Montreal Canadiens half season report card

Here we are, midway through the 82 game struggle to the Stanley cup playoffs and I’m guessing that little people could have bet that the Habs would be sitting in the position they’re in now.

They finished the first half with a 19-15-5-2 record which is above most expectations.

Here is a look of different aspects of their game as well as the club in general through the first 41 games:

Management

Grade: B-

Bob Gainey brings a good amount of experience upstairs with the great scouting savvy of Andre Savard whom Gainey opted for as an assitant. Skeptics maintained that Gainey was “all talk and no action” which proved to be false. He clearly stated that he would not bring any drastic changes any time soon and that he would take a good amount of time evaluating his personnel. He did however buy out Czerkawski and McKay’s contracts, two players who proved to be disappointements last year. Audette was the next one out, although he tried hard, he could not do better than a measly 3 goals since the start. Now he’s a free bird who can choose who to play with. Not at 3 millions though. Gainey also picked up 3 players on waivers: Pierre Dagenais, Steve Begin and Darren Langdon. Each one of them have some good upside. Dagenais plays very well with former junior teamate Mike Ribeiro and he was able to find the back of the net using his quick shot and long reach. His 6’5 frame is greatly welcomed among a primarily smallish team. Steve Begin is a leader in his own kind of way. He is the kind of player the Habs lacked for several years now. A player who gets under opponent’s skin and can change the course of the game by lining up one massive hit or by dropping the gloves against the biggest player in the opposing team. He’s likely to take up Juneau’s duties on the 3rd line next year when Juneau is either moved or retired. Darren Langdon is a veteran “goon” who has done his job so far, a lot better than Blouin or Dwyer in the past.

By adding these 3 guys, Gainey somewhat plugged some tiny gaps in the team. Although not altogether major changes, they are proving to be usefull.

Gainey is harder to read than a good poker player. Will he trade? Will he not trade?

The way the team is playing now I wouldn’t expect anything dramatic.

Coaching

Grade: B

Claude Julien came into this season with full support from Gainey but with a reasonable amount of doubt from the fans and media. He is a gutsy coach who isin’t afraid to make changes or bench unproductive players. He managed to get his players to buy into his “system” and now they are playing as a unit. He has had success everywhere he coached and I’m starting to think that the Habs will not be an exception.

Offense

Grade: C

The Habs offense is probably one of their greatest weaknesses. With 97 goals for, they sit in 15th position but in their goals per game average, they stand 20th. The only upside I see with their offense is that they are getting production from all 4 lines which is always good for a team. It also means that they are actually playing “as a team” and that kind of attitude can get you a playoff spot.

Defense

Grade: B-

The Montreal defense has greatly improved over last year decreasing their goals against by 32. Sheldon Souray has added some great stability along the left side and Brisebois’ +11 is the team’s best in differentials. Bouillon and Markov solidify the left but I can’t say as much for the right side. Aside from Brisebois there is Quintal who is slowing down, having not much to offer but his great leadership and toughness. Rivet is a liability (sorry Craig) but at 3 million dollars a year, he just isin’t cutting it. That leaves a young and inexperienced Komisarek. He’s often caught making the wrong play forcing others to cover for him. He is big and tough but IMO might take another season to start getting more out of him.

Goaltending

Grade A-

It is safe to say that Jose Theodore is playing up to his salary and has the numbers to show for it. He went 16-13-4 in 34 starts with a stingy 2.06 GAA (1.00 in his last 4 starts) a .926sv% and 4 shutouts. His solid play is one of the reasons that the club reduced their goals against by 32. He will be a serious contender for the backup position for team Canada at the 2004 World cup of hockey. Mathieu Garon has shown some brilliance when he was called upon. It will be interesting to see what management does with this guy as he is clearly starter potential.

Power Play

Grade: B+

Through the first 2 months of the season, the Habs lingered amongst the last 5 in PP but quickly turned that around after Julien called for several pratices where they did nothing but PP drills. They now stand in 9th place with 28pp gf/ 159 pp opp.

Penalty Kill

Grade: D

Penalty killing has been a struggle over the past two years and I think that the fact that Carbo is gone has something to do with it. Recently though they moved up from 29th to 24th with an 82% PK% with 27ga in 154 TSH while scoring 3 short handed goals.

Surprises

It is hard to argue that Michael Ryder is one of the teams best surprises this far in the year. He now leads rookie scoring with 26 points. His creativity with the puck will probably make him a good 2nd line RW down the road. Grade: B+

Mike Ribeiro is starting to show his skills and now leads the team with 28 points. His soft hands and above average hockey sense will probably push Perreault out the door. As much as I like Perreault’s face off play, Ribeiro is getting the job done in that department as well. Grade: B

Sheldon Souray is another part of this team’s unexpected success. His 13 goals place him in the lead in goal scoring among defensemen. Other than his goal scoring his overall play is very consistent. His transitional play is lacking but he’s improved that recently. He should be considered for the All-Star game because he’s got one wicked slap shot. Grade: A

Disappointments

Craig Rivet’s -11 (or is it -12?, regardless, it’s double digit) is inexcusable for a 3 million dollar salary. He’s a big guy who plays a small and lazy game. Often makes the wrong play and when he makes the right one, almost always amount to nothing at all. He needs to step it up. Grade D-

One guy on this club has all the tools to be a good player but just doesn’t seem to want to play and that’s Chad Kilger. He’s big, is a great skater and has a decent shot but only gives his 100% once every 4 games. Even at 800 000$/year, it just isin’t worth it. Guys like Plekanec or Gratton who make less couldn’t do any worse. Grade D

Finally Ron Hainsey and Marcel Hossa go hand in hand because they are two youngster who where given a legitimate chance at the start of the year to make their mark. They saw power play time and penalty killing time but both are just not showing their skills. Marcel Hossa is probably not as good as his brother but he’s got enough skill to be a good 2nd line LW. He’s got the size to go into corners and dig those pucks out but he lacked the effort. Hainsey seemed hesitant at the point very rarely releasing his well-known wrist shot. I think that a stint in the AHL will be a good lesson for these two, hoping they’ll take advantage of their next chance, if they’re granted one. Grade C-

Overall, I think many Montreal Canadien fans like myself will say that they are satisfied with their team’s performance over the first half. The million dollar question is, Can/Will they keep it up?

Personnaly I’m not sure they have enough gas to make it to the playoffs or if they do, they will not go very far. This team still has big gaps to fill, like a big and fast right winger for example. However the Habs do have a great future as we see Gainey’s slow and steady transition from old to new. Audette, Czerkawski and McKay are gone and we’re now seeing Ryder, Komisarek and Plekanec stepping up. With a bit of patience, in 2-3 years, the fans will see the result of Savard’s effective drafting and some good young guns will take the reins of this storied franchise.

As far as the 2nd half goes, I could be wrong. They surprised most people in the first half, they can do the same in the 2nd. The main thing they need to fix is their consistency since before their 41st game, they haven’t managed two straight wins in a little over two months.

Let’s see how far their heart can take them.

All stats obtained from nhl.com