The Montreal Canadiens were riding high to start the 2015-16 campaign, reeling off nine straight wins to kick off the season. By November 25th, with a 5-1 victory over the New York Rangers, they had an NHL-best 17-4-2 record – but a huge problem emerged as Carey Price went down with a lower-body injury.
Price going on the IR completely changed the trajectory of the Canadiens season, revealing many persistent problems which were shielded by the goaltender’s stellar play. Montreal has since gone from first place to looking outside the Wild Card standings in the span of two months, with a record of 7-16-2 in that span. Since December 3rd, they’ve ranked last, or near last in many important categories. Simply put they’ve been awful. But how’d they get there?
It’s hard to win without Carey Price
The Canadiens being a worse hockey team sans Price was obvious. There’s simply no way you can take the league’s best goalie out of the equation and expect similar results. Still, goaltending has been brutal for Montreal.
Without Price, the Habs have relied on the trio of Mike Condon, Dustin Tokarski and Ben Scrivens. Not a huge problem for a few games, but a massive issue for an extended stretch. That’s like going from a Lexus to a scooter. So far, the results have been dismal, as the three combined to rank dead last in the league in even strength save percentage at .907 since Price went down. Condon shined early with Montreal, but in 20 starts since Price got hurt, he’s posted a pedestrian .910 even strength save percentage. Scrivens is sporting a .906 rate, while the now-traded Tokarski bottomed out at .884. Condon can be a good backup goalie, but being forced into so much action has really taken a toll on him.
Price is expected back in mid-February. It can’t come soon enough.
Scoring has dried up
The Canadiens were riding the PDO train straight to the playoffs pre-Price injury, sporting a 102.2 rate thanks to his strong goaltending and an NHL sixth-best 8.6 team shooting percentage at even strength. Dale Weise, pictured, had nine goals, David Desharnais had seven, Alex Semin was still on the team and Price was dominating (when healthy) between the pipes. Montreal posted a +15 goal differential at even strength, and everything seemed to be clicking. Fast forward two months and the Canadiens can’t buy a goal.
In the 25 games without Price, the Habs have posted a -16 goal differential. They’ve shot 5.5 percent at even strength, second last only to Nashville, and all of their early season success stories have come back down to earth in meteoric fashion. Weise has scored twice since Price went down, same for Desharnais, and it’s tough to imagine how much worse things could be if Max Pacioretty, who’s potted seven goals in the same span, went down.
The Canadiens have generated more shot attempts at even strength during the tough stretch (54.6 Corsi for percentage) than the winning start (52.0 Corsi for percentage), but that doesn’t mean all that much without Price. They won’t struggle scoring this badly all season, but boy, when things have been bad, they’ve been really bad.
Coaching and management
The Price injury was impossible to predict, and every team goes through scoring slumps, but what’s killing the Canadiens is the incompetence of head coach Michel Therrien. He’s made egregiously bad decisions all season which has often makes one wonder how good this team would be with a semi-competent coach behind the bench.
Therrien has overly relied on mediocre players far too often this season. Dale Weise has been given regular playing time all season, with Therrien relying on him in most situations, including giving him 1:45 of power play time per game. That’s insane. His previous career high in power play time per game before this season? Ten seconds. Despite not producing a power play goal since November 5th, he’s consistently received regular time in that situation. He’s received more time than Lars Eller (45 seconds per game), Daniel Carr (54 seconds per game) and Sven Andrighetto (30 seconds per game).
Therrien really likes veterans, as he’s buried Alex Galchenyuk from the meaningful minutes he deserves. Galchenyuk leads his draft class in scoring with 131 points and still only averages 15:13 of ice time per game. Thomas Fleischmann (15:43) and David Desharnais (15:54) average more time than him. It’s insanity. Galchenyuk is an amazingly talented player, who could give the team a much bigger offensive boost if he was played in the right situations. A center, he’s often playing on the wing, and with crappy linemates like Weise to boot. Imagine his production with OK linemates beside him in his natural position, with a bigger opportunity?
Plus it doesn’t help when his coach says something like this after he’s a victim in a domestic violence case.
Therrien’s mistakes aren’t limited to what’s listed above. He’s alienated players (Semin, Parenteau, anybody young) and consistently makes puzzling lineup decisions (Subban playing the right on the PP). He shouldn’t inspire faith to Montreal fans.
It’s hard to excuse GM Marc Bergevin in this case, who’s done an excellent job managing the roster, but a poor job at dealing with Therrien’s shortcomings. He says the responsibility is “on him” and while that’s true to a small degree, the man he’s employing behind the bench is the biggest responsible party.
The Canadiens will get Price back next month, and probably flail their way into a lower seed playoff spot or hover around .500. Even if they do turn this season around, it’s clear Therrien isn’t going to lead them to the promise land. He’s not good enough. It shouldn’t take two separate tenures to figure that out.