Okay, Habs fans, here we are. The quarter pole. The point we've all been waiting for before passing judgement on the latest bunch of recruits wearing our beloved CH; the moment when we're supposed to have a clue what kind of season these guys can deliver. It'll take twenty games, we said, for the team to gel after the summer's gutting. So, what do you think?
I admit that's a rhetorical question, for no true bleu (blanc et rouge) fan can be happy with the absolute suckage we're seeing on the ice right now. The team's record is 9-11, which is a call for emergency help if I've ever heard one. Right at the moment, we're looking at a decimated defence corps struggling to move the puck effectively. Of all the stats the NHL keeps, Habs are in the top five in only one: giveaways. Number one in the league is Roman Hamrlik. Scott Gomez is number two. Jaroslav Spacek is number four and Hal Gill has dropped to sixth place because he's only had a chance to give the puck away in fourteen games rather than the twenty the rest of them have had. Those stats might possibly be affected by whoever counts giveaways in the Bell Centre. Perhaps that person's perception of what constitutes a giveaway is somewhat more scrupulous than those of the giveaway-counters in other rinks. Maybe, but I don't think so, since takeaways (presumably giveaways by the other team) would also be high. The Habs have 190 giveaways and only 90 takeaways (good for ninth in the league.) We see it ourselves on the ice every game. The defence struggles under pressure and throws the puck out of trouble in any way possible...over the glass, the length of the ice or onto an opponent's stick. We might make some allowances for this, because of all the injuries on D. But if the team's defensive core is so crippled by the loss of the as-yet unproven Ryan O'Byrne and 6/7 man Hal Gill, it's much more handicapped than we think. Markov, of course, can never be replaced. But attempting to do so by signing Bergeron and claiming Leach isn't solving the problem.
The forwards are another horror story. Cammalleri makes the top ten in one NHL category: shots on goal, coming in in eighth place. It's no surprise he's leading the team in points. You can't score if you don't shoot, which is proven among the league leaders. The top point scorers in the NHL have similar shooting percentages to Cammalleri's, but they just take more shots. The Canadiens, on the other hand, don't shoot the puck. Alexander Ovechkin is the league leader, with 86 shots in 14 games, or an average of 6.1 shots per game. Compare that with Andrei Kostitsyn, supposedly one of the Habs' snipers, who has 38 shots in 20 games for an average of 1.9 shots per game. To make it worse, Ovechkin has a 16.3% shooting average, while Kostitsyn's is 2.6%. In other words, the only way he's going to put up points is to shoot much, much more often. Tomas Plekanec is doing fine points-wise, but could be doing better if he'd shoot more. He's only taking 2.4 shots a game. So is Scott Gomez. That's still better than Guillaume Latendresse's 1.25, Matt D'Agostini's 1.45 and Maxim Lapierre's 1.65. When the secondary scorers you're relying on to put points on the board don't shoot the puck, there's not going to be a lot of scoring happening. Then again, it's hard to shoot the puck when you're constantly giving it away.
The goalies struggled for many of the twenty games so far, no surprise considering the hard-pressed D. They, at least, seem to have found some consistency. Both of them have turned in some very strong performances in the last five games. Unfortunately, they've found their grooves just when the slow trickle of Habs goalscoring has dried up like a puddle in the Sahara.
The coaches are unimpressive, having failed either to get the team playing a discernable system or to adjust the system to the players' weaknesses.
So, at the quarter point of the season, we have to conclude this is really a pretty bad team. Andrei Markov's return will help the D, and it will lend the forwards a hand in moving the puck up ice better. But Markov won't be returning until another two quarters of the season have passed. At that point, there's only so much one man can do. And we still haven't seen the Canadiens play New Jersey, Philly, Detroit or most of the really strong teams in the league.
Last season, we were frustrated because the Habs so often declined to show up for games against weak opponents and ended up blowing points because of it. Then, they'd turn around and beat a good team like San Jose the next night, just to prove they could elevate their game when they tried. This year, the team tries its best most nights and still loses. When it doesn't show up at all, we get a butt-kicking like the one in Nashville last night.
I don't like what I'm seeing with this team, mostly because it doesn't end here. The same core of players, with the possible subtractions of Tomas Plekanec, Paul Mara and Glen Metropolit will be around for the foreseeable future. If that's not enough to put the fear of God in you as a Habs fan, you're a better fan than I am. Honestly? The thing I'm most dreading (aside from Boston landing the first-overall pick...thanks Burkie, you moron) is that Markov's return will give the team a late-season push up to ninth place. There'll be no playoffs, no players will be either traded or re-signed during the stretch drive and the draft pick will be another mid-tier third liner. I hope the Habs manage to pull it together somehow in the next twenty games, but if they don't...if they're going to miss the playoffs anyway...I hope they miss big and finally land themselves a solid top-five pick that will make a real difference. Other than that, Gainey's going to have to 'fess up to some mistakes and fix them if the mess we see on the ice now is going to improve at all in the next five years. I see only one way to do that...and I'll say more about that later.
So, are we gellin' yet?