MONTREAL — As the National Hockey League season reaches the midway point, it’s time to grade the Canadiens’ performance.
At one time, it was customary at this juncture to give letter grades to each player, but these grades are a bit different. They follow the progressive trend of grading that bases the evaluation on expectations and encourages improvement in areas where players are underperforming.
And in keeping with coach Michel Therrien’s belief that it’s all about the team, the emphasis will be on overall performances in various areas.
DEFENCE: The Canadiens have the third-best goals-against average in the league and it all starts with goaltending. Carey Price was coming off a disappointing finish in the 2013 season, but has re-established himself as one of the NHL’s elite. He ranks in the top 10 in all of the major statistical categories — goals-against average, save percentage, shutouts and wins. Peter Budaj provides the team with a capable backup.
Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban is having another outstanding season, but the defenceman who has exceeded expectations is Andrei Markov, who is playing some of the best hockey of his career at age 35. Alexei Emelin returned to the lineup after major knee surgery and had a strong start, but his performance has tailed off in recent weeks. Josh Gorges continues to be a steadying influence. Raphael Diaz has played a diminished role since the return of Emelin, but has emerged as a steady two-way performer whose value will be recognized when he goes on the free-agent market this summer.
Grade: Performing up to expectations.
OFFENCE: The Canadiens averaged better than three goals a game last season and ranked fourth in goals, but they hit the halfway mark this season with an average of 2.44 goals a game, which ranked 22nd in the NHL. The team’s biggest problem has been a lack of consistency. While Therrien believes he has the talent to ice three lines capable of scoring, finding a trio that can do so on a consistent basis has been a challenge.
Tomas Plekanec continues to be the most consistent two-way forward and has developed some chemistry with Brian Gionta, but filling the left-wing spot on that line has been as difficult as finding a right-winger to complement David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. The latter pair had a slow start, but they carried the offence in December when Pacioretty scored eight goals and Desharnais had two goals and 10 assists. The Kid Line of Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher has played well, but this group isn’t together enough because Therrien has been using Gallagher and Galchenyuk to bolster the other lines.
By his own admission, off-season acquisition Daniel Brière could be better and he and Rene Bourque have to be considered as not playing up to expectations because their production falls short of their salaries.
Grade: Not performing up to expectations.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This has been a major bright spot. Any time you have Markov and Subban on the points you can expect a good power play. The Canadiens have been in the top five for most of the season, but there was a dip in December with more teams keying on Subban. The Canadiens need more movement to counter the attention being paid to the point men.
The penalty-killing unit has been much improved after it ranked 23rd last season. The Canadiens were fourth at the midway point this season. Plekanec is again the anchor with Gorges, Subban and Markov all playing key roles. This is also where newcomer Douglas Murray contributes. His lack of mobility can be a liability in even-strength situations, but his size and physical play are important on the PK.
Grade: Performing up to, and exceeding, expectations.
OVERALL: Most of the preseason prognosticators had the Canadiens in a group battling for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but the Canadiens reached the midway mark in fourth place in the East with a comfortable hold on a post-season berth. But the Canadiens are still several players away from being a Stanley Cup contender. The goaltending and defence are solid, but the lack of size up front continues to be a concern, especially against the big, physical teams that dominate in the Western Conference.
Grade: Exceeding expectations, but lots of room for improvement.
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