Habs

How will Canadiens get out of this funk?

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Things have been bad for the Montreal Canadiens lately.

How bad?

Well, they lost forwards Jonathan Drouin (expected to be out two months after wrist surgery) and Paul Byron (expected to miss a month after knee surgery). On top of that, they blew a 4-0 lead on home ice to the New York Rangers, who were playing their second game in two nights. And on top of all that, they got obliterated 8-1 at the Bell Center last night against their biggest rival, the Boston Bruins.

Add it all up, and the Habs have dropped five games in a row. Most of those losses have come against mediocre opponents like the Devils, Senators, Rangers and Blue Jackets. Yeah, that’s a problem.

Struggling in November isn’t uncommon for this group. After a strong start last season, the team fell apart in the second month of the season. But Shea Weber‘s return from injury in late November (he had missed the whole year up until that point) gave them the spark they needed to get back on track in December of 2018.

Now, where is the spark going to come from?

There’s some serious cause for concern here. First, the team’s penalty-kill and overall defensive structure is a mess, which is shocking considering their head coach, Claude Julien, has built an impressive resume based on his defensive mind. Goaltender Carey Price isn’t on top of his game right now, which is also a problem because he’s the only one capable of masking their defensive warts.

Many in Montreal heap too much blame on Price because it’s the easy thing to do, but it’s clear that he hasn’t been good enough during this five-game losing skid.

“Obviously, it’s not fun to be a part of it but life goes on,” Price said after the ugly loss to Boston on Tuesday night, per the Montreal Gazette. “There’s always a way to turn things around.  Every team goes through some tough scenarios in a season and we’re going through one now. We can’t dwell on it too long. I’ve been around long enough to know you can’t pout our way out of it. Tomorrow we go back to work and find a way out of it.

“The good part is that we have a lot of guys who have been though this. On both sides of the puck we have to be better. There’s never just one thing.”

Outside of everybody playing better, the Canadiens will probably need to look to their general manager for some help if they’re going to get this season turned around. That’s not to say that this slide will continue much longer, but it’s not just about this losing skid. This is a Habs team that was eliminated from playoff contention on the last weekend of the regular season in 2018-19. The expectations were for them to get back to the postseason this year. In order to make that goal a reality, they’re going to have to spend the $8 million in cap space they have left.

Yes, Marc Bergevin tried to sign Sebastian Aho to an offer-sheet over the summer, but it didn’t work. Now, he needs to find a trade partner to make sure his team gets back to playing meaningful hockey in April. Making a deal when your team is desperate is never a good idea, so Bergevin will have to get creative. The move doesn’t have to come today or even tomorrow, but it needs to happen soon.

In order for this team to become a slam dunk to make the playoffs, they need to add a legitimate scorer, a left-handed puck mover on defense and some size throughout the roster. Will they be able to get all that before the trade deadline? Unlikely. But Bergevin has to sacrifice some of the youth in the pipeline or some of the draft picks they’ve accumulated if the goal is to make the postseason this year.

Pulling off major trades are never easy, so he’s going to have to make tough decisions over the next little while. Whether or not he makes the right ones will have a direct impact on his team’s playoff chances.

The pressure is on.

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.

It’s Montreal Canadiens Day at PHT

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. 

2018-19
44-30-8, 96 points (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Ben Chiarot
Nick Cousins
Keith Kinkaid

OUT:
Jordie Benn
Andrew Shaw
Nicolas Deslauriers
Antti Niemi

RE-SIGNED:
Christian Folin
Artturi Lehkonen
Joel Armia
Charles Hudon
Jordan Weal
Mike Reilly
Brett Kulak
Nate Thompson

2018-19 Summary

Close but no cigar. Despite putting up 96 points in 2018-19, the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the playoffs. It was close, but they were eventually eliminated on the final Friday of the regular season when the Columbus Blue Jackets clinched the last Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Even though they didn’t make the playoffs, last season wasn’t a total failure for an organization that appeared to be in shambles the previous year. Habs general manager Marc Bergevin moved captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, top prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick and he also shipped Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi. Both trades couldn’t have worked out any better for Montreal. Tatar gave the Canadiens a 25-goal and 58-point season, Suzuki had a great year in junior and could make the club this year and Domi ended up leaving the team in scoring, while Galchenyuk has already been traded again.

The difference between last season and this season, is that the public’s expectations were in the toilet coming into 2018-19. Those expectations will be much, much higher this year. Missing the playoffs by a hair won’t be good enough.

“I knew we’d have a better team this season [with the changes that were made], but what I really like is the character. We’ve come from behind in a lot games. That didn’t happen last year. I’m proud of that,” Bergevin said last January, per the team’s website. “Hats off to the players and the coaches. We started at zero and I think we’re heading in the right direction.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

The Canadiens got off to a good start last year, which was surprising considering the fact that Shea Weber missed the first two months of the season. Carey Price, who needs to be on top of his game for this team to have a chance to play meaningful games in the spring, had a rough month of November, but he was terrific when they needed him down the stretch. Those two veterans will obviously be key for the Habs. If they can stay healthy, Montreal will have a chance.

Brenden Gallagher ended up being their only 30-goal scorer last year (he had 33), but they got depth scoring from all over the lineup. Domi and Tatar were the only two Habs to surpass the 20-goal mark, but nine other players hit double figures in goals.

The downside to all that, is that a few of those players had great years by their standards and they still missed the playoffs. Can they do it all over again and then some?

One of the players who surprisingly stuck with the team all year, was 2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He finished with 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as an 18-year-old in the NHL. He has all the potential in the world and he may become that true number one center the organization has been looking for for years. If he can take a big step forward in his second year, the Habs will be much better for it.

In the end, Bergevin and his staff  got the benefit of the doubt because they seemingly turned this ship around in one year. That won’t be the case if they fail to make it back to the postseason this time around.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Julien: Price’s return to practice “encouraging”

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A Montreal Canadiens team struggling for answers in the early going this season got a bit of a boost on Monday.

Goaltender Carey Price returned to practice on Monday morning in Montreal, a welcome sign for a team struggling to stop pucks and desperate to start winning as they wallow in the depths of the Eastern Conference.

Price worked on lateral movements with Habs goaltending coach Stéphane Waite prior to practice starting, per TSN’s John Lu, and continued to work in the Canadiens’ backup net for the rest of practice.

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien confirmed after practice that Price would be on the team’s upcoming quick two-game back-to-back road trip beginning in Dallas on Tuesday. Julien also said Price is still listed as day-to-day and that there was still no timetable for his return. Charlie Lindgren will man the crease against the Stars.

Truth be told, the Canadiens weren’t very good with Price in the lineup before he went down with a lower-body injury, forcing him to miss the past eight games.

In 11 starts, Price has been above a .900 save percentage in just three of them and owns a 3-7-1 record. His save percentage sits at .877 with an equally unhealthy 3.77 goals-against average.

Montreal has the second-worst team save percentage in the league at .886 and have several other issues to contend with, including being 29th in goals for, 30th in goals against, 27th in power-play efficiency, 28th killing penalties and dead last in shooting percentage.

Indeed, the Canadiens will take any positives that come their way at the moment.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck