Most of us knew that on February 18th when they lost their fifth in a row against lowly Detroit.
General manager Marc Bergevin finally showed he had given up the ghost when he shipped Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Marco Scandella at the trade deadline. Head coach Claude Julien inexorably resigned himself to the team’s ultimate fate when he elected to take his lineup into experimental mode with a lineup shuffle for the Tuesday night’s game against Nashville. We’re going to see a lot of that between now and the season’s end on April 4th.
The only thing to be taken from the 4-2 loss to Nashville were lessons learned for the future.
Despite scoring 27 goals in 46 games with Laval this season it took a late February 27th Tomas Tatar injury emergency for the Canadiens to re-call Charles Hudon. Even then, based on previous experience, Claude Julien’s regard for his overall talent remained low and Hudon was again assigned to the fourth line where he had little chance of showing off whatever offensive talent he’d shown in Laval. With nothing to lose, Tuesday night Julien decided to take a look, and elevated Hudon to a line where had a chance to succeed and he ran with it. Midway through the first period he gave us that jaw-dropping flip pass to himself while splitting the defense that only a skilled player can make. He was the best part of a line that included Max Domi and Brendan Gallagher. Because he will never be a solid defensive player, Hudon’s only real shot at a regular NHL job will be as a member of one of the Canadiens top three lines. In the season’s remaining eleven games, he’s going get what may be his last chance to prove he can score goals at this level.
While Hudon was strong individually, the remainder of the line was disconnected. Brendan Gallagher clearly missed the chemistry he had with Phillip Danault and Max Domi was…. well Max Domi. The more I see of him the more I’m convinced that he is misemployed as a centre. Like Alex Galchenyuk before him, wishful thinking has placed him at centre ice. Granted, he had two unfamiliar linemates against Nashville, but Domi’s lack of creativity should tell us he’s better using his speed coming off the wing. His casual disregard for defense also led to the first Nashville goal. He remains at centre because there’s nobody to replace him.
Nick Suzuki drew second assist on the Canadiens first goal. It was his first point in the nine games since Ilya Kovalchuk left the team for Washington. There was a stretch where I thought his game had hit the rookie wall but recently he’s played regained some of his early form. Although his line, with Lehkonen and Weal, had a pretty good night, like Hudon it might be time to give Suzuki a chance to be surrounded by more talented offensive players. He produced when he played with Kovalchuk. Why not try him with Gallagher?
Lucas Vejdemo and Jake Evans formed two thirds of the fourth line. Picking up his first NHL assist, Evans continued to make clear that Bergevin will not need to be in search of a fourth line centre to replace Nate Thompson in the off season.
For the first time since his recall Vejdemo demonstrated a level of confidence. Early in the game he used his speed to sweep around the Nashville defense for a dangerous scoring chance. He totaled four scoring chances, including one high-danger. It’s only one game and he was given only five minutes of ice time, but off what we saw against the Predators, he deserves a longer look.
The Canadiens power play was 0-for-2 in the game; 0-for-18 in the nine games since they scored two in that disheartening February 18th home-ice loss to Detroit. Talent is an issue right now and an over-reliance on the well-telegraphed point shots of Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. Some off-season attention has to be focused on Kirk Muller who was re-hired by Bergevin in 2016 largely to concentrate his efforts to impove on a power play that had sunk to 26th in the league in the four years of his absence. In the first two seasons back the power play was an unremarkable 13th and 12th in the league. Last season it was 30th and after Tuesday night it ranks 22nd overall and 29th in the league at home. The success or failure of special teams falls on the heads of the coaching staff. At this point in time Muller is vulnerable.
….Carey Price did what goaltenders are expected to do. He kept his team afloat while they struggled through a scoreless first period. As a team the Canadiens no better in the second and the roof fell in with Nashville scoring four times to take the game out of reach. It was the fourth consecutive home game that Price has allowed four goals.
….I like what Artturi Lehkonen brings to the Canadiens defensively but it’s more and more evident that on a good team he would be no more than a fourth line player. His third period goal ended a 17 game drought dating back February first.
….Former Canadiens first round draft choice Jarred Tinordi returned to Montreal on the Nashville defense. The 6’6” Tinordi’s problems as a forward always centred around his speed and an inability to catch up to the quickness of the game in the NHL.
….In 2010, in a move scouting director Trevor Timmins would prefer to forget, the Canadiens packaged their own first round pick and a second rounder to move up five spots to draft Tinordi 22nd overall. Over parts of three seasons he played in 39 games with Montreal before being traded to Arizona.
….According to naturalstattrick.com the Suzuki/Weal/Lehkonen line controlled 81.82% of the shooting attempts when they were on the ice (18 shot attemps-for vs. 4-against).
….Hard as Brendan Gallagher might have worked, the defensive shortcomings of Domi/Hudon led to a disastrous night for the line. Seventeen shots were taken against the line while they produced only five and they produced 1 high danger scoring chance while the Predators had five.
….Seven on the Canadiens current 23 man current roster have played more games in Laval than with the Canadiens this year. Five of them played against Nashville (Weise, Folin, Vejdemo, Ouellet & Evans). Lindgren was backup goaltender, Alzner was a healthy scratch.
….Joel Armia is in one of his scoring slumps but the effort is still there. Arguably, he was the Canadiens best forward with four scoring chances, including three in the first period.
….Nashville has now picked up at least a point in 15 of their last 16 games against the Canadiens.
The Canadiens will host the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night in a game that will go a long way to settling where they finish in the draft lottery. The Canadiens currently rank 9th in the lottery one point ahead of Chicago (8th) and three in front of Buffalo (7th). The Hawks and Sabres each have two games in hand.
After Buffalo, the Canadiens head west for three California game games starting at Anaheim on Sunday followed by Tuesday in Los Angeles and San Jose Thursday and wrapping up in Denver a week Saturday.