Every team goes through a slump or two during the long, gruelling NHL season. The Montreal Canadiens are going through theirs at the exact same time as they did last year, in mid to late November. Last year, they turned it around when ace defenseman Shea Weber returned to the lineup after a year-long absence due to injuries. This year, they don’t have such good news coming their way so unless Marc Bergevin pulls the trigger on something, it’s likely that we will hear the old “the solution is in the room” speech again very soon.
There has been a lot of criticism amongst the fan base. Some directed at Bergevin, most pointing the coaching staff, Claude Julien in particular, to explain the Canadiens’ slide. Both are right, to a point. Of course, you cannot win games when your goaltenders have a combined saves percentage below .890 over a long stretch. Of course, the defensive core is taking its fair share of abuse, but it’s also on the forwards. Basically, it truly is a team slump that the Canadiens are going through. In my opinion, there are a few key points that the coaching staff must focus on, something they can actually control and change.
Allow me to put on my coach’s hat and look at the issues the Habs are having in the current streak:
1- There are too many slower moving defensemen to play a man-to-man system in your zone. Guys like Weber and Ben Chiarot, while excellent shutdown defensemen, are getting beat regularly against faster and shiftier forwards. And so are lower end defensemen like Mike Reilly and Brett Kulak. Only Jeff Petry and Victor Mete have the wheels to play man to man. Zone defense would be a lot more efficient for the staff on hand. Even Karl Alzner would be more efficient in a zone defense setting.
2- It is clear that the system is asking defensemen to pinch in along the boards in the offensive zone. That is great to generate offense and keeping pucks into the offensive zone. It is also clear that the defensemen have the green light to support the attack when they see fit and the Habs’ defense is contributing offensively. But such a system will only work if forwards buy into it as one of them MUST take the pinching defenseman’s place when they do so. It’s very basic and every NHL player knows that. The problem lately is that forwards are lazy and don’t fill-in for those defensemen.
3- The Habs have a fast team and they play their best team defense when the forwards back check and apply what we call in terms of hockey “back pressure“. For those unfamiliar with the term, back pressure is when Habs’ defending forwards skate hard to the puck carrier on the back check while they are moving up with the puck towards the defensemen. If there isn’t a strong back check, the opposition’s forwards will have all the time in the world to enter the Canadiens’ zone, stop at the blue line and/or cut up the middle. But if you have a couple forwards back checking hard on them, it applies pressure from the back (behind the opponents’ forwards), forcing them to make quicker decisions and playing more of a north-south game, which is easier to defend against. The back pressure has often been way too loosy-goosy and inconsistent, particularly during that slump.
4- For some odd reasons, it seems like the Habs’ defensemen forgot some very basic skills, such as “closing the gap” or playing the body instead of the puck. Closing the gap means not backing up too fast into their zone, keeping the gap closer between defensemen and forwards, which helps the Canadiens’ forwards in their back checks. When a defenseman closes the gap, opposition’s forwards tend to slow down their zone entry, giving your own forwards more time to catch up with their backcheck, therefore creating back pressure. Also, they seem to go fishing for the puck with their sticks instead of taking the body. Doing so makes them more vulnerable to speedy and shifty forwards.
5- We were chatting on Twitter during the games and we were wondering how does a NHL defenseman not know how to defend against odd-man rushes, like how to play a simple two on one? At a very young age, we coach our kids to stay in the middle, in the passing lane, then shade towards the player without the puck while leaving the shooter to the goaltender. Any goaltender will tell you that it makes their job a lot easier. But lately, it seems like defensemen are either over-committing to the puck carrier or they don’t ensure that the pass doesn’t come across. Goaltenders can only do so much on a good pass across.
There you have it folks. There are more smaller technical issues with this team as well, but the ones mentioned above are the main five, in my humble coaching opinion. And I’m not getting into player utilisation, ice time for lower tier players at the expenses of skilled players, player-personnel decisions on special teams, etc. That’s entirely on the coaching staff too. But if they want to get out of that slump, they’ll have to return to basics and the coach has a lot to do with that. Ideally, the GM also needs to get out of his comfort zone and address his team’s needs before yet another season is wasted. Go Habs Go!