Habs First Impressions: 2019-2020

Photo: @CanadiensMTL via Twitter

 

“I know it’s early but..” – Pundits across the league, gathering what data they can from a sample size of approximately 2 or 3 games.

 

Plenty of thoughts are circulating across the league for all 31 teams in the NHL, meaning the Habs are in the same situation as everyone else.  The beauty and peril of October hockey ring simultaneously with every shift as every player plays to –at the very least– not end up on the wrong side of the 8 ball come December.  Any idea surrounding the Habs right now, much like any other team at this point of the season, will come in rapid fire form and may very well be gone in another week’s time but with only one week of the season to observe thus far, this is what there is to work with.

 

  • Jonathan Drouin was considered to have had a bad season in 2018-2019 with 53 points by the end of it all.  Read that again.  If 53 points is a bad season, everyone should be on the edge of their seats for a good season in 2019-2020 and they may not have to wait long.  Jonathan Drouin claimed ahead of this season that he felt that he had “a bit more to give” and while his point totals are not staggering at the moment, he has been doing the right things on a shift by shift basis.  As long as he continues to the small things right, the big things will come as a result for a kid so talented.  Whatever the missing link was last season, it appears to be locked in now.

 

  • As expected, Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks more mature in every way.  The Habs 3rd overall pick from the 2018 entry draft beefed up over the summer.  After going the length of last season without a road goal, Kotkaniemi was quick to find the back of the net in the arenas of the opposition to get his sophomore season off on the right foot.  Every tool in his skill set appears to be that much sharper and more refined with such a young brain rapidly absorbing the experience he picked up at the tender age of 18; experience that will certainly prove itself valuable as the coming year runs on.

 

  • One does not simply discuss the experiences of last season without bringing up Ryan Poehling rocket launching himself into immortality in Bob Cole’s final game.  Finding one’s way into Habs lore is easier said than done with a franchise bearing a legacy older than the NHL itself but 3 goals on as many shots plus the shootout winner when the Habs needed a hero in a historic game is a sure way to do it.  Even with time missed in the preseason, Poehling came back for the remainder of it and did not miss a single beat.  Not to fault the team for airing on the side of caution with a player’s well being but he did not appear to need any time with the Laval Rocket.  Talk about a great player on the right side of youth and stack up the names of those that fit the bill of NHL ready: Ryan Poehling is at the top of the list and everyone will be seeing him in the big league again soon.

 

  • Alongside Ryan Poehling in the category of highly skilled youngsters wowing absolutely everyone