Shooting Da Breeze – April 2021 Edition

Shooting Da Breeze is a collection of random thoughts on a variety of topics, more often than not about the Montreal Canadiens and the NHL, but not always. In this edition, we will touch on topics such as the fans’ relentless criticism of the team’s key veterans, the arrival of Staal in the line-up, the needs of the team at trade deadline, the impact of the coaching changes on the team and on individual players, and more… Please feel free to share and as usual, comments are always welcome.

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The criticism that Shea Weber is getting from a handful of members of the media and some fans is astonishing and, quite frankly, mind boggling. Do people expect players to be at the top of their game every game in such a difficult and condensed schedule? Are they that narrow-minded to remotely believe that Weber is not efficient anymore? We’ve touched on it many times, but Weber has been carrying this defense ever since he was traded to Montreal.

In this shortened season, it will be imperative to rest veterans. When it comes to Weber, who plays day in, day out against the opposition’s top lines, he can no longer compensate for his partner. Age will be taking its toll and no, he won’t be the same as he was before. Look at Zdeno Chara. Same thing. But unlike Chara, Weber has never had a defense partner to complement his game, a top-4 worthy puck-mover. And it’s time NOW for Marc Bergevin to finally provide his stud defenseman with some help. He’s more than capable to do his own job though so with a quality puck-mover, this guy would be rejuvenated. This is not catering or compensating for Weber. It’s providing him with someone able to do their own job, finding a match.

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I have to laugh at people claiming that Brady Tkachuk won that fight against Weber. Hat’s off to the kid for going after the veteran but as Tkachuk said himself after the game: “When you fight him, you’re in survival mode.” And he was. He did throw a couple of punches that didn’t land but for the most part, the young Sens’ antagonizer was in protection mode, bent over, looking away in hope not to get a punch in the face. And he saw an opportunity to save his own teeth when he pushed Weber on the net. Had this fight been anywhere else on the ice, Tkachuk was doomed and he knows it.

Ah the topic of Carey Price… This last game against the Senators brought back the anti-Price crowd once again. You know, those who can’t acknowledge when he plays well by keeping silent, but become extremely vocal when he has a bad game? Yeah, those people. But here’s the truth. In January and February, Price had a 3.13 GAA and a .888 Sv%. Today, it sits at 2.70 GAA and .902 Sv%. In March, he has a 1.87 GAA and .931 Sv%.

So people need to take a deep breath and let the guy do his job. Show me a perfect goalie or player and I’ll show you a liar. Price has worked his butt off and since the change in goaltending coaches, he has been more than up to par for what we can expect from him. It seems like when he wins, some say it’s the team that won but when they lose, they put the blame on Price. Enough folks. Take a deep breath.

Carey Price

I had to laugh this week at the discussions everywhere suggesting that Price would accept to be left unprotected to go to Seattle. Of course, those people were basing this on the fact that Price is from BC (Seattle being closer to home), the fact that his wife Angela is from Washington State and that he played junior hockey in Try-City. What they don’t take into consideration is Price’s dedication to this team and his genuine desire to bring the Stanley Cup back to Montreal. They don’t take into considerations that he has great friends on this team, his kids go to school in Montreal, and he’s treated well by management and ownership. But hey, that’s not as convenient for those fans as hoping to justify unloading $10.5 million off the books. I can almost guarantee that Price will be protected… and so will Weber!

Speaking of the Expansion Draft, I wrote a piece a while back about a new approach to it and I encourage you to read it again. This is definitely the approach I’d like to see the Habs’ take.

There seems to be a theory out there for some fans that instead of finding a suitable top-4 partner to Weber, Bergevin should pursue a right-handed defenseman for the bottom pairing, to “take minutes away from Weber”. This coming from the same crowd thinking that Weber is finished. Here’s another theory: How about we provide Weber with a suitable partner, making that pair more efficient against the top opposition? You can still give more responsibilities to the Edmundson-Petry pairing and when Chiarot comes back, he would help solidify the third pairing. They too could get a bit more ice time, helping cut Weber’s minutes a bit.

Now if the opportunity came to add a right-handed defenseman for the bottom pairing, it would pretty much have to be to replace Chiarot (in my opinion). But forget David Savard and his $4.25 million contract, please. Invest that money on your top-4 instead.

I used to think that getting that elusive top-4 left-handed puck mover was a bit of a luxury. Not anymore. It’s a clear need and the ball in Bergevin’s court. If we can see it, I can’t imagine Bergevin not seeing it too. And with the moves he’s made in the off-season, and the addition of Staal, it seems pretty clear that he’s willing to address his team’s needs. Falling short on the top-4 would be a monumental mistake.

I’ve been pushing for Mattias Ekholm but with the Nashville Predators back in the playoffs’ race, either he’s no longer available or the price went up drastically to convince them to part with him. However, there are some very nice options out there, with players who would be huge improvements over Kulak and Chiarot on the top-4 with Weber. And not all of them would be that expansive. Further, if the Canadiens have a position of depth and strength in the prospects’ pool, it’s on left defense so a pending UFA, or a player with one year left, would be preferable.

