After two horrific performances against the Calgary Flames, the Canadiens actually promised a much better effort on Monday night against the Jets in Winnipeg.
The promise was kept as Montreal skated to a 4-2 win.
What a sight to see 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi coming of age under the new head coach.
Languishing with lower-level line-mates, and 12 minutes of ice time, Kotkaniemi couldn’t gain the coach’s confidence under Claude Julien. Under Dominique Ducharme, Kotkaniemi is getting more ice time and getting two top wingers to show what he can do.
Josh Anderson scored his 11th of the season in the second period. Jonathan Drouin made a superb pass in the first period. Kotkaniemi scored a goal in the first period. The Finn also played strong minutes on the power play in the second period. Even more impressive, he got a difficult match-up in taking on the Jets top centre Mark Scheifele, and he handled himself well.
Did I mention that he is 20? This is so easy to forget, considering it is his third NHL season, but he is still so young, and there is still so much growth to expect from his game. The North Division has many of the best centres in hockey, so this has been quite a battle night after night this season, but it’s also been a terrific learning experience.
Kotkaniemi has never looked better than the short time under Ducharme. The new head coach might just be a development coach, and when you have two young centres as two marquee pieces, and with so many solid prospects on the way, perhaps, a development coach is exactly what this team needed. Kotkaniemi will certainly agree with that.
Brett Kulak just goes about his business. He’s simply solid. Most of the night, he’s simply positioned well. He just wins his share of battles. He clears out bodies. He makes smart decisions so he isn’t caught up ice. And if you are not paying attention to just him, you might not even notice that he played.
However, he did make one maneuver in the first period that saved a goal. Jeff Petry was caught up ice and it was a 2-on-1. Kulak does the classic slide which can be dangerous — if the slide is not timed well, and the stick is not in position to impact the forward with the puck, it can be a painstakingly bad play. Kulak timed it perfectly and the puck carrier did nothing.
This was one of Kulak’s best games of the year, if not the best.
Where would the Canadiens be without Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli acquired this season? It’s frightening to think of it, actually. Anderson has 11 goals on the campaign. It’s funny because from afar, watching the odd Blue Jackets game one could see that Anderson was a quality player, but up close, it is apparent that Anderson is a gamer. His work rate and care factor are so high. He brings hunger to the rink every night.
He promised a better effort during interviews before the game on Monday night and he personally delivered with a goal and an assist. The assist was gorgeous as he dove for the puck just to get a little tap on it to keep a play alive that eventually led to Drouin’s superb pass to Kotkaniemi for the game’s first goal.
Toffoli, as well, has a team-leading 17 goals. That’s second in the entire NHL. Remarkable additions. Absolutely vital players changing the dynamic and talent structure of two full lines.
Brendan Gallagher didn’t get an assist on the third Habs goal, but he was the initial architect of Toffoli’s finish. Gallagher worked his tail off all the way down the ice just to put a stick on stick to give the Jets defender some pressure in his mind; just to create a little anxiety. It worked. A clear giveaway went to Toffoli, who used Suzuki as a decoy to beat Connor Hellebucyk who couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that Toffoli didn’t pass. Gallagher is doing the little things that matter.
There’s a couple of other performances worth noting as Carey Price was outstanding facing 36 shots in the contest. He was sharp, and has been better, without a doubt, since the change of goaltending coaches.
Alexander Romanov continues to improve as well, as he was doing what is his naturally instincts. He’s hitting much more, including stepping up and trying to catch a forward with his head down. He was extremely physical and the team needs more of that overall.
Was it really worth it? Did it really change the game? Did punching JT Miller in the helmet to suffer a broken hand create fear in the hearts of the opponent?
Ben Chiarot was operated on Monday and is gone for six to eight weeks. The Canadiens are fighting for a playoff spot, and they lost the defender who was on their first pair with Shea Weber. If he returns in six weeks, he will try to help the stretch run. If he returns in eight weeks, he won’t play again this season, unless Montreal does make the post-season which became harder without him. Such stupidity, but here we are discovering just how thin the blue line is with just one injury.
If the coaching staff does not come to the conclusion soon that Jeff Petry is the best defender on the team and needs first line minutes and the best partner, this club will have six fewer points at the end of the season. Weber continues to be treated as if he is still number one, and he is not. The best plus-minus pairing in the entire league was broken up, so Weber could get Joel Edmundson. That also makes no sense as it pairs two defensive defenders. They stayed at home so much, they were in curfew.
