Welcome back to another season of the Call of the Wilde.
It’s going to be an interesting campaign with so many changes for the team that advanced to the finals only four months ago. The core of the club, Shea Weber and Carey Price, are not here, so someone has to step up to fill those massive skates. Major contributors last season like Philip Danault and Tomas Tatar are also absent.
The club also has key injuries to Mike Hoffman and Joel Edmundson, so the first month with all this difficulty must be traversed. After that, when the injured come back and the stability comes in, the Canadiens should be better each passing quarter of the season.
So if the team gets through the first 20 games successfully, the rest should be an easier path. Night one was already a significant challenge against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are favoured by many to take the division. And it was the Leafs who were the better club on the night, skating to a 2-1 win.
It’s impossible to have a more heartwarming moment on the first goal of the season for the Canadiens. Jonathan Drouin, who wasn’t protected in the expansion draft, leading to the thought that perhaps he wasn’t returning to hockey, scored in the first period. It was a perfect pass on a 2-on-1 from his great friend Josh Anderson. It was the same Anderson who was by Drouin’s side the most when Jo was going through his difficult time. Sometimes it is difficult to not believe in some sort of poetry in the world, because this was poetry.
Drouin’s joy was immense. It was more exuberant a celebration than he did all of last season. He felt back. He felt free. A goal can sure help things, but not if the things aren’t already right. He looked right.
The mental health road is a long one and it is not a straight line by any means. It sure felt wonderful to watch this, and may there be so many more.
It wasn’t just the two friends who shone in the first period. The Habs dominated against a Leafs team that certainly looked sleepy out of the gate.
Cole Caufield had a tremendous chance in the first. Nick Suzuki made a spinerama move of the highest quality to get a good look. Brett Kulak had a clear look from 15 feet. Jake Evans was strong in the first period. Christian Dvorak dominated at times as well.
It really was a first period that sparked hope in a lot of pessimistic Habs fans. They looked so strong, even if the score after 20 minutes was 1-1.
As the game wore on, it felt like the club was lacking strong forecheckers on each line. While Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield are three strong players, there is no one to win the puck. It’s not possible to have sustained pressure on offence, if you can’t retrieve it on a dump-in.
It would be more likely for this line to provide offence only from a transitional point of view on the rush. The trio needs to be revamped with perhaps Joel Armia, who is so strong on the puck, being the first forechecker to win puck battles on a line with Suzuki and Caufield. This would allow Toffoli to be on the left side with Brendan Gallagher on the right on the third line. Though small, Gallagher is one of the best battlers on the team. That balance could be better.
Historically, a line is best when, out of the three players, you have at least one with the ability to either win the puck, pass the puck or shoot the puck. The more of those three skill sets that each player, has the better the line will be. However, if you have one of those skill sets not represented at all on the line, then you have a hole that needs to be filled.
If you have all three players with all three skill sets, you probably have the best line in the league.
The best line on the Canadiens in terms of balance is Josh Anderson, Jonathan Drouin and Christian Dvorak. Each player, it could be argued, has two skill sets when they are at the top of their game.
Previewing the 2021-22 NHL Season
There’s going to be a problem this season: this defence has no mobility. It’s extremely concerning.
You can’t win puck battles when you are so much the second one on the puck that you’re too late to even enter the battle. This is a slow defence. The forwards are strong on the club. They may not have superstars, and there will be times during the season that this will be an issue in scoring. However, from front to back, line one to line four, the club does have the strength up front that an NHL team needs. That may also not be apparent at times because it will be hard to get on the offence when there will be so little transition from the defending crew.
The partnership of David Savard and Ben Chiarot is particularly troubling for mobility. Both are not known for their transition game. That pairing will struggle to move the puck up and out with speed to make the forwards look good.
The return of Joel Edmundson will help, of course. Jeff Petry will definitely help with back-end speed. Allowing Alexander Romanov to play more freely eventually will help. However, the general manager continues to sign the blueprint of how he played back in the day. The league has changed, but this Dorian Gray keeps going back to versions of himself for success. It’s not going to work on the back end this year. They’re going to need help. They’re going to need much more mobility.
It wouldn’t take a lot more to make the Canadiens a strong hockey team. It really would not: one puck moving defender who could play 20-25 strong minutes would be transformational.
