The Montreal Canadiens days of still being in the playoff race are now left only for the most optimistic.
The math is nearly insurmountable, but the spirit is willing in some fans, and certainly in the players who will not give up hope until the math says zero chance.
The Canadiens, trying to break a three-game losing skid, took on the Dallas Stars at the Bell Centre Saturday night.
They were able to earn a point for an overtime loss as they fell 4-3.
- Jonathan Drouin was a late scratch because of a lower-body injury. Good that he was not out of the line-up because of his wrist, which he had surgery on in November. What is to be learned here, though, during Drouin’s absence, is what happened to Drouin’s line when he wasn’t playing. Drouin and Max Domi did absolutely nothing when they were together this week. They were a mess. They do not belong together. Without Drouin, barely a minute into the contest, it is the line of Domi with Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen that scored. Domi passed to the front of the net (where Drouin would not have been) to Armia, who scored to keep his strong season going. That is 15 goals for Armia. Lehkonen started the play and drew an assist. This is the right line for Domi. He is a playmaker. He needs his linemate to not be on the perimeter doing figure-eights. He needs to make that pass to someone in the dirty area. Domi also needs a linemate to win the puck along the wall like Lehkonen can. This is the right line. Not sure where Drouin belongs then, but it most logically is that he belongs with a centre who is a 200-foot player who can cover for his errors. This is why Drouin and Domi are not made for each other. They both make errors. No one is there to be responsible for them. Domi and Drouin are cut from the same cloth. They are both wingers. They both need to play with defensively responsible centres. They do not ever need to play together again.
- The great hockey of Nick Suzuki continues. He picked up a gorgeous assist as he raced down the right side, froze the defenceman with a solid move, then passed it in front of the net to Jordan Weal for the easy tap in. Suzuki was the architect all the way, but credit to Weal for getting in the dirty zone again. It was clear that the Habs realized that they need to do that more. They routinely get 35 shots, but if they are from the perimeter, they are not beating today’s NHL goalies. The goalies are too talented. Suzuki now has 37 points on the season. He is on pace for 51 points. The last player to break the 50 point barrier as a rookie for the Canadiens was Michael Ryder, who had 63 points as a 23-year-old in 2003. Suzuki has been a point-per-game player for a month. He should be able to attain that plateau.
- An egregious turnover led to the Stars’ first goal. The play was under control with no danger. There was a lot of time for Marco Scandella to pick someone to pass to. He did not have anyone on him within 15 feet. Inexplicably, he chose Joe Pavelski to pass to. The Stars forward was all alone, and quickly it was in the net. It was as if Scandella somehow did not see the player in white with green trim. Scandella has been fine overall since arriving. Let’s just call this a one-off. It happens. Horrible mistake, but so unusual that it is not a true indicator of the player.
- The Canadiens had a 3-0 lead, but Dallas got back into the contest. No one to blame for the events beyond the Stars, who have talented hockey players and they were able to execute to score goals. People want to talk about heart and effort a lot. It’s all a smokescreen. It’s 90 per cent about talent. The Stars felt the need to pick their game up down by three, so they used their talent to tie it up to force overtime. They used the same talent to win it on a sensational play by Tyler Seguin.
- That’s the praise for the Stars, but a word must be said about the officials, who refused to give Dallas a penalty in almost 65 minutes of hockey. Domi got a cut to his face from an errant stick. He was incensed but the refs said no penalty. He must have chosen to high stick himself, one presumes. In overtime, Joel Armia was leading a 2-on-1 rush and got tripped. Again, no penalty. This one was particularly obvious as Armia had a chance to score, and a desperate Stars player put his stick between his legs to trip him. No call. The Habs bench was livid. After the game was over, Brendan Gallagher was angrier than he has ever been in an NHL arena. He was in the refs’ face lacing them with f-bomb after f-bomb. You could read his lips easily: “F*** you. You f***** up.” Over and over again, Gallagher raged. He did it so ferociously you worried that he was going to get physical. When he was finally done, Gallagher skated over to the Canadiens bench and smashed his stick in half over the boards. He then threw his stick as he exited frame heading to the dressing room. You want to build a winning hockey team, then you have 20 Gallaghers. The Habs are so far out of this race that it is not even a race anymore. Don’t tell Gallagher, who does not know how to stop competing, or stop caring. Phenomenal desire. Simply phenomenal.
- There are many ways to develop a player, but the best way has to be that they dominate at one level, and then get a chance at the next level, dominate at that level, then finally get a chance at the NHL. It is extremely rare to find a player who can leap a level. Nick Suzuki has leaped a level, skipping the American Hockey League after dominating in juniors. Suzuki is rare. It’s all about whether a player can have the puck on their stick to do the same plays that he was able to do at the lower level. Suzuki is the same player in Guelph as he is in Montreal. Contrast that with Ryan Poehling. The Saint Cloud State first-rounder was skating up and down the wing for 30 games in the NHL barely touching the puck. That can not be the recipe to develop a prospect. How is it possible to develop stick skills to make plays when you don’t have the puck on your stick? Jesperi Kotkaniemi tried to skip a level, and for many in the first season, they thought he was achieving with the puck on his stick enough to find success. Here, at COTW, this was not the case as it was clear that he did not have the puck enough, and a clear point was made that he should be sent back to Finland to develop his skills. The best example in the NHL today of proper development is the Edmonton Oilers’ work with Kailer Yamamoto. The former first-round draft choice had a strong camp his draft-plus one season. They tried him for nine games at the NHL level, but he was not ready. He went back to juniors to dominate more. The following season he was back and they tried again to see if he was ready. This time he got in 17 games. Again, he could not get comfortable at the NHL level. This time, he went to the American Hockey League to dominate at that level. He did, so they tried again a third time. He was ready. Perfect development. The results are astonishing. This player was a complete failure the first two times, and the fear was that Yamamoto was a wasted draft pick. Third try: 17 points on seven goals and ten assists in 17 games. He is a point-per-game player. Add to that, Yamamoto is a plus-15. This is perfect development. So take heart if you think Kotkaniemi is done at the age of 19, or Poehling is done at 20. These players need to develop and dominate in the lower leagues, then, and only then, should they get a crack at the NHL. This does not mean that the player always figures it out at the higher level when excelling at the lower level. There’s no guarantee he can figure it out at the NHL level if he can at the AHL level. However, there is definitely a guarantee that if he can’t figure it out at the AHL level, then he is certainly not figuring it out at the NHL level. The example is Charles Hudon who dominates in Laval and can’t figure it out in Montreal. Nikita Scherbak also could not graduate with the same skill set in Montreal. However, with more patience, a player has a lot more stick skills heading into an effort to be an NHLer, and that improves his chances significantly. Fans hammer the Habs for their development. They should. They are not good at it. Oilers GM Ken Holland swears by the theory that you have to dominate at each league before you are ready. Holland is right. Fans and media used to complain that strong players in the Red Wings organization spent too long in the minors. The Stanley Cups the Wings won disagree with that assessment. The Canadiens need to learn from Holland’s long term winning theory and Yamamoto’s recent example.