October 13, 2018 10:14 pm

Call of the Wilde: Work ethic vs big talent

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The challenge in front of the Montreal Canadiens in game four was a difficult one: they had to try to beat the same very talented team twice in one week.

That’s a tall order, statistically. The Canadiens also had to try to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins without Carey Price, who was out with a virus, and Antti Niemi faced the Pens in his first start of the season as the Habs tried to avoid falling below .500.

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It was the fifth period at home before the Canadiens finally scored a goal. Only 11 seconds in, Tomas Tatar got his first as a Hab. He’s been working hard and has had chances so, of course, it was a broken play: just throw it at the net and hope the shot finally goes in. They all count, and the excitement for Tatar in scoring his first was obvious.

On the power play, it was also a simple throw-it-at-the-net moment that brought the Habs to their first lead at 3-2. The angle was terrible and so was the goaltending, but they all count, and for Tatar, again, the excitement was obvious. Tatar is on the first line, and that’s too much for his skill set in the long run, but he is probably one of the better finishers on the team this season. Eventually, a player like Jesse Ylonen or Nick Suzuki is going to fill this role, but for now, Tatar is a hard-working stopgap who had some great moments in this one.

It is impossible not to love Brendan Gallagher. If heart was the measure of the Hart then Gallagher would be in the running for it, like Connor McDavid is on talent. Gallagher played the game with a superb effort throughout, but what hits you after his goal is the high level of caring; he just wants this so much. Think about how he has always wanted this so much: he’s a fifth-round draft choice who got passed over in the entry draft time and time again. Whatever people might say — “He’s too small. He’s not fast enough. He’s never going to be a pro. He’ll get eaten alive by faster and stronger players” — Gallagher doesn’t care. He has never cared. He gets slaughtered in front of the net by the fists of large men and bashed across the back from cross-checks, and he just doesn’t care. He’s going to the dirty areas and he’s going to make things happen. He would be a perfect captain on any other team, but the Habs have the quintessential captain in Shea Weber. He’s a leader just the same. He’s who you want your kid to model himself after, not just in hockey but in everything. Try harder and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something like that little guy out there wearing number 11.

Xavier Ouellet had a rough outing in the home opener against Los Angeles, but he was very strong in this contest. He’s the type of player that needs his minutes limited and his opponent to not be top tier and he can manage well on many nights. In this one, the opposite happened. He got used a lot and he shone.

Mike Reilly appears to be the defender who has gained the confidence of the head coach more than any other. Head coach Claude Julien has singled Reilly out as his best defender a number of times already this season. Reilly led the defenders in minutes in the first period. He fell behind Jeff Petry by the second, though, as Petry saw the ice a lot on the power play. Reilly was a reclamation project who has certainly stabilized the blue line. It’s not an NHL blue line yet, but it sure is better than Jordie Benn, Karl Alzner, David Schlemko, a rookie Victor Mete, novice Noah Juulsen and veteran Petry. Last year, only Petry was ready for his role, and by game 60, he had lost his will.

Jonathan Drouin got his first point of the season, and his talent produced a little bit of overtime magic that Max Domi should have converted in the last seconds for the winner, but he hit the post. Drouin played his best game of the season. He also scored in the shootout and made it look very easy.

Niemi had Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the shootout. They tried every move they knew, it seemed. He was there, standing right beside them when they were in the corner trying to shoot, still looking for an opportunity that never came.

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It was difficult right from the very first shift for Phillip Danault. He was given the assignment of facing Crosby, and the domination was clear. On the opening shift, it was 40 straight seconds for the Habs in their own zone as he, Gallagher and Tatar couldn’t clear the puck. By the mid-point of the first period, Julien had already moved Danault away from Crosby and tried Domi against the Pens’ top line. With Tomas Plekanec on his last legs, Danault is the defensive heir apparent at centre for the Habs, and it’s going to be a huge challenge for him.

When the Habs are a much better team than they are now, Danault will be the fourth-line centre, perhaps the third line — no more than that. To me, he’s already in the wrong role playing with scoring top-line forwards. A better Habs team has Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, Gustav Olofsson or maybe Suzuki at centre ahead of Danault, who is no more than a third or fourth centre.

The Habs struggle right now because players are fighting above their weight class. Danault shouldn’t be asked to be a top-line centre. Benn and Ouellet shouldn’t have second-pairing minutes. But this is what you get when the talent is not sufficient. People want to give Danault the benefit of the doubt because he’s a nice kid, but he’s a 40-point nice kid; he doesn’t have the creativity or the stick skills to be more. When he is asked to do much less in two years then you will know the Habs are in the mix for a division title. For right now, everyone will continue to overestimate Danault’s skill set. He’s a useful player, but he’s not a top-line centre useful player, or even second line. Plenty of improvements still to come for this Habs team in the next two seasons.

The first bad moments of the season for Juulsen in this one. He got schooled pretty badly twice in the opening frame. It’s probably not a good idea to try to dangle around Crosby when you’re the last man back. Crosby had a breakaway from 100 feet but didn’t score. Later, in the first period, an equally embarrassing moment happened as Riley Sheahan undressed Juulsen in his own zone, and Niemi was called upon again. Juulsen has been one of the positives of the young season, but he’ll need to remember to look his opponent in the chest and not his feet when he is getting nutmegged.

Joel Armia has long stretches of nothing.

At a certain point, you must be negative a bit and make the fans face some real truths. Look at the talent discrepancy of the two clubs: the Pens have a first-line centre of Crosby, and the Habs reply with Danault. The Pens have a second-line centre of Malkin, whereas the Habs have a winger, Domi. The top defender on the Pens is Kris Letang, and the Habs have… who is the top defender? The best winger of the Pens is Phil Kessel, whereas the Habs have Gallagher. Work ethic only takes one so far; the Habs need to up the talent level from here significantly. In many cases, it’s coming. Watch them work their tails off until it does. This year’s team is certainly prepared to work, but they don’t have upper echelon players. Give it time.

