The hockey gods are a cruel society. They'll steer a game-winning goal into a post or turn a ref's head in time to see retaliation, but not the original infraction. They can frustrate a guy who's trying and elevate another who isn't. And, they can make an average team's record look impressive with fluky tying goals late in games, good goaltending and shootout luck. Then, just when a team starts believing its own hype, the hockey gods laugh and drop the glamour that concealed some painful truths.
This is what we know today: the Canadiens have big problems and the fragile success they have experienced early in this season has glossed over the worst of them. Among the issues are the complete lack of spark on the power play, the softness of a D-corps that routinely backs in on its goalie, the slow starts and poor discipline. Add to those issues a coaching staff that appears to believe shuffling lines while refusing to call down reserves from the press box will fix things without fundamental style changes, and a picture of how much this team has to change begins to emerge.
The powerplay is a serious issue. It hasn't clicked since last Christmas, yet nothing changes. When a team doesn't score very much, the man advantage needs to be an actual advantage. The other day, speaking with Hockey Canada incoming CEO Tom Renney, I asked "How do you fix a 10% PP?" His answer: "Quick puck movement is important, but most important is net presence. You have to create chaos in the crease." Brendan Gallagher has the heart of a lion, but one short guy in the crease isn't exactly chaos. Yet, with this glaring problem continuing into a new season, the coaching staff continues to send the David Desharnais/Max Pacioretty unbreakable duo out to start every power play. In the face of all evidence saying this doesn't work, it continues. Perhaps Therrien and company need to ask for volunteers. "Who'll make chaos in the crease? Okay...you're on the PP." What's certain is somebody has to do it or nothing will change. And, if nothing changes, this team won't be winning too many close games.
The defence is another huge problem, and it starts with P.K.Subban. Subban's putting up a respectable number of points for an offensive-minded blueliner, with his eight in 12 games. Unfortunately, he's also taken the most minor penalties (ten) in the NHL. Although only two of the seven PP goals against the Habs happened with Subban in the box, his lack of discipline is indicative of a team-wide problem. Subban, by letter on the sweater, by long-term expensive contract and by pedigree should be the leader of the team's defence. Instead, Andrei Markov, the old workhorse, continues to shoulder the bulk of the load as Subban's play is often spotty, with bursts of energy interspersed with black holes of mediocrity. The Canadiens need better from Subban, and they need a better approach to defence as a whole. Right now, the D give up their own blue line too easily and they're too vulnerable to odd-man breaks and stretch passes. Despite the change in personnel from last year to this, the same defensive problems exist. That's on the coaches, particularly the coach responsible for defensive structure.
The one advantage the Habs have when they're playing well is a team speed that pressures the opponent and forces penalties and mistakes. We've yet to see that out of the gate this year. The team began the season with entirely different lines and defence pairs than it used last playoffs, so one would imagine they'd need time to make connections with each other. That doesn't explain the lack of jump they've shown to start every single game so far. If the players can't find the energy they need within themselves, the coaches need to do a better job at preparing them. Shuffling lines and keeping a struggling Rene Bourque and slow Brandon Prust and Travis Moen in the lineup over young, hungry players like Jiri Sekac and Michael Bournival seems counterintuitive for a team that needs speed and energy. That's on the coaching staff too.
It's not a promising thing when you realize that five of the Habs eight wins came in OT or shootout. It's not good to know the team has a -4 goals for/against differential, or that it's last in the league for penalties taken versus powerplays granted. The team has been on the PK 30 minutes more than it's been on the PP; half a game more they've played shorthanded than with a man advantage. When a team takes that many penalties, it breaks any rhythm or momentum it tries to build up and it means players who don't kill penalties cool on the bench. The lack of discipline comes from lazy, slow play that forces the players into bad decisions. When the Habs are skating in mud, it also means the other team has little reason to foul them. Stats can mislead, but in this case, the numbers are a true reflection of what we've seen on the ice so far this year.
The hockey gods are capricious. They allow players to believe in a fragile illusion of success. Even as the music of victors blares in the dressing room and the player-of-the-game boxer robe is handed out, players know deep down when they didn't deserve to win. When the smoke and mirrors disappear, as they have in the last four games, the reality of what needs to be fixed is glaring.
The Habs, on paper at least, are a better team than the one we've seen for most of this young season. They're lucky to have collected the points they have, and they have a lot of work to do if they're to fulfill the potential to which they have yet to live up. That work starts with leadership, both on ice and behind the bench. Neither group is doing a good job this year, and without improvement at that level, the hockey gods will make this a long, cold winter.