The Montreal Canadiens, who are ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes in the overall standings, had to find some sort of improvement in San Jose late Thursday night. You can miss the playoffs in the first 10 games. It is possible. Montreal is already in the danger zone, so the Canadiens needed the type of performance they got in the Bay Area with a 4-0 win.
It’s a long road back, but this was a big step.
It’s been difficult to find positives this season, but it sure is outstanding to watch Jonathan Drouin enjoying himself playing hockey again. There were legitimate fears that he would retire from the game after taking time off to improve his mental health. Somehow, and it seems hard to believe, all things considered, Drouin has six points in the first eight games this season.
That’s a lot of points for a club that seems to score one on a bad night and there have been a lot of bad nights. Drouin had an assist on the Alexander Romanov marker to the top corner from the point shot.
Romanov is improving his game after a rough start. He is second-guessing himself many times, but in this one, he levelled a huge hit in the first period on that classic stealth step-up move at the blue line against an unsuspecting attacker. In the second period, he built upon his reputation as a player who is extremely dedicated at blocking shots, even though it sometimes appears that he is in a very dangerous position to do so. Romanov’s goal made it 2-0.
It was a lead that the Canadiens weren’t even close to having, were it not for the stellar goaltending of Jake Allen. It seems bizarre to say it, but Allen has been good this season — bizarre because one usually doesn’t have may flowers for a goalie regularly allowing four or five a night, but that’s just how bad it has been for the Canadiens. Those four-goals-per-game-against nights could have been eight.
Yet in the San Jose game, Allen was strong, even making a Carey Price-like move, sliding across the crease on an odd-man rush for the Sharks to make a circus stop. Allen was especially good on the penalty kill as the Canadiens killed three early before they got their confidence engaged more.
It was clear that it was going to be a better night early, even when the club was much more engaged around the net. The Habs have committed that terrible sin of being a perimeter hockey team. Wins won’t come from the outside in the league. Goalies aren’t being beaten from 30 feet out much anymore. The heat map of a game has to have a lot of players in and around the crease and low slot to make an offensive difference.
It was from one foot that Brendan Gallagher potted his first goal of the season on a pass-shot from Josh Anderson. Nick Suzuki also drew a second assist on that power-play marker which was vital for his confidence. Montreal was full marks for a three-goal lead in the second.
Allen was stellar in the third, and then this victory was completed when a third player got his first goal of the season as Josh Anderson fired 180 feet into an empty net.
This segment has been quite full this season. Jake Allen got a 45-save shutout. That was the second-most saves in a shutout in Canadiens’ history, behind only a 52-save Jacques Plante effort, and that dates back to Nov. 13, 1955. Let’s concentrate on that feat instead.
There may come a time for one young Canadien to spend the season in the minors. For whatever reason, Cole Caufield, who seemed to be doing fine last season, is not fine this season. It’s been argued here often that a player must dominate at one level before he moves up to the next level. A player must have the puck on his stick a lot to learn.
The best example of this is Jesperi Kotkaniemi who was, we must finally admit, rushed into the league at too young an age. Just because a player is able to put together nine strong games to start the season, that is no reason to keep him around at 18. It doesn’t matter if it seems like a player is fitting in. Small sample sizes are not sufficient.
Fans are always complaining that the Habs are poor at development. Good development isn’t someone saying nice things, or coaching you well necessarily. Good development is dominating at a lower league, and learning all of the skills necessary.
For these reasons, if Caufield does not soon show improvement and the Canadiens keep losing, he should play in Laval.
The theory isn’t about whether the player fits in enough in the highest league. The theory is that they will become a better player in the higher league eventually, by being in the lower league now to develop a higher level of skill.
Caufield is rushing things. He is not playing at the level that he was last year. It’s hard to know if he was just extremely confident and that translated well for a short burst last year, but it isn’t there for him right now.
Caufield’s best game was the one in Seattle the other night on an otherwise embarrassing evening for the club. He got a couple of shots in and played well defensively, but Caufield is not feeling free. His quick start was a lot like Kotkaniemi’s quick start. However, now comes the pro grind.
Caufield played 35 game seasons in college. In the AHL, Caufield will get a lot of power-play time, dominate the game, carry the puck up ice on his stick, and have the puck a lot. That’s how you learn. If you can not dominate in the AHL, you surely can not dominate in the NHL.
When should he be sent down? Not yet, but at this present pace, with the team struggling and with the players who could use some seasoning also struggling, it should be soon. The end of November, if this keeps up, seems right.
There’s no shame in it. Trevor Zegras is going to be a star. He spent time in the minors last season. He has one goal this year. Quinten Byfield was the number-two pick overall. He spent last season in the minors and this year he still has only one point in six games. Cole Perfetti was sent to the minors by the Winnipeg Jets.
There’s no hurry. Look at the 2019 draft. They’ve all been rushed, or are not ready yet. Probably fans want to argue, how can that be said about Jack Hughes? It can though. He had growing pains. He wasn’t ready. He would have developed better in the AHL, dominating that league. He spent 20 out of the 80 games basically just watching the action go by getting five touches a game. That’s not development.
Moritz Seider may be the only player who seems to have arrived at the right time when his game had matured enough that he could play strong minutes when he arrived at the NHL level. Credit Steve Yzerman for understanding that. And why wouldn’t he learn from the man who always got it right, being perfectly patient Ken Holland.
Let’s keep watching for Caufield improvements, but this can’t go on ad infinitum.