What We Learned: Behind the Montreal Canadiens' hot start

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October 20, 2016: Shea Weber (6) of the Montreal Canadiens salutes the crowd after the third period of the NHL game between the Arizona Coyotes and the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
October 20, 2016: Shea Weber (6) of the Montreal Canadiens salutes the crowd after the third period of the NHL game between the Arizona Coyotes and the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

After Sunday night’s games, there was one team in the NHL without a regulation loss: the Montreal Canadiens

The blew out the Sabres, Penguins(!), Coyotes and Bruins, and also lost in a shootout (so not even real hockey) to Ottawa. And that’s with Carey Price only playing in two games.

Now, we fundamentally understand that Montreal isn’t this good, in part because no one is. On paper the Canadiens seem to be fairly mediocre if anything else. But mediocre teams go 4-0-1 sometimes, and sometimes even bad teams do it (see also: Vancouver).

One of the reasons people generally seemed so down on Montreal coming into this year was that Michel Therrien is still the coach of this team and while he’s a lot of things, confidence-inspiring doesn’t necessarily seem to be one of them. But what people kind of forgot over the summer, I think, is that the Habs spent most of last year as a well-above-average possession team and only collapsed at the end of the season when everyone gave up. They finished 13th in the league in adjusted possession last season, after being several notches higher for much of the season. No one would mistake them for dominant, but they were running the show at least a little bit in most games.

That was, of course, a big change from the previous year, when the Canadiens were an awful possession team that swept into the playoffs on the back of a world-beating Carey Price performance over 60-something games. Great goaltending takes you far in this league, and Price was well beyond great in 2014-15. After that, the reason they were so putrid last year was that Price was hurt and the guys they got to replace him were atrocious; Mike Condon played 55 games and went .903.

That’ll lose you a lot of games in this league, and when they inexplicably made PK Subban the scapegoat for that problem, people were given another bullet in their “Montreal will be bad next year” bandoleer.

But if you were worried about the backup position — and with Price dinged up to start the season, that’s not illegitimate — then you should have been quite reassured by the addition of Al Montoya, who has long been one of the more reliable backups in the league (career .911). Montoya obviously isn’t the .960 goalie he’s been in three appearances in part because no one is, but he’s gonna save a lot of goals versus what Condon would have this season in a similar role.

On the other hand, the concerns about where Montreal’s defense was headed were and are well-founded. Shea Weber isn’t as good as everyone makes him out to be, and he’s also not as bad as the growing online-only rep he’s garnered in the past few years. On most teams, he’s a low-end No. 1, which is great to have but not likely to save you. And after that, as far as the blue line goes, you start to see some real problems: Weber, Beaulieu, Emelin, Markov, Pateryn, Petry and Sergachev are the six D they’ve used this year, and that probably isn’t good enough to get you very far over the course of 82 to 89 games.

The big question for the Canadiens so far — and it’s one they seem not to have adequately answered so far — is “who carries the puck out of their own zone?” So far the answer seems to be “forwards,” which isn’t a good plan long-term. There’s a reason so many great teams rely on speedy, smooth-skating defensemen to get the puck out of their own end and through the neutral zone: It’s so their forwards legs don’t fall off around Game 55. No one in this blue line group is capable of lugging the puck 130 feet and distributing it properly, and that’s a long-term problem of team construction. You simply can’t enter a season with that being such a big problem, because it’s not like other clubs are going to be willing to give up players like that (unless you’re David Poile, one supposes).

Here’s the thing for right now: It doesn’t seem to have mattered yet. Not only because the Habs are generally winning a lot, but because hey look at that: they’re a 52 percent adjusted possession team again. It means they continue to out-attempt their opponents, which, if you have Price playing at a Price-like level, means you’re probably going to win a hell of a lot of games.

There is some room for improvement, of course, because they still give up a decent amount of attempts per 60 (they’re middle-of-the-pack in that regard). That they generate the ninth-most attempts per 60 obviously helps a lot. For now.

Where Montreal might end up feeling a bit of pain down the road here is that in terms of creating and allowing scoring chances, they’ve been fairly awful. We’re talking bottom-10 in the NHL. And it’s because they allow the fifth-most chances per 60 in the NHL. That, I think, might be a consequence of the defense being the opposite of mobile these days. Regardless, you definitely don’t want your goalie facing the third-most high-danger shots in the league long-term, especially because the Canadiens — you won’t believe this — give up a lot of rushes.

In terms of expected goals, the Canadiens are a little above average at 5-on-5 in the NHL right now, and the PK has been so good (92 percent!) that the mediocre power play honestly doesn’t matter much so far. Given the talent on the roster, I’d expect improvement for the man advantage and regression for the PK, and if it averages out then that probably works fine.

