The Montreal Canadiens closed the first half of their 2023-24 season with an embarrassing loss against the last-placed San Jose Sharks, this Thursday.
With a hefty 41-game sample size, we now have a clearer portrait of this team’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas of concern.
Offense (Or Lack Thereof)
This edition of the Montreal Canadiens doesn’t score a lot of goals, sitting 28th in the league with 71 Goals For and 25th in the Expected Goals department. By virtually every metric – advanced or not – they’re not threatening when it comes to generating offensive chances.
And having the man advantage doesn’t boost their ability to score goals either, as they only rank 22nd with a lowly 17.7% success rate on such occasions.
It’s no wonder many games they’ve won have been decided in overtime, shootout, or with a lone goal above their opponents when won in regular time. Furthermore, they rank 32nd, dead last in the NHL, in terms of regulation wins.
That’s right, worse than the historically bad 2023-24 San Jose Sharks…
Conference standings. pic.twitter.com/i8lubCtOTO
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 11, 2024
One of the positive metrics where the Canadiens see some success is in the faceoff dot, as they rank fourth in the league for Faceoff Win % with 55.1%. All four regular centermen Nick Suzuki, Sean Monahan, Christian Dvorak, and Jake Evans are above 50% and even Mitchell Stevens who has been filling in during Dvorak’s absence boasts a 55% success rate.
Among the good news for Habs fans since the season began are Juraj Slafkovsky’s improved play, Nick Suzuki’s excellence on both sides of the rink, and Brendan Gallagher’s return to a standard of play and production that made him a beloved player.
— NHL (@NHL) December 10, 2023
On the other hand, Cole Caufield’s weapon of choice, his precise wrister, doesn’t look as effective this year, and he’s on par for an underwhelming season, goal-wise.
Also noteworthy, newcomer Alex Newhook had a good productive sequence before getting injured, but it’s hard to assess whether it was a fluke or not, with the sample size being quite small. However, we should note Newhook was on pace to score almost 20 goals before his unfortunate injury.
The injury bug hasn’t been kind to this team, once again, and one can wonder how much this team could benefit from having a healthy Kirby Dach in the top six.
Sheeeesh Juraj Slafkovsky with the slick feed and Alex Newhook has his first goal as a Montreal Canadien! pic.twitter.com/hOAJ7mVhtS
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 12, 2023
Offence As A Defense Mechanism
As a core, the defensive group Martin St-Louis calls upon is doing well, from a production standpoint. The Habs’ defensive crew ranks second in the NHL in terms of goals scored with 31, led by Mike Matheson’s seven goals.
Mike Matheson with an early goal-of-the-year candidate.
End-to-end beauty. pic.twitter.com/MLJLiz5bSf
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) October 25, 2023
But as a team, the Montreal Canadiens have the sixth lowest Shots For Per Game totals (28.51), while being the fourth team that allows the most Shots Against Per Game (33.63) with a total negative shot differential of -210 and a goal differential of -28 (28th in the league).
In the grand scheme of things, being constantly outshot has them cumulating a .488 win percentage, good for 25th in the league. However, their 40 points in 41 games is a slight improvement over the 35 points they amassed last year in the same period – though these extra points seem to come from overtime “loser” points.
One of the positive storylines of this Montreal Canadiens’ team is the emergence of young defenceman Jayden Struble. While Arber Xhekaj (who was having a good start to the season before getting injured) is working on the defensive side of his game in Laval, Struble seized the opportunity given to him and is making a case to never be sent down again.
Here's the whole sequence. Refs ignore a cross check on Suzuki and it precipitates the Struble hit and fight. pic.twitter.com/394nkC5f4B
— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) December 23, 2023
On the other end, it’s been a rocky ride for Mike Matheson and Justin Barron. While they’re finding some success offensively, their performance can vary greatly from one game to another, and can sometimes cause more harm than not when dressed, with some head-scratching decisions. Barron’s limited experience and Matheson’s lion’s share of ice time could be justifying factors, but at some point either they’ll need to adjust, or the coaches should.
With their impending arrival, Lane Hutson and David Reinbacher could considerably shake the makeup of this defensive squad. Perhaps something we will see as early as this spring.
You’ve probably heard this before, but goaltending is compensating for the Montreal Canadiens’ shortcomings. In layman’s terms, it’s saving their bacon.
Jake Allen managed to steal a few games at the start of the season before cooling down and seeing fewer starts.
Cayden Primeau is showing tremendous strides in his game and Samuel Montembeault continues to build on what was a banner season for him, last year – a great way to reward Kent Hughes’ vote of confidence, which came in the form of a three-year, 9.45 M$ contract extension.
While this Habs squad is 24th in the league in Expected Goals Against, they are only ninth in Goals Against.
Well, they can thank their goaltenders, as the Montreal Canadiens are fourth in Save Percentage Above Expected on Unblocked Shots (among other goaltending metrics that shine a positive light on their performance).
It’s easy to fathom how much lower they could be in the standings with average goaltending.
Truly a dead ringer of the Carey Price era…
SAMUEL MONTEMBEAULT! pic.twitter.com/KuItIKBayx
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) January 7, 2024
Ultimately, the Montreal Canadiens don’t look remotely close to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender – but rather to a lottery team propped up by good goaltending.
The offensive struggles, lack of defensive success, and above-average goaltending indicate so. And the sample size is sufficient to make the call. The two upcoming match-ups against the Oilers and Avalanche should seal the deal.
It would be a mistake for Hughes to attempt a last-ditched effort to push for a playoff berth by adding talent at the trade deadline, rather than offload some.
Parting with the likes of Sean Monahan, Jake Allen, and others, could help garner assets for future trades, augment ice time for young players like Emil Heineman, Cayden Primeau, or Jesse Ylönen, but most of all, improve the team’s odds of a high pick at the upcoming draft, in the pursuit of much-needed scoring help.