Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens shut out by San Jose Sharks in 4-0 loss

It was the final home game for the Montreal Canadiens before a four-game road trip, and the San Jose Sharks were at the Bell Centre as Montreal looked for its third straight win.

The Sharks had the better finishing in this one, though, with a 4-0 final.

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Many Canadiens did a lot of good things. However, putting the puck in the net was not among them.

The top line had plenty of chances. Nick Suzuki seems to have eyes in the back of his head on his passes. Cole Caufield had nice looks, but missed the net. Kirby Dach, night after night, wins the offensive zone on the carry well, and clears the defensive zone with panache.

Dach is a centre. He belongs eventually in the middle of the ice. He should enjoy his time as a winger on his line with the team’s two most talented players, but eventually finding more wingers with high skill sets to play with Dach will lead to the Canadiens having two scoring lines, instead of one. That’s very much more optimal.

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Josh Anderson had a terrific look on a rush, but missed from point blank. Juraj Slafkovsky passed up on about five shots and needs to stop doing that, but it’s encouraging at least that he got the looks. Christian Dvorak and Brendan Gallagher combined for a gorgeous goal that was called off due to a phantom penalty just before it.

Sean Monahan continues to do a thousand intelligent things every game out. Jake Evans has turned into a strong penalty killer. Jonathan Kovacevic made a couple of gorgeous long outlet passes to start rushes and offensive zone pressure.

There were a lot of great plays and great players, and it all added up to nothing. This is sports. Some days a lot of players do a lot of good things and on the scoreboard, it looks like the team was trash.

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Juraj Slafkovsky is having a good rookie campaign. He is improving and learning at the NHL level, and if he keeps doing that, then he can keep playing in the best league in the world. However, clearly there are elements to learn.

Slafkovsky was gifted some power play time in the first period. He was placed on the right point to take advantage of his left handed shot. The only issue was that each time that he had a chance to shoot, he was not ready and cocked for it.

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Twice in the same power play, he had snuck up the half-wall turning a 45-footer into a 30-footer. Both times there was opportunity because of traffic in front of the net, and both times he was not ready to fire a one-timer.

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He isn’t there for his passing acumen through bodies to the other half wall. He is there to shoot. He has to be ready to let it rip upon arrival.

Another issue with his game showed in that power play. One of the worst aspects of his game should be one of his best. He is a giant on skates who has a very powerful frame, but he cannot puck-battle at all.

There are many deficiencies to his puck-battling. One of them is his overall balance on his skates and that has to improve overall, or his improvement will be capped in the long run. Another is that he battles with a long stick and separates himself from his own strength.

He has the physical strength to body position to protect the puck and fight with his entire frame, but ends up choosing to battle with essentially only his forearms and wrists. With the long separation that he chooses to the core — his torso — he doesn’t even engage his shoulders well; never mind his hips and thighs.

Slafkovsky is like Lars Eller in his early years with Montreal. Eller lost a high percentage of his board battles. He didn’t position well, nor did he protect. Over the years, he figured it out. He became a much better player. He didn’t really become any stronger that he already was which was quite strong, but he learned how to use that big frame to position and protect.

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Another example is Eric Lindross who was bigger than everyone as a junior; no one was in his category at all physically in the Ontario Hockey League. He just swatted off juniors like flies. When he got to the NHL he had a huge hole in his game because he never actually had to keep is head up. He got rocked time and time again when everyone was big.

It’s the same for Slafkovsky with puck battles. He never had to be any good at them in lower leagues, because he just naturally won them because he was so much bigger. He swatted them off like flies. That doesn’t cut it in the NHL, so he has to learn what he didn’t have to before.

Everyone in the NHL can puck battle. Actually, almost everyone. The Canadiens have one other player who can’t puck battle at all, and he might not get another NHL contract because of it.

There is a lot to learn. Slafkovsky will learn it. It just takes some time.

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General Manager Kent Hughes did a telling interview with TVA’s Anthony Martineau on the weekend. It was a significant piece of journalism.

The Canadiens went into the season in full rebuild mode after finishing dead last. After getting their 10th win, three months faster than last year, speculation was predictable that perhaps management had changed course.

Wins are intoxicating and it’s easy to change the plan when the plan seems to be rushing in successfully already.

The Martineau interview gave clarity that it is business in the same manner as before the season began.

Hughes said, “All the clubs are starting to make calls to get informed on the availability of certain of our players.”

Teams certainly are not inquiring about untouchable Cole Caufield. They’re inquiring about veterans who can help their cup aspirations this spring: Players like Sean Monahan, Joel Edmundson, David Savard and Josh Anderson,

Hughes says he remains a seller trying to get another first round draft choice: “Ideally, yes. We have some good youngsters within the organization and it would be important to get our hands on some quality assets that will be able to keep up with them in the future.”

The words “keep up” are key. Hughes isn’t saying that he needs Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli. He is saying that he needs players as good as his top young players — that he doesn’t need to draft top five, but would ideally like to draft in the top tier.

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The theme remains the same as it did the very first time that Hughes spoke as Canadiens GM. He wants the rebuild to be sustainable:  “We’re going to do this as quickly as we can, but we want to be patient and make smart decisions. We don’t want to make a decision that could hurt the future of the team.”

This is not what fans who want to win right now and think the winning pieces are already in place want to hear. This blueprint favours those who see the longstanding criteria that stars win cups and there aren’t enough stars in the Canadiens stable yet.

At Call of the Wilde, the belief is what the great Scotty Bowman championed. The formula for success is six foundational pieces that must be in place. Once those are achieved, the team can compete for a Stanley Cup.

The six foundational pieces are: two top-pair defenders; two top-six centres; one high scoring winger; one top goalie.

If you believe that the Canadiens have these pieces already, the GM disagrees with you.

He says flat out that he needs more top quality pieces. His words: acquire more quality assets to keep up with his top youngsters.

He’s essentially saying he needs more Suzukis, Caufields and Guhles.

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This upcoming NHL Entry Draft has 10 to 15 of those high quality players. Hughes declared clearly that he wants one, maybe even two to keep up with the best that he has now.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game

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