This one was a microcosm of talent versus work ethic. The Pens were often lazy, doing little, but they only needed the slightest opening to score. The Habs doubled their opponent in shots for the first half of the game, fought for every puck and played like the Stanley Cup was on the line to stay in the game. What this means in the long run is that the Penguins will win games they shouldn’t really win, and the Habs will lose games in which they were the better team and walk away feeling as if justice wasn’t served.

A perfect moment to measure talent versus hard work is always on the power play. The talented just roll with the ease of an extra man. Look at the Maple Leafs, who are scoring at around 50 per cent on their power play right now. They roll out John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri, and they’re unstoppable.

The Habs had a five-on-three advantage for over one minute and 50 seconds, and they couldn’t score in one of the key moments in the contest late in the second period. Talent matters on power plays, and it matters even more on five-on-three power plays, so it was an obvious moment for Kotkaniemi to see what he could do with his creativity and imagination. However, he wasn’t used because of a silly pecking order. If you don’t let the kid find success then he won’t. Imagine the Habs take the lead there, as they really should, and the game takes on a much different tone. Instead, they don’t score and even take a too-many-men penalty to close the second frame. That’s a big turnaround.

I’m giving the head coach a goat. He had a terrible game. Armia and Andrew Shaw on the power play over and over again? What creativity do they have to warrant that? On the five-on-three power play, two men are behind the net passing to each other? You think the Penguins defenders are going to chase the Habs players behind the net? Why not just cancel the power play completely and have a passing skills competition behind the Pittsburgh goal instead? Kotkaniemi has the best vision on the team already and perhaps the best passing skills, and when he ripped a shot off the bar it was obvious he’s got a laser, too, but he didn’t get a sniff. I’m a big Julien supporter, but this was old-school Julien relying on old comfort like Plekanec late in the game to try to protect a goal instead of going to get one, and with that attitude the game is more than likely in your own end all of a sudden. Bad power play thinking, bad player usage — just bad.

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The Habs need to make sure they don’t lose Jacob De La Rose or Nikita Scherbak. Fans will always take the short view on this, suggesting that these two players are not doing well anyway and they wouldn’t be missed. However, many a hockey player has taken a while to find his game, and you don’t want to give up on a first-round draft choice just because he hasn’t figured it out yet. See Paul Byron for a perfect example and a moment the Calgary Flames would like back. The worry is that they would lose Benn or Alzner or that the team would be thin on the blue line, but taking a look at the Laval Rocket games, the replacement is already there in Brett Kulak. He played for the Calgary Flames last year and was in for 71 games so that’s a regular blue liner on a better blue line than the Habs have. He was also outstanding for the Rocket this weekend.

The argument could certainly be made that Kulak is even better than the players that they are now using in Montreal. The point is that if there is a decision to be made on the roster when everyone gets healthy, it better be an aging defenceman who loses his spot on the 23-man roster instead of a player like Scherbak, who could come back to haunt you by figuring out how to play at the NHL level.

Coaches are all the same. It’s remarkable to see the same patterns repeat over four decades as a hockey reporter. Kotkaniemi was certainly not the worst centre in the first period for the Habs; that honour was clearly Danault’s. He wasn’t the second-worst centre, either, as Plekanec had a shift and was miles behind the play on the Penguins’ second goal. He was probably the second-best centre, in fact, behind Domi, who did good things. However, it was Kotkaniemi who was punished for an abysmal Habs first period. The 18-year-old was dropped to the fourth line for not actually doing anything wrong. He didn’t get a lot right but he wasn’t hemmed in his own zone like the other lines, either. That’s how coaches roll, though; they get frustrated when it is not going right, and the easiest prey for their frustration is the rookie. They never want to upset the social pecking order and send the message to the right players.

Too bad, as it looks like they’re getting ready to send a message to the hockey world that they don’t think this kid is ready. He may not be, but if that is the case, it sure wasn’t because of the first period against the Penguins. If it was the case, then the entire team should be sending a message to the hockey world that no one is ready because the entire team was second best on just about every play in the first period. Too bad the kid got targeted; I don’t like it. That’s the way it has always rolled, and it will roll this way again.

On this arc, it is only a matter of whether Kotkaniemi goes to Finland or Laval. The Assat team in Finland is horrible, struggling to win even a single game. Laval is a better choice for the kid, as Joel Bouchard has that team working hard. Kotkaniemi could benefit from that competitive nature, and the AHL is the second-best league in the hockey world. He belongs in the second-best league at this point, not the fifth-best La Liiga (NHL, AHL, KHL, SHL, Liiga). I don’t think he has anything to learn there anymore. It’s a bad environment and too easy for him. The ice is the wrong size. Earlier, it was my belief that Finland was a better choice because Kotkaniemi would possess the puck a lot there and get to work on his skills. My feeling is now that he will possess the puck enough in Laval. He’s good enough already to be there. He might be good enough here, too, but if he doesn’t play five-on-three, gets demoted to the fourth line for nothing and gets his minutes cut down to plug-level then what’s the point of having him here? He won’t progress playing eight minutes; in fact, he will regress. That’s the one thing they can’t do is let this special player regress by having him languish this year with limited minutes, no power play time and weak linemates. He needs opportunity somewhere. Play him where he gets opportunity. There’s not going to be a parade down Saint-Catherine Street this year, so just make sure that you don’t mess with one of the kids who gives you a chance years from now.

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