Rabid Habs

Identity Politics: Who Are the Habs?

Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien, right, and assistant coach Kirk Muller look on from the bench during first period NHL pre-season hockey action against the New Jersey Devils, in Montreal on Monday, September 26, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

As someone who writes about the Habs, I’m often wrong. I suppose it’s just the nature of the business. Without connections to the inside, every opinion we have here at Rabid Habs is just educated guess work. Sometimes we’re right, but sometimes our crystal ball shows its cracks.

This time, it appears we hit on something in December that is coming to fruition as the Habs hit the bye-week.

When Carey Price spoke to the media after the Habs’ 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, he hinted at a problem we predicted the Canadiens might have. The only difference being that we couldn’t establish the Canadiens’ identity in December, and if Price doesn’t know what the team’s identity is, how are we supposed to figure it out?

Before the Canadiens really began to slide, we talked about what this team was, and couldn’t really find an answer.

In our rant session, Sean O’Neill pointed out that the team was perched on the back of “the best goaltender since Dominic Hasek and the most dominant player in the world today,” which was correct at the time. Price’s struggles through the heart of this season have all but solidified Sean’s point. No Price, no team.

Kyle Roussel pointed out that, while the team may have been better than a hot goalie, the team was entirely too top heavy.

Price, Radulov, Galchenyuk, Mitchell, Byron and Markov have been terrific. But everyone else? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The good news is you can add captain Max Pacioretty to Kyle’s list, as he’s among the best goal scorers in the league this season. The bad news is you can take everyone except Alexander Radulov off of it.

Zach Vanasse put the majority of the blame on Michel Therrien, saying “Coach = bad. Carey = great. Everyone else = fine.” With the exception of the Habs’ netminder, I think most fans would agree with this statement to a certain extent.

I looked for historical teams with marketable identities and found that the Habs have no business saying they even have an identity. The New Jersey Devils led by Scott Stevens were a shut down defense that wouldn’t leave the ice until blood had been spilled. With the Canadiens, I could find no such distinction, which leads me to revisit the question now.

What are the Montreal Canadiens?

A Defense-First Team

This seems like it has to be true. The Canadiens have an expensive blue-line, with the seven Habs defenders making over a third of the team’s cap hit. On top of that, the Canadiens have boasted an excellent penalty kill over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, the Habs have struggled in their own end this season, and it is making life harder for their goaltenders (I wrote about it a bit here, but I’ll summarize). Since December 1st, Carey Price has been criticized for his poor numbers, but the play in front of him has been lackluster most nights. The Canadiens have a hard time defending the slot, which allows teams a variety of ways to get the puck to high danger scoring chances. Deflections and screen shots have been killing the Canadiens for the better part of the season, but another problem is created with poor slot defense. Take, for example, Adam McQuaid’s goal against Montreal on Sunday.

Tomas Plekanec and Shea Weber get crossed up, and neither one of them end up covering the passing lane. Meanwhile, Paul Byron loses his man, McQuaid, who is wide open for a one-time tap-in. The frustrating part of this goal is that the Canadiens had really dominated the early part of the first period. Once the Bruins got into the Habs’ zone, that all changed. It’s not so much that they’re being outplayed; in fact, the Canadiens possession numbers indicate that they’ve had the puck a lot more than their opponents have this year. It just seems that the Canadiens give up gorgeous opportunities like this on a regular basis. And their penalty kill is no better. They got lucky nothing happened here:

That’s a hard-no on defensive stalwart. Next.

Transition Team

This is a title that gets thrown around a lot, and most of the time it’s another coach that says it. To a certain extent, I actually believe this one. One stat that I’ve kept a close eye on this year is shots on the rush. Corsica.hockey keeps track of rush shots for and against, and the Canadiens are on both ends of the spectrum. Headed into the bye-week, the Canadiens are first in the league in rush shots for (197) and in rush shots against (178) at five-on-five. The good news is twofold: the Habs are positive in this category and they lead the league in shots on the rush. The bad news is they also give up the most shots in this manner.

I don’t understand how this happens.

If you have a decent strategy for zone exits and attacking teams as they transition from offense to defense, how are you so bad at defending the rush? A quick look at this stat indicates that Montreal might play a loose, track-meet style; a style that would actually be fun to watch. Think of the 2009-10 Washington Capitals. In fact, the Habs have displayed this trend since that season, as they have been towards the top of the league in both categories since the beginning of the Jacques Martin regime.

So what’s the root of this problem? Hard to pin this on a coaching system: two coaches, same result. My guess is personnel: the Canadiens have long had speed on the wing of average skating centers, and the majority of their defensemen have not been speedsters by any stretch of the imagination (Hal Gill, double knee-injury Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Tomas Kaberle). The defense may have a hard time keeping up with the forwards. Until Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Mete arrive, it would appear this problem might need an external solution.

Until then, the “transition team” label may have to be put on hold.

Now What?

To be honest, I’m not sure what other labels are even applicable to this roster. Sure, this team is fast, but a team can’t just be fast; they have to do other things well too. What good does speed do if no one can score? Of if no one can defend?

The good news is that I don’t think this team needs any other labels or identities. If they can improve on the two potential identities I’ve talked about, they could be a pretty successful team. And I think they’re capable of it.

The only question left is whether or not the Habs can actually do it, and what it takes to get there.

Follow Ian on Twitter @BoisvertIan