Sunday, September 5, 2010

Special Teams

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we've got ourselves a least to start the season. With Carey Price signed to back up Alex Auld*, the Habs are okay in net. They have seven NHL-calibre defencemen in Markov, Subban, Hamrlik, Spacek, Gill, Gorges and O'Byrne, and at least three more capable of playing in the NHL if needed. The top two lines are set for now, with Plekanec, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn on the first and Gomez, Gionta and Pouliot on the second. Of the remaining seven forward positions, Darche, Lapierre, Moen and Pyatt have four of them and two more will likely be taken by Boyd and Eller. It seems like the only question to be answered at camp will be who'll win the battle for that last bottom-line job.

There are a couple of specific problems the coaching staff will be trying to solve at camp, though. The Habs' special teams need help right out of the gate.

The Canadiens power play has finished top five in the NHL four times in the last five years, topping the league twice. That's because it's followed a very successful formula. Setting up three slick forwards around the circles draws the defenders in. Lining up Andrei Markov on the left point with a left-shooting cannon on the right opens up the deadly attack from the blue line. If opponents defend the net, they get burned from the point. If they defend the point shot, Markov sneaks in and burns them at the net. It doesn't really matter who's firing the cannon. Sheldon Souray had a career year on the PP with Markov. He bolted to Edmonton and Mark Streit stepped in, keeping the PP in first place. When Streit left for New York, the team attempted to make Markov the shooter on the PP, rather than the set-up guy. It was horrible. The Habs hovered near last place in power-play goals for most of the season, until, in desperation, Bob Gainey went out and traded for Mathieu Schneider. Things started to turn around right away. Last year, there wasn't a plan until Markov got hurt and Gainey hired Marc Andre Bergeron and his bazooka point shot.

So, going into this season, the PP is again missing a trigger man. When the roster is healthy, Subban will be taking Bergeron's spot in the lineup. That would be fine, because Subban's got a rocket of a shot too, if he wasn't a right-handed shooter. He is, though, so he's not going to work with Markov on the one-timer like Streit, Souray and Bergeron did. Yannick Weber has a nice, heavy shot, but there's no room for him on the team unless he displaces O'Byrne in camp or someone else gets hurt early on in the season. So, in camp this year, there will have to be a solution to the missing link on the power play.

Barring a significant change on D, or Spacek finding his shot this year, something's got to change with that old successful formula. A couple of the choices are to have a forward...perhaps Andre the right point, with Subban setting up in the mid-slot like he did at the 2009 World Junior Championships. It's possible to have Subban be the point man on the right with someone other than Markov setting him up. Another idea is to have Subban take the left point and Markov the right, in the shooter's role. It didn't work before, but Markov never had anybody who could work the puck like Subban before. There are some possibilities there, but the coaches need to have something in place by the time camp is over.

The PK needs some help too, mainly because Tomas Plekanec shouldn't be killing every penalty this year. He had a great season last year, but his point production dropped off somewhat after the Olympics. He looked like he was out of gas as the playoffs wound down too. Killing penalties is hard work, and Plekanec is good at it, which is helpful when a team takes as many as the Habs do. In the last few years, however, Pleks has really developed the offensive side of his game and he should be allowed to focus on that more this season. He should only be killing penalties in really vital situations so he stays fresher down the stretch. That means someone else has to step up in that role. It's an opportunity for Boyd, Eller or White (if he makes it) to take on some of the PK responsibility and let guys like Pleks and Gomez worry about scoring the goals.

Special teams are more important than ever in the NHL, so camp is the time to fill some of those holes and identify solutions. The Canadiens can't open the season this year just hoping the PP will work itself out, or that Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez can kill every penalty. Now that the roster is pretty much set to start the new campaign, it's up to the coaches to put the right men in the right jobs and trust they make the decisions that will give the team the best start it can get.

*Just kidding! Couldn't resist.


Anonymous said...

You've hit the nail on the head once again. If the Habs special teams are successful we could be looking a division championship and a top three finish. If not, I can see this team struggling to make the playoffs once again. Without Markov to start the season, a fast start will be very important. The first game with the leafs should give the PP plenty of practice with Burke's goons running around. Here's hoping they pot a few and get off to a good start.

Anonymous said...

How about Gomez on the point?
I know he's mainly the setup guy, but he's shown last year that he can fire some rockets once in a while.
And if need be, he can make that chirurgical pass right on Gionta's or Cammalleri's stick in front of the net, through the defense.
The only downside of this is that in case of a turnover, your only guy between Carey Price and Mike Richards/Patrice Bergeron/Evgeni Malkin is... Scott Gomez.
But hey, better than Kostitsyn, right?

Anonymous said...

Gauthier signs Halpern. I guess he read your blog and signed a PK guy to rest Gomez and Pleks. What a shame guys like Halpern have to sign for chump change and Kovalchuk gets 100 mil. Oh well, glad to have him.

pierre said...

Martin used his quikest skaters to manned the PK last season, once Pyatt, Plek,Gionta and Gomez were idenfified as his best pieces Moen and Lapierre were never used afterward althought Moore became an option once he got here.

Boyed who can play at center was used as a PK specialist in Calgary.... his faceoff winning % are very hight also.

Harpern who plays center is also knowned to be a PK specialist as well..... being right handed can only had to his versatility if he were to be used on a PK pair while left handed Boyed or Plek would be centering the oher pair.

Hopefully Pyatt, Boyed and Harpern could take on the bulk of the work..... I dont mind to see Plek and Gionta being used sporadically but I would hate to loose any of our best players to injury under those circumstances.

I think that our team's evenstrengh's scoring will be quite better now that Subban, which I consider to be an elite talent just like Markov, will be added to our D corps..... as for the PP it will be more tricky since the off handed situation shared by Subban and Markov doens't favor the " one timed shot"when used under the traditional configuration.

One solution is to use only one D guy dead center at the blue line when we have the puck during PP..... that is how Pittsburg and Gonchar got 2 or three PP goals against us in their first game of our series last year..... while Washington had only scored a single PP goal against us in our seven game series.

Stephen said...

You forgot the "just kidding" after reversing the top two lines...