Jonathan Drouin

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Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

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.

The Buzzer: Price, Canadiens continue to roll

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Players of the Night:

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: Price made like a brick wall for the third straight game, stopping 27 of 28 shots he faced for his third straight win since returning from injury. Montreal had been a tire fire prior to Price’s return, and Price had been a tire fire before he went down with the mysterious lower-body injury. Price’s revival looks very, very good over the past three games with a 0.67 goals-against average and a .980 save percentage. The Canadiens have won three-straight.

Antoine Vermette, Anaheim Ducks: Vermette picked a good night to end his 11-game goal-scoring drought, netting twice, including the game-winner, as the Ducks beat the St. Louis Blues. Anaheim had lost their previous four games before Wednesday’s win.

Highlights of the Night:

This is just one filthy, filthy pass by Andrew Shaw:

Riley Nash made Andrei Vasilevskiy look pedestrian with this slick wrister:

Steven Stamkos ended a five-game goal-less slump when he finished off this tic-tac-toe play on the power play:

The Mighty Stumble:

The NHL’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams coming into Wednesday night’s action both fell to lesser teams (going by standings, of course).

On Wednesday Night Rivalry on NBSCN, the Boston Bruins topped the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2. Charlie McAvoy had a goal and an assist and played over 28 minutes for the Bruins.

Kyle Brodziak scored twice in the final four minutes for St. Louis, but it wasn’t enough to claw his team back from a 3-0 deficit.

The Winnipeg Jets took a too many men penalty with seven seconds left in regulation in a 2-2 game and paid for it when the game shifted into overtime as Nathan MacKinnon scored 59 seconds into extra time.

The Jets had a chance to move into a tie for the top spot in the Western Conference with St. Louis losing. Alas, it was not to be.

MISC:

  • Tuukka Rask hasn’t had a good start to the year — he has just four wins in 14 starts — but he stopped 19 shots on Wednesday against the league’s top team to end a four-game skid, including this fine save:

  • Bryan Little has eight points in nine games since ending an 11-game goal-scoring drought on Nov. 14.
  • Erik Karlsson continues to starve the scoresheet of his name. He is now seven games without a goal or an assist, this after recording 17 in his previous 10 games.

Factoid of the Night:

And it was a pretty nice goal to boot.

So majestic.

Scores: 

Bruins 3, Lightning 2

Canadiens 2, Senators 1

Ducks 3, Blues 2

Avalanche 3, Jets 2 (OT)


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

Tampa Bay Lightning ’15-16 Outlook

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Tampa Bay’s mantra going into this summer might as well have been “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It certainly seems that was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s philosophy as a trip to the Stanley Cup Final has led to a quiet offseason. At the same time, there is still the potential for organic, internal changes.

Forward Jonathan Drouin might find himself playing a bigger role next season after getting limited minutes in 2014-15 and barely participating in the playoffs. He has a ton of offensive upside as illustrated by his back-to-back 100-plus point seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads. If the 20-year-old forward can build off of his 32-point rookie campaign, then he will be complimenting an already deep offensive core.

At the same time, netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy’s rise last season has changed the dynamic of Tampa Bay’s goaltending. While Ben Bishop is still the team’s starter, Vasilevskiy should start pushing him for ice time. The potential is also there for a goaltending controversy should Bishop endure a sustained cold streak.

We might also see defenseman Slater Koekkoek earn a regular spot with the Lightning after playing in three contests with Tampa Bay in 2014-15. He was the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and might become a significant threat with the puck and factor with the man advantage.

For the most part though, the status quo is expected to remain. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Jason Garrison should once again lead Tampa Bay’s blueline. Stamkos remains the centerpiece of the offense while the hope is that the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat has another strong campaign.

The Lightning got a lot out of that core last season, which has earned them another chance to pursue a championship together.

Looking to make the leap: Slater Koekkoek

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Depending upon how you define “making the leap,” plenty of Tampa Bay Lightning youngsters could qualify for this post.

That’s part of what makes the group GM Steve Yzerman assembled so scary: there are a ton of quality prime-age players who broke through recently or may break through soon.

Even beyond the very-young Triplets, you have Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Nesterov and Andrei Vasilevskiy expecting bigger things, possibly as soon as 2015-16.

There are plenty of almost-there guys who can make the jump, too, from Adam Erne to Anthony DeAngelo.

Here’s a vote for Slater Koekkoek.

As the 10th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, the 21-year-old seems like he’s primed for an arrival sooner rather than later.

He got his feet wet at the NHL level, playing in three games with the Bolts in 2014-15. While his AHL numbers won’t blow you away, the Lightning have every reason to give Koekkoek a chance to prove himself, as the likes of Nesterov, Andrej Sustr and even Matt Carle seemed to move in and out of Jon Cooper’s doghouse during the playoffs.

Speaking of Carle, he seemed impressed with the young blueliner’s skill when he debuted in April, as the Tampa Tribune reports.

“He skates really well, skated with the puck a lot and created a couple of chances on his own,” Carle said. “He was jumping up in plays. But I don’t think I played well enough to help him out. I kind of hung him out to dry on a couple of odd-man rushes. But he’s a talented kid who can skate well.”

Adding more mobility to a defense corps that includes Victor Hedman? That could leave Lightning fans leaping for joy.

It’s Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT

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The Tampa Bay Lightning fell two wins short of the summit. At least they boast the sort of young legs that can hoist them back to similar heights, though, right?

Jonathan Toews was impressed with the push-back from Tampa Bay in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, even if he delivered that message in the form of a backhanded compliment. Negative types would say 2014-15 was a year of almost – nearly winning the division, coming that close to a Cup win – but most would agree that last year a big success.

The question is: will the Lightning look back at that run as the time they learned how to win the big game?

Time hasn’t always been kind to teams who fall in Stanley Cup Final rounds, although the Lightning have the makings of a team that could be here to say, perhaps running parallel to the Penguins (who lost in 2008 before winning it all in 2009).

Most obviously, the Lightning have the same coach and the same core players.

Off-season recap

Of course, one can look at that bounty of prime-age assets and think that the Lightning can make this last for ages.

Unless you’re a huge Brenden Morrow fan, the main cast members from the 2014-15 Bolts are returning for the sequel. The biggest changes are expected to be from internal growth: Jonathan Drouin may take a bigger role, Andrei Vasilevskiy could push Ben Bishop for starts and others hope to become full-time NHL players.

The biggest consideration comes when you ponder contracts that end after 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Most obviously, Steven Stamkos is in the last year of his contract, a fact that will likely make for distracting headlines.

One piece of “The Triplets” – Nikita Kucherov – will be an RFA after 2015-16. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will carry that same RFA status after 2017-18, and one would expect big upgrades from their matching $3.33 million cap hits. Even the goalie duo of Bishop and Vasilevskiy only hold two-year deals.

A quiet summer makes sense for the Lightning, yet it’s a bit foreboding, as many would prefer to see “Stamkos signs seven-year mega-deal” in this slot. Yzerman still has time to swing deals like those both before, during and after 2015-16, but looming cap challenges are the elephant in the room.

That’s a bummer for the future, yet the Lightning seem well-stocked for the shorter term.