This season promises to be tight right until the early days of April for a playoff spot. The Montreal Canadiens are exactly where you would expect them to be this season at the 10 game mark — right at the cusp of a playoff spot. Every game is important in your psyche as a player when you have missed the playoffs by two points the previous season. On Thursday, the Habs hosted the San Jose Sharks, who have underachieved so far this October. However, they’ve dominated the Habs at the Bell Centre for a decade, and that continued with a 4-2 win for San Jose.
- Can Jonathan Drouin keep this up? That’s a crucial question because if Drouin plays the entire season like this, then the Habs will be more than happy with the trade acquiring him from Tampa. Drouin is flying through the neutral zone and winning the offensive zone territory with ease. He’s backing off defenders to create excellent scoring opportunities. Drouin is just shy of the points leader on the team, which is exactly where the Habs had him in mind when they moved a vital defensive piece out to acquire him in Mickael Sergachev. However, here’s the thing… last season, Drouin also had an outstanding October and November player. He then tailed off significantly in the final quarter of the season, barely registering a point. Stamina is what seems to hurt Drouin during the end of a shift, and during the end of a season. This start is tremendous, and if he can keep it up, how outstanding for these fans to have a local hero. You could hear it in the cheers he received after being awarded first star earlier this October. The standing ovation seemed to go on forever, then Drouin became emotional, which stirred the fans even more. It’s this love affair that everyone is waiting for. It is Drouin’s for the taking. He merely has to play like this for the entire year. It’s hard to find a reason why he can not do it. He’s competing hard. He’s fighting for puck possession significantly better than last season. It’s going to be one of the tells for the entire campaign. If Drouin keeps this up, finishing with 70 points, then the Habs will have the player that they traded for. This young man wants it more than people realize. He’s a laid back person, and this often gets mistaken for indifference. He’s hungry for success. He appears ready to achieve a higher level.
- Some players understand physics; the math of the endeavour. It translates usually into the phrase “hockey sense” or “understands the game”. Nick Suzuki is that player. As they also say, “the puck seems to follow him around.” It’s because he seems to know where it is going next. Suzuki’s intelligence is on display so many times during the game. The Habs have quite a number of players one would call intelligent: Phillip Danault, Artturi Lehkonen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi. They are all players who one might say intelligence is their greatest asset as a hockey player. Suzuki combines all of that smarts with skills as well. Fans are still wondering how good Suzuki will be. He will be excellent. He will become a scorer in this league eventually. Right now, what he lacks is confidence at this level. He is not sure whether he should be as aggressive as he wants to be. He’s not sure whether he should take the puck as much as he wants to. He is suffering from the condition known as ‘rookieitis’. It happens when you are not sure of your place on the roster, and you keep conceding to someone with more experience. This won’t happen next season, nor the season after that. Suzuki will keep getting better and better until he is a lot like Max Domi as a player. They have the same profile and will be very similar in point totals and career paths. The Habs have a terrific player here. Just wait for his comfort level to come up and all these little moments that you can a glimpse of will become big moments.
- Quite remarkable what Joel Armia is doing this season. Not only does he lead the team in goals with five, he also has the total in only eight games after missing two with injury. Armia’s output is outstanding, but someone better pick up the slack, because he is not scoring at even close to this pace for the rest of the season. Armia is not a 35 goal man. However, credit where credit is due. On Thursday, he went to the net on the Max Domi centring pass to deflect it skillfully into the top corner. Armia’s career-high is 13 goals. That seems a lock to beat. Just don’t expect this pace to continue.
- The season after Andre Markov had major surgery on his knee, it appeared that he was done. He was slow. How could he stay in the game playing like that? Everyone was passing Markov by. It was easy to predict, as many did, that his career was over. Markov recovered to play the best hockey of his career. Flash forward to this season. Shea Weber has also had a major knee surgery. He looks like Markov did. Weber is not the same player. You can see that the coaching staff realizes it too as Weber’s ice time has dropped considerably through the first 10 games. The captain still has an efficient hockey brain. His decision making is still strong. However, Weber does not have a first step to use. He is not able to stay with onrushing attackers either, so he retreats too close to Carey Price when defending. He can’t mind the gap like Jeff Petry, for example. Here’s the hope though: Like Markov, does Weber need time to continue to recover from his surgery? The first season after a major operation is not an easy one. There can be swelling in the joint. The muscles don’t fire the same way for the longest time. The muscles, tendons, and bones all take time to reconnect. Many times it is heard, in all sports, that a player needs a full season to get right. Weber is not right yet. All the Habs can hope for is that he’s another Markov.
- When the season began, the prediction here was for the Habs to get 98 points — two points more than last season to squeeze into the playoffs. Ten games in, that looks optimistic. This is the same team as last season. They don’t have a breakout star to take them further. It was hoped that Jesperi Kotkaniemi could make a leap in his second season, but he has actually taken a step back. Suzuki will be a talent for sure, but he’s not going to make a leap of a difference this season. Ben Chiarot is only a support piece. He’s not a piece that changes the equation. All of the players that had career years last season will achieve at the same rate, if not a little lower in 2019-20, so there’s no upgrade there either. Carey Price is just above .900 for a save percentage this October, so that’s not the .925 that was needed either. Shea Weber is not a difference-maker right now. Who is better than last season right now? Jeff Petry. That’s it. No one else on this team has elevated their level. What that means is 98 points is actually optimistic at this stage. Unless four or five more players start to be better than last season or the new players begin to make significant contributions beyond this, or Price finds his .925, this is actually looking more like 88 points. That’s the fair evaluation of what has been seen after ten games.
- Interesting to see how the game has changed this season in relation to coaches’ challenges for goaltender interference and offside. Early first period, with the Sharks having just scored, suddenly there is a challenge from Claude Julien for offside. You already know that they have seen that Barclay Goodrow is offside, or they’re not challenging it in the first place. It used to be that you would throw a challenge out there and hope for the best, but now with the failed challenge producing a minor penalty if you are wrong, it’s clear that you are only challenging when you are sure that you are right. It’s easy with offside. Sure enough, Goodrow clearly had both skates in the air as he crossed the blue line before the puck did. No goal for the Sharks. Well done by Julien. The automatic minor for the wrong challenge also guarantees that you will see very few moments where the coach wants to roll the dice on goaltender interference. No one knows most of the time what is and what isn’t goalie interference as the rule is so extremely vague. A coach has to be in an extremely desperate situation to give it the old college try. He can’t afford to go down both a goal and then a penalty. That decision could spell the end of the game. Julien noted in the pre-season that they’ve basically taken the ability to ever challenge goaltender interference when you combine the mystery of the rule with an additional minor penalty. Oh well, it will make the game faster at least, if that is a consolation.