Analyze This: Three key pieces that can turn Canadiens into contenders

Analyze This: Three key pieces that can turn Canadiens into contenders
The question on everyone’s mind in recent days has been whether Montreal’s 2018-19 season should be considered a success or a failure. The answer is a little bit complicated, so we must bring nuance to the table.

The Canadiens’ season wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t a success, either. It was a step in the right direction.

There are aspects of the season that were quite encouraging, specifically the Canadiens’ 5-on-5 play, which ranked among the best teams in the NHL.

Not only did they improve upon almost every key statistical category compared with 2017-18, they managed to score more goals, which, in the long run, is the most important statistic. They also significantly improved their scoring when it came to high-danger scoring opportunities.

Shots and scoring chances are conducive to scoring goals. They’re also a vital part of the process, and every team should keep a close eye on where they rank in the NHL in controlling shots. But without the ability to finish plays, those statistics lose some of their predictive value.

Last season, the Canadiens scored 131 5-on-5 goals, the second-worst result in the league. This season, they upped their tally to 188 5-on-5 goals, which was more than some of the NHL’s potent offensive teams, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Of course, the entire NHL saw an uptick in scoring this season, and when we compare the results to last season we’re setting the bar rather low. However, the Canadiens didn’t just keep pace with the rest of the league, they finished among the top five.

Montreal head coach Claude Julien, along with his new batch of assistants, did a fantastic job establishing a strategy that saw the team focus on quickly transitioning from defence to offence — and it paid off. Constant pressure, with a sustained backcheck and forecheck, led the Canadiens to the third-most hits (they averaged 26.9 per game) in the NHL this season. And while that’s usually a sign that a team is chasing the play rather than controlling it, the Canadiens’ shot metrics prove otherwise. The Canadiens controlled the play and the intensity, for the most part.

But we saw just how quickly the strategy could crumble if one or two players failed to live up to their end of the bargain. Which brings us to the hurdles still facing the team. Despite the hard work and encouraging results this season, there are several glaring issues that need to be rectified.

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry puts on the brakes while being pursued by Detroit Red Wings’ Andreas Athanasiou during third period in Montreal on March 12, 2019. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Jeff Petry and Shea Weber were a formidable one-two combination on the right side of the defence. And with prospects Noah Juulsen, Cale Fleury and Josh Brook in the system, the right side is clearly a position of strength for the team.

But the left side is a bit of a mess. While Victor Mete and Brett Kulak played quite well this season — especially Kulak — they’re not established top-four defenceman, and that’s exactly what the Canadiens need.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin must reinforce the left side of the defence before Petry and Weber run out of gas. It simply cannot become a long-standing issue — like the team’s lack of quality centres was for two decades — and it can’t be a bargain purchase, either.

The price to acquire a good, young, puck-moving defenceman will probably be rather costly, but it’s a worthwhile investment to ensure the team can take the next step toward being a Stanley Cup contender.

As we noted last week , the power play might have cost the Canadiens a playoff berth.

The main problem with the team’s man-advantage was the lack of quality scoring chances. Assistant coach Kirk Muller’s strategy simply failed to translate quantity into quality, and by the time significant changes were made, it was far too late.

To be fair, the power play did improve during the final week of the season, which is an encouraging note for 2019-20.

The Canadiens were a very good team with a lot of depth and several lines that had the ability to control the play and score on any given night.

But when it came down to it, they lacked game-changers. Players who can simply take control of the situation and shift the momentum in favour of their team.

Jonathan Drouin received the brunt of the criticism when it came to the Canadiens’ lack of game-changers, but we should also consider that at US$5.5 million per season, Drouin is not getting paid like an elite player. That’s because he isn’t an elite offensive player. He’s very good — though inconsistent — offensively, but he’s better as a complimentary piece rather than an offensive leader.

The Canadiens need to insulate their young talent, and the best way to do that will be with what will probably be $15 million in available cap space next season. It will also help the power play in the process.

Carey Price’s cap hit makes adding a good, experienced NHL goaltender to the mix somewhat complicated. Very few teams spend as much as the Canadiens for guarding their net.

Price will be 32 when the season starts. The Canadiens will need to manage his workload a little more carefully, perhaps by signing a goaltender that can handle more than 17 games per year.

If the goal is to make a run in the playoffs, a well rested Price will be key.

“We’re not happy (with missing the NHL playoffs), but we know we’re heading in the right direction,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said during the team’s end-of-season news conference. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Fixing the ongoing issues is much easier said than done, but not impossible.

As we saw with the Golden Knights this season, it’s possible to acquire elite talent. And as we’re seeing in the playoffs with the Columbus Blue Jackets, striking while the iron is hot is a viable strategy.

That’s not to say the Canadiens should liquidate their prospect pool in a desperate bid to make the playoffs. Every situation requires a different approach. They’re not quite there yet, but they’re not that far off, either.

Standing pat at the trade deadline was probably the right approach for the Canadiens, but they can’t rest on their laurels if the goal is to go beyond just qualifying for the playoffs.

Adding an elite forward, a top-four defenceman and a quality backup goaltender might seem like a Herculean task — especially in only one off-season — but that’s what needs to be done so this team can compete for the Stanley Cup in the near future.
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