The power play has to be singled out in this one as well for its inability. The game was on the line in the third period when the Canadiens had a 5-on-3 for 1:44. They managed during the first unit’s work only two shots from the point in the first 1:24. Up two men, and all that can be created is a point shot? The second unit was better.
They had a quality chance from Brendan Gallagher as he had a clean look on a lateral pass through the low-slot that was blocked just in front of the crease. The Habs had to score during that opportunity. it’s a simple as that. Down 2-1, mustering very little for most of the game, this was the only good moment you were going to get.
It was good to see how most fans reacted to the demotion of Kaiden Guhle and Cayden Primeau. The more time passes, the more obvious it becomes that keeping a player up when they are not fully ready is bad development.
One of the great laments in Habsland is that the team does struggle to get the most out of its draft picks. The biggest reason is they are pushed too early into the show. There are very few players that should be pushed forward in their draft year or even draft year plus one. It’s simply too early.
A player should dominate at the lower level first before they can be ready at the NHL level. Learning is having the puck on the stick a lot. Learning is also 25 minutes on the ice per game, so you can also be comfortable to make smart decisions when you are tired. It has to seem easy in the Western Hockey League in Prince Albert first. It has to seem easy in Laval in the American Hockey League first. When it seems easy at one level, it’s time for the next level.
How can it be argued the better course of action is to let a player scrape by in and out of the line-up in the NHL as a best case scenario for a player’s development? It cannot, under any circumstances, be the right course of action for a prospect to be in the press box one night and on the ice the next, then play only 12 minutes because of the anxiety of the head coach.
What too often happens, and has happened to Marc Bergevin, is the general manager gets captivated by limited great play and then fooled overall by small sample sizes. It often happens that a rookie with a lot of adrenaline and excitement is able to put nine games together or even 20 games together. However, in the long run of a season, the likelihood that that high level can be maintained is low. He won’t be able to sustain it. Suddenly, he’s floundering. Games go by and he barely touches the puck, or worse, loses confidence that he can make the play. That’s terrible development.
This isn’t just a Habs issue. The entire league is pushing its players into the spotlight too soon. Just because a player is a top five pick, that does not mean they are ready. Look at all of the recent draft picks not getting enough time to develop their game.
Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby are players that are ready to go straight away after draft day. Not many more than that. Even the players that you think should have been in the NHL straight away, like Jack Hughes, would have been better served to have owned the American Hockey League first. Develop your skills in the AHL. It’s a good league. It’s a difficult league.
Own the puck. Own the game. Own the ice. Dominate for a season or two. Bring that confidence to the NHL after. That is how you develop best to shine the rest of a career.
That better strategy hasn’t even mentioned the additional advantage of saving the entry level contract years for that player, so they are still yours at 27, instead of already being gone from your roster, free to go anywhere, at 24 or 25. It makes no sense to draft a top-ranked hope and then watch the best years of their career being enjoyed by some other team.
Cole Caufield with a second season to dominate at Wisconsin, even winning the Hobey Baker Award, was the right call. Caufield is ready to shine now as a much more seasoned player than if they rushed him into the league after draft day. He learned so much last year in Wisconsin, and improved his game tremendously. He owned the ice in Madison. Even in a short time in Laval, it was clear he was too good for that league. That will always be the right strategy.
Good for the Habs. They seem to be getting it. The Detroit model of yesteryear under Ken Holland is the right model. All teams will realize this again soon enough. General managers around the league need to stop letting the ownership group who need a splash to sell seats lead the charge on getting the top pick in the NHL as soon as possible.
It’s wrong. It’s wrong for their development. It’s wrong for the back end of the seven years that you own the player outright.
Getting all giddy for the nine games that they look good enough is short-sighted. Jesperi Kotkaniemi could not have been greener when he was rushed in because of nine good games. He never even played at the World Juniors. We will never know what his development path could have been playing 25 minutes a night in Finland and then 25 minutes per night in Laval for a season, because he didn’t do it. He likely would have been a more complete player upon his arrival three years later to the NHL, and he would not have been eligible to be stolen by Carolina with a hostile contract offer before you really knew what you actually had in him.
Your drafted player is a seven-year asset. Treat it like one right from the start and the reward will be significantly higher. Guhle could help the team now, but they seem to have seen the light that he is a seven-year asset and the best of him is when he is 27, so make sure that he is still your property when he is as good as he can be.
Well done this time on the GM’s part. Now let’s see more managers do it. It’s a massive short-sighted mistake all over the league.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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