Seems as though the roster construction, especially on the back end, could have a long-term negative effect on their goodish possession number. But the forward group has been improved to the point they might be able to make up the difference. Then again, maybe not. It’s five games, so it’s hard to make any firm pronouncements about the team’s quality.

But let’s put it this way: If Price is still Price, a Canadiens team anywhere above water in terms of possession wins a hell of a lot of games, especially in their rotten division. They have to worry about Tampa, sure. Florida looks good. Toronto’s off to a solid start as well. But this team was always likely to be the second-best team in the Atlantic, even in a worst-case scenario where possession was concerned. That’s the kind of difference-maker elite goaltending can be.

If the system is producing positive outcomes, possession-wise, then things get a little dodgier for the Lightning atop the division.

That’s not to say all the positives for Montreal last, but after five games, I’m a little more convinced they could.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: That’ll just about do it for Mason Raymond as a tenable NHL player. Remember when he had 50 points for Vancouver?

Arizona Coyotes: It seems as though this team is quite bad. That’s to their benefit.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins haven’t beaten their arch-rivals at home since 10 months before Obama got re-elected. This time around it’s because they had a putrid second.

Buffalo Sabres: I’m not too optimistic this continues.

Calgary Flames: The Flames have conceded 27 goals in five games. And only scored 18. That seems bad.

Carolina Hurricanes: There’s a lot to like about this team but as with the Flames, goaltending hasn’t been one of them.

Chicago: Maybe it’s a trend: the PK has allowed 11 goals in five games. Wonder if it has something to do with “all their blue line talent is 29-plus.”

Colorado Avalanche: They had to have a bad night sometime.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Beating Chicago and Dallas on back-to-back nights might end up being this team’s season highlight.

Dallas Stars: Meanwhile, it’s a tough break for the Stars, but probably one we should have seen coming.

Detroit Red Wings: One can confidently say no one saw this coming.

Edmonton Oilers: No surprise the Oilers alumni didn’t win. Such a long, rich tradition of not winning.

Florida Panthers: Shane Harper had himself some kind of game after a 340-game AHL career. Always nice to see.

Las Vegas No-Names: If the “team name” saga is any indication, “kill it” might be overly optimistic.

Los Angeles Kings: This team’s relying on Peter Budaj long-term now, huh? Hmm. All set.

Minnesota Wild: I know it’s 3-on-3 and everything but maybe someone wants to cover Taylor Hall next time?

Montreal Canadiens: Ah yes, here’s the good stuff, baby: “After eight years in Montreal, the American captain still can’t say much more than ‘merci’ in the language of most of the team’s fans. … Currently, their most prominent French-speaking player is David Desharnais, a third-line centre.” The team is destroying everyone, so of course that’s what we write a column about!

Nashville Predators: A wonderful headline.

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Getty Images

New Jersey Devils: Doesn’t 11 feet seem excessive? Michelangelo’s David is only 17.

New York Islanders: This is a nice little feature in the Times on Isles announcer Brendan Burke.

New York Rangers: Is the answer “the soft bigotry of low expectations?”

Ottawa Senators: The Sens’ attendance issues are long- and well-documented, so how long are we going to pretend it’s not because they have one of the worst ownership situations in the league?

Philadelphia Flyers: Matt Read has five goals in as many games. It’s because he, uh, worked hard this summer. That’s why. For sure it is.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Fleury’s not going to let himself be a backup all year, right? That has to change when Murray comes back?

San Jose Sharks: Logan Couture says the Sharks “aren’t dedicated to defense the way we were last year.” It’s been six games, bud.

St. Louis Blues: Wow, a David Perron hat trick. Signs and wonders.

Tampa Bay Lightning: “Culture change” here means “finding a way to draft a bunch of really good guys under 6 feet tall.”

Toronto Maple Leafs: Imagine if this team had goaltending.

Vancouver Canucks: *Don’t say luck don’t say luck don’t say luck don’t say luck.* “Luck.” Ah crap.

Washington Capitals: Oh man, I was hoping he’d go full Mick Foley on this one.

Winnipeg Jets: Does anyone care about this outdoor game at all? It’s frickin’ October.

Play of the Weekend

What a goal to wrap up your hat trick.

Gold Star Award

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Getty Images

As much as the Heritage Classic is and should be an afterthought, isn’t it so nice to get Connor McDavid in a game on national TV*?

*NHL Network**

**It technically counts.

Minus of the Weekend

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Getty Images

Why was that Coyotes alumni team playing for the Jets? Where was Slava Kozlov?

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “SFD22” is from Simcoe? You don’t say!

TO CAL: JVR + Kadri + Gardiner + Hunwick

TO TOR: Bennett + Hamilton + Wideman + AHL contract

Signoff

That’s Jerry. He’s a major player down at the sewing store.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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