The Montreal Canadiens were in Detroit to play one of the strongest clubs in the league early this season. The Red Wings have been rebuilding a long time and their fans were desperate for a playoff spot after almost a decade of doldrums.
However, the Canadiens ruined the party on Tuesday, Nov. 8, with a 3-2 shootout win.
A scapegoat veteran this season has been Mike Hoffman and it has been undeserved. Hoffman has worked hard for the Canadiens this season. His underlying analytic numbers are also good. However, he is paid to score goals and that, until Tuesday night, had not been easy.
In this one, though, Hoffman benefited twice from the increasingly cerebral play of Brendan Gallagher. Head coach Martin St. Louis has suggested that he wants Gallagher to think the game better; to not just charge the net and fight like a dog in front of it. He wants Gallagher to contemplate his actions more creatively.
In this one, it was clear that Gallagher was trying a strategy that can prove to be effective when a shot that could be a goal is difficult, but a shot that can be a rebound is easy. Gallagher fired two shots at goal to a spot that would create a rebound coming out the other side, and a rebound that would be hard to control.
It seems Gallagher and Hoffman were on the same page using that strategy, because both times it was tried, Hoffman was waiting for the rebound where he pounced on the puck for a wide open net and an easy goal.
That’s only three on the season for Hoffman, but at the same time, if you look at the overall scoring, if you’re not named Suzuki or Caufield, three is a good number. It’s important for the organization that Hoffman is effective this season. He has been an effective scorer in the NHL, and given the right opportunity, he can be effective again.
General manager Kent Hughes is hoping an effective Hoffman can fetch a high draft pick. If he keeps hooking up intelligently like in Detroit with Gallagher, it’s possible.
There is very little to dislike about the Canadiens, except if you are upset that they are winning too much and you want a high draft pick. Jake Allen is making that not possible. Allen stopped Dylan Larkin on a breakaway where he got a quality shot away, but was awarded a penalty shot anyway.
Allen then stopped the penalty shot attempt by Larkin so easily that it was kind of embarrassing for the Red Wings centre. Larkin tried a number of fake moves, and when he was finished, Allen was standing right in front of him while Larkin ran out of space and he still hadn’t shot.
The Canadiens are back to .500 on the season. The rookies in the lineup continue to play as if they are veterans. The veterans are waking up and playing better. Juraj Slafkovsky is playing well with Sean Monahan. Kaiden Guhle had an overtime shift that fans have waited for from a defenceman since PK Suban exited.
The Wilde Goats is full of praise instead of insults. The only downside is that there is no downside.
The goal for a franchise when they end up at the bottom of the standings is to rise out of them with a sense of accomplishment that there’s a chance for a championship. It’s not logical to finish 32nd and then head right back to 16th for another decade by attempting to rise out too quickly.
So what makes a championship calibre club? How do you rise from 32 and have a chance at first?
There are definitely some must-haves. One is so obvious that it doesn’t take much convincing. The title is won almost always by a team that gets great goaltending. It’s extremely difficult to be so superior in defence and forward talent that a sub-.900 goalie can be overcome. So firstly, have a great, at least, .920 goalie for a chance at a title.
The Canadiens do not have one, nor should they. The goalie is the last piece to acquire, because it’s kind of impossible to fill out the other roster spots with talent when the goalie keeps making saves at a .930 clip. Losing is hard with a great goalie, and very easy with a terrible one.
A look at title clubs through this century also shows almost always that there is a high scoring winger like Patrick Kane, or Alexander Ovechkin. Also necessary is a first-pair defence that can play 30 minutes per game and shut down the opposition’s best players. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in Chicago are a good example of an outstanding first pair.
The final must is a pair of centres who not only score a lot of points, but are also possession monsters.
Win the middle; win the game.
Here are examples of a dominating centre position in this century that won the cup.
St. Louis -O’Reilly/Schenn
The goal of the Canadiens management Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes is to leave this malaise with the pieces needed to win the cup. In the net, wisely, the club is not even close. This allows them to fill out the roster by not winning too much.
On defence, one piece seems taken care of in Kaiden Guhle who, as a rookie, is looking very much like he has top pair talent in him. He could be joined by Logan Mailloux who has the offensive talent to arrive, but does need to short up his defensive decision making. Lane Hutson is another option as he is an offensive superstar. However, Hutson is small, so he will have to show that he can handle defending physically at the NHL level.
Up front, a look at that centre list of champions this century shows just how much talent is required. Fans are optimistic that Owen Beck could be the answer, but it’s not likely that he can rise to that level. It is possible, though, but not likely. Filip Mesar is another hope, but again not likely. Stars usually come higher in the draft than 30th or so.
On the roster now, Christian Dvorak does not seem the answer either.
Kirby Dach could be if he is not chosen to play with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, so for the moment there does not appear to be anyone who can join Suzuki on that list of excellence.
The sure answer centre is in the entry draft this year. Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, and Leo Carlsson are among three of as many as seven hopes of high level title winning talent. The 2023 draft is that good.
It’s an exciting time for the Canadiens, even if a look at the standings doesn’t seem to indicate it. If the best setup is six pieces to win a title, the Canadiens have three for sure: Cole Caufield is that winger sniper, Nick Suzuki is that top centre, Kaiden Guhle is that first pair defender.
Many more are in the system hoping to find their ceilings to fill out the other pieces. Mailloux, Hutson, Dach, Mesar and Beck are five players who may be able to rise up to fill two roles. If they cannot, the draft offers the best opportunity to find an absolute champion-calibre centre.
This is the club’s best chance this century for sustainable greatness. All they need to do is draft top eight or so this year to greatly increase their chances to fill out one more piece of the puzzle.
Add a great goalie last, and watch it all come together.
Just a little bit more patience, Habs fans.