3 margin over the final 20 minutes. It was exactly the way a team should want to close out a game on the road — and you almost never see it happen to that degree and executed with such perfection.

“Well that’s what I wanted from our team,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “It was important we didn’t play on our heels and let them come at us.”

So here we are, after two games, and the Canadiens sitting 1-0-1 and looking pretty decent in the process. What would it take for this team to build off of this start and actually exceed their expectations this season?

There are a few things that can help.

The simplest and easiest answer is simply, Carey Price.

We have seen the impact Price can make on the Canadiens when he is at his best and it can be season-altering. But his potential is obvious. It still has to be more than him.

The Canadiens raised some eyebrows early in the season by scratching veterans Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner for the first two games. The result has been a younger, faster team, with 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi being one of the most intriguing young players. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft has been thrown right into the deep end of the pool and he has not yet looked out of place, even if he has been sheltered a bit (which he should be as an 18-year-old rookie). For a team that has been in desperate need of a big-time center, a promising rookie season from him would be a big development no matter what happens for the team in the standings.

They also need big seasons from the veteran forwards they have up front, including Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, and Tomas Tatar. Pretty much all of them have something to prove this season.

Drouin, after being one of the team’s big acquisitions a year ago, had an okay debut season in Montreal but was not really the breakthrough season that many expected.

Domi came to Montreal in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, a trade that at the time seemed to be one-sided in Montreal’s favor given how much of a down year Domi had in Arizona, and how much has goal-scoring has dropped off the past two years.

Then there is Tatar, the main NHL asset acquired in this summer’s Max Pacioretty trade. Tatar has been a consistent 20-goal, 45-point player throughout his career and still has several years of term left on his contract. He is a better player than he showed during his brief time in Vegas, and could be one of the Canadiens’ best players.

But the veteran player that might do the most to help the Canadiens’ form some sort of an identity this season is Paul Byron, recently signed to a long-term contract extension to remain in Montreal after posting back-to-back 20-goal seasons. He was brilliant for the Canadiens on Saturday, scoring a pair of goals and setting up Joel Armias’ shorthanded goal late in the second period that was probably the knockout punch for the night.

He was one of the most talked about players in their locker room on Saturday night.

“He’s kind of like the coyote and the roadrunner, right?” said Julien on Saturday. “He’s a guy that disappears pretty quickly. He’s been a good player for quite a while. As I said a few weeks ago am so happy we got him re-signed, he’s a great addition to our team, and not only that he’s wearing a letter because he’s such a great leader. He’s an important part of our team.”

“He’s just consistent,” said teammate Brendan Gallagher. “You watch Paul, he’s going to be that way every game. He creates chances with his speed. You talk to anyone that plays with him, plays against him, you have to be aware of him. He’s one of the fastest players in the league and he definitely uses it. Game after game he’s an effective player for us.”

Again, this is just two games — the first two games of the season, no less — and we don’t want to make more out of this than it is at this point.

But you have to start someplace, and even though we don’t quite know what this team is yet the Canadiens probably couldn’t have had two tougher tests to open the year. So far they have passed them with flying colors.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.