Call of the Wilde: Focus shifts to next season for Habs after dominating New York Islanders 6-2

Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher, center, celebrates with left wing Artturi Lehkonen (62) and center Phillip Danault after scoring against the New York Islanders during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s mop-up time for the rest of the season, as the Montreal Canadiens disappoint this year after so much promise in 2019, when they missed the playoffs on the final weekend.

March and April will be about statistics and preparation for next year to see who can show the coaching staff a reason to keep their confidence in them. The New York Islanders were the opposition for the last time in Brooklyn, New York. The Islanders are going back to Nassau County for the playoffs this year, before their new building is up near Belmont Park in 2021.

The Canadiens put together a complete effort for a 6-2 win.

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You’ll always hear hockey lovers say that you have to have size to have a winning hockey team.

While this is true, what’s more true is you have to have players that play as if they have size.

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Mike McCarron was six-feet-six-inches when drafted, but he hardly ever won a puck battle years later. He had size, but he wasn’t able to use it. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has size as well, but at 19 years of age, he wins no puck battles whatsoever, either. Both get pushed off the puck easily.

Kotkaniemi got bigger, but it didn’t matter. McCarron got bigger, but it didn’t matter. You need players to win pucks. You need players who stop over the puck and battle for it. Jonathan Drouin isn’t particularly small, but he plays small. He rarely stops over the puck to battle.

When the game gets tougher in the playoffs, all of these players won’t be good playoff players if they don’t battle.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens collapse against the New York Rangers

Enter Brendan Gallagher. If you look at the heat map of Gallagher’s goals, almost all of them are in the dirty areas. That was exactly where he opened the scoring with his 22nd of the season. He was battling front of the net, working hard as usual, when he deflected the Ben Chiarot point shot. Gallagher is small, but he plays big. Don’t accept the blanket statement that you need size. Accept the nuanced statement that you need all of your players to play as if they have size.

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You need puck battlers and puck winners. If you find a player like Mario Lemieux in the past or Leon Draisaitl in the present who have size and also can battle, you probably have the best players in the entire league in their era. I’m not saying size isn’t important, but certainly saying size — without the ability to use it — is just as useless as not having size at all.

Tomas Tatar was injured early in the first period, giving Claude Julien the chance to put an offensive player on the first line, but he absent-mindedly chose Artturi Lehkonen. Late in the first period, on a quick line change, Charles Hudon found himself briefly with Gallagher and Phillip Danault. He quickly got the puck and took a 15-foot wrist shot, finding the joint between the cross bar and post with a perfect shot.

It’s the shot that Hudon has been showing all season in the American Hockey League, where he’s one of the best players.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Marc Bergevin takes a left turn on NHL trade deadline

This is a real chance for Julien to use Hudon in an offensive role to see if he can play with some good players and find success in the NHL. Every time Hudon has been in the NH, trying to show his worth, he has played with two plumbers. You have to earn your linemates and your minutes, but a case can always be made that an offensive player with two plumbers is on an island trying to find success.

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Hudon is a marvel in the AHL. He and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are both point-per-game players together for almost a dozen now, so it would be quite interesting to see if Hudon could succeed with NHL-quality linemates. Hudon has been a classic ‘tweener’ so far in his career, and he very well may be just that — too good for the AHL but not good enough for the NHL.

No one can really say for sure, but with 15 nothing games left in the season, it seems the perfect time to see what Hudon can do.

It’s really great to see the play of Paul Byron since returning from injury.

Byron is a point-per-game player since his return, something he’s certainly never been before. He surely couldn’t maintain it for a long time, but it’s wonderful to see Byron play good hockey right now. He was so lost at the beginning of the season.

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Now, he’s engaged, has his speed back and is battling fearlessly. He scored a shorthanded goal in this one to move the Habs up 4-0 as their mysteriously good play on the road compared to home continues. The Habs are 10th in the league on the road, but second-last in the entire league at home — ahead of only Detroit.

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This game saw tremendous effort against a team fighting for a playoff spot and needing a result desperately. One of goals the Islanders scored was a direct result of Carey Price holding the puck too long behind the net, where he was stripped of it. Other than this needless error, the Habs finished well on offence and were tight on defence to keep improving one of the best road records in the entire NHL.

It’s too bad they’re second-worst in the league at home. They could have achieved a playoff spot easily with just a respectable home record.

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General Manager Marc Bergevin gave the head coach Claude Julien a vote of confidence on Tuesday.

Bergevin met the media at the NHL winter meetings in Florida, where he said that Julien would be the coach next October when the season begins in earnest again. He also quipped that he would be the head coach in November and December.

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READ MORE: Call of the Wild: Montreal Canadiens shade the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime

Julien made the playoffs only one time in the last six seasons, when he exited in the first round in 2017. Since then, he’s been living on the success of the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, but it’s been a rocky road. Recently, Julien has shown his frustration by throwing players under the bus like Nick Suzuki. He has also taken the media to task for asking questions that he didn’t particularly like.

He also made the cardinal sin of answering “I don’t know” when asked how to the club’s fortunes around.

All of that seemed to be spelling the end times for Julien, but his time doesn’t appear up yet. The frustration that he has shown with the media during this difficult time means nothing. It doesn’t impact anything important, except maybe some reporters could have a short leash on comments about him. At the end of the day, that means next to nothing.

However, the frustration that he has shown with his players is an absolutely horrible idea. Never call out your players. As a coach, you have to be in the war with them and fighting for them. No matter how bad it gets, you are on their side in front of the public. You always defend them.

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When this gets back to the players as it always does, this is how you lose the room. This is how you lose respect of the players — through that criticism. You and the players are brothers against the world, it’s as simple as that. You may feel like the boss, but it’s not a good idea to demean them. Ever.

That, however, is just a side note to what really matters to a GM, and that is the capacity to win hockey games on a regular basis.

Egotistically, a GM feels as if he has acquired the players necessary to make the playoffs. He may be wrong, but he feels that anyway. Recently, Bergevin cited the great work of the Blue Jackets in paying attention to detail to play above their heads. It seemed a siren call that Julien needs to do what John Tortorella is doing. So, somewhere in the recesses of Bergevin’s brain, he is not all that impressed that Julien isn’t able to get his players to pay attention to detail.

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READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens looking like a different team after blanking Ottawa 3-0

From an assessment point of view, there are times that the player usage seems bizarre, as Julien has a love affair with the Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins type of player, but it is also fair to say that this is just a small part of what ails the Habs. The major part of what ails them is that they simply do not have enough talent. It’s a good room with good character, but character does not put the puck in the net, and even more so, it doesn’t keep the puck out of it.

That has been the biggest issue for a club who that’s been in the bottom third this entire season: keeping the puck out of their own net. What the coach really needs more than anything? He needs the GM to get him a couple of better defenders, as well as an elite scorer. Julien’s Habs lead the league in shots for and they are second in high-danger chances. And there’s the rub: Julien has created a system to get them to the net, but when they get there, they need the talent to put it into the net.

And that’s where it all falls apart.

The prediction here is that Julien will start next year with a short leash. If the club gets off to a bad start, then the Bergevin vote of confidence will be converted to a pink slip.