It actually keeps the same issue that Weber and Chiarot had, but switches up the new left side homebody to Edmundson. You can speak highly, though, of who Petry did get as Brett Kulak was a strong player with Petry in prior seasons. Victor Mete was left aside for Xavier Ouellet to be paired with Alexander Romanov. Clearly, the team didn’t like Romanov to have big minutes, and they liked Mete even less in Calgary sending him an even bigger message.
It’s becoming obvious that hammering Nick Suzuki is a game plan. He is not getting a foot of free space anymore. He is getting focused on as the number one centre on the club, and he needs to figure out a way to combat it. In the modern NHL, you can’t just expect a fourth-line pugilist to try to beat up the offender all night long. It just does not work that way anymore. This is on Suzuki. He’s got to get in battles for the puck, and not battles against another player. Forget who is trying to intimidate you; forget who is pushing you around. Concentrate on the puck. You do good things with the puck, and the opponent won’t have the luxury of trying to get you off your game. The opponent will have to worry about the puck as well instead.
After the play is finished, you want to dish a little? Then go ahead. When the play is on, you win a puck battle, and you win respect. You also force them to change how they defend you.
Whenever there is difficulty in the Montreal Canadiens world these days, the battle cry can be heard that it is time to fire Marc Bergevin. There’s been too many missed playoffs, and the team is not good enough is the lament.
Here’s a surprise for you about a firing: I say no.
Here’s why: The journey to a championship is a long road, and though the destination has not been reached, the car continues driving in a forward gear. If the car were in neutral, or in reverse, then I would say ‘enough is enough’. However, we are in drive.
Is a GM fired for not moving fast enough, or is a GM fired for moving in the wrong direction? Historically, it’s not about time, it’s about direction. You will hear a team president’s explanation as “we’re not heading in the right direction”. You will not hear the team president say “I’m impatient. This isn’t happening fast enough”.
So let’s look at the direction, and not the frustration over how much time this is taking.
From last season to this season, the Canadiens added five pieces that have all performed well. Tyler Toffoli leads the team in goals. Josh Anderson is second on the team in goals. Jake Allen is top ten in save percentage. Joel Edmundson is the top plus-minus in the league. Alexander Romanov is an excellent rookie on the blue line. How many GMs added five outstanding pieces last season to this season? None is the answer.
This is a much better team than the one that finished 24th last season.
Enough of the positives though. Let’s get real and speak of the negatives, because you are all in no mood for fairy dust considering the recent run of play.
The number one shortcoming is the lack of an elite centre. However, what direction are we moving in? Jesperi Kotkaniemi is getting better. Nick Suzuki is getting better. They are kids by NHL standards trying to find their way against some of the best centres in hockey in the North Division. They need time to become upper echelon. They need time to learn how to slow the game down in their heads. They need time for their bodies to develop, so they are not outmuscled regularly.
Again, there is that theme: time versus direction. Bergevin is moving this centre issue in the right direction, but his acquisitions need time.
The number two shortcoming of the Canadiens is puck-moving defenders. Jordan Harris had an outstanding season at Northeastern. At the same college, Jayden Struble was strong. Mattias Norlinder is showing high-end offensive skills regularly in Europe. Josh Brook has not hit his ceiling in Laval. Kaiden Guhle looks extremely talented. The next generation has higher end offensive skill than the present-day defenders.
To my mind, Marc Bergevin is building his blue line in the right direction.
Shockingly, the holes in the plan are Carey Price and Shea Weber, who will be aging while the next generation is maturing. That sounds bad, but step back from it: Cayden Primeau and Jake Allen are fine replacements for Price, and Weber can be replaced as well. Price and Weber aging is always catastrophically worded as if “That’s it. It’s over. The window is closed”. It’s the opposite in truth.
When the older generation has aged and is off the books, that’s $18 million available in just two players to improve the club in a smarter way than over-investing in a goalie, and an old school defender. However, this has to happen sooner than the end of their contracts. Their declining years have to be met with courageous swift decisions. This car doesn’t just move into neutral or reverse if they stay until age 38 and 40; this car goes right off the road.
The five additional pieces added this year, the improvement of two centres who are already in the NHL at 20 years of age, the slew of prospects on the blue line, and Cole Caufield as well, plus a large amount of money available to land unrestricted free agents after courageous decisions are made, all add up to the car driving nicely.
I think 24th to 12th is all that can be expected this season while the kids at centre continue to grow, and the blue line continues to be developed. I think when the tough decisions are made on aging veterans there will be even more reason for optimism, not less.
I like the direction of this team. I’ll accept that the car is not moving fast enough — as long as it is moving forward.
I can see a pathway for the car to arrive at its destination and I think Marc Bergevin can still be the driver. I am confident that Geoff Molson agrees with me.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.