The time has come, Eric Staal has completed his 7-day quarantine and according to head coach Dominique Ducharme, there’s a good chance to see the veteran centre in line-up on Monday against the Edmonton Oilers. But where will he fit? Jake Evans has been playing some outstanding hockey the last few games and he’s the most likely to lose his spot, playing the same position. Ducharme hinted that he might use Evans on the wing. Or could Staal play wing and be placed with Nick Suzuki, who is really struggling in the faceoffs’ circle? Here are a couple of options, in my humble opinion, putting my coaching hat on and leaving the Danault line intact:

Drouin – Kotkaniemi – Anderson
Byron – Suzuki – Toffoli
Lehkonen – Staal – Perry

or

Drouin – Kotkaniemi – Anderson
Staal – Suzuki – Toffoli
Byron – Evans – Perry

Speaking of Evans, he has recently admitted that the acquisition of Staal has put pressure on him to step up his game… and he has done just that. In a segment on Hockey Night in Canada, former Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa qualified Evans of “too good for fourth-line duty”, showing recent clips of the young Canadiens’ centre. The progression of Evans in the last two years has been phenomenal to say the least. He started centring the fourth line for Joël Bouchard‘s Laval Rockets last season and ended the year as the team’s top centre. This year, he has earned his spot on the team at camp and has had a regular shift ever since. But since Ducharme took over, it seems like his confidence has gone up a notch… like a few other young players on the team.

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Another duo that’s been light and day with the coaching change has been Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar. As I’ve mentioned on the podcast of Hockey Sans Limites, Tatar’s success seems directly related to Danault’s much improved play as of late. Brendan Gallagher is a motor of his own. The way he plays, the way he scores, all he needs is someone to throw the puck towards the net and he’ll do the rest. Tatar is more of a finesse player and needs a centre to feed him the puck at the right time, which Danault wasn’t doing when he struggled. But since he’s taken that monkey off his back, we are seeing the Danault of previous years, which is very encouraging for the Canadiens. And Tatar is benefiting greatly.

Montreal Canadiens turn to Dominique Ducharme amid crisis of confidence -  TSN.ca
Dominique Ducharme

The coaching change seems to have started paying dividends. In interviews, it seems like every player has the same dialog, talking about “everyone buying in” to what Ducharme is teaching. Alex Burrows has done some great work with the special teams and while there’s still room for improvements, particularly on the penalty-kill, the powerplay doesn’t kill momentum anymore.

You see better support for the puck carrier all over the ice. The Canadiens were extremely predictable in their offense and therefore, they were easy to stop when opposing coaches figured it out. Offensively, the puck carrier now has options. Defensemen join the rush, wingers drive the net and drop back, leaving more room for creativity. Oh it’s still structured, but that’s the NHL for you. Up until the game against the Sens, a 6-3 loss, the team seems tighter defensively too, with the forwards more involved in their own zone.

It’s not just Danault and Tatar who have improved under Ducharme. As a matter of fact, here are the players who have benefited the most of the coaching change, aside from Price who we’ve discussed already:

PLAYERCOACHGPGAPTSPTS/GP+/-TOI/GP
T. TATARJulien174590.53014:37
Ducharme16311140.88+915:10
B. GALLAGHERJulien1864100.56+215:19
Ducharme1685130.81+815:23
P. DANAULTJulien180880.44+516:22
Ducharme1638110.69+1217:07
J. KOTKANIEMIJulien182680.44+813:53
Ducharme163690.56-415:54
J. DROUINJulien18210120.67+415:01
Ducharme160990.56-617:55
S. WEBERJulien184590.50-123:29
Ducharme161780.50+722:06

When looking at this, remember that the stats with Julien include the offense of the first 10 games of the season when the Habs were scoring at will.

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The situation with the Vancouver Canucks is tragic. We’re talking about a horrible variant to the virus (Brazil) which is very damaging, even for the group 20-40 years old. Our thoughts and prayers go to the players, staff and families of the Canucks. There’s more to life than hockey and this is one of those situations. I was picking on Antoine Roussel for his out of place comments about the Canadiens getting additional rest but Karma hit him hard. Perhaps now he sees how serious this thing truly is.

Hockey, no hockey, trades, no trades, fans need to put things into perspective and see the game for what it is: a game. It’s not worth losing sleep over. It’s not worth fighting on the internet. It’s okay to agree to disagree and when someone posts something you don’t like, it’s also okay to skim over it without replying, and pretend it didn’t happen or you didn’t see it. Whether or not the NHL finishes the season, or the Habs complete a trade or not, use hockey for what it is: entertainment. You’re not the coach. Nor are you the GM. And you’re certainly not the players. You’re a fan and fans are there to support their team, not to constantly put them down, even when having a good season. The weather is changing and it’s obvious that some need to get fresh air. COVID has affected all of us, and we need to keep that in mind. Go Habs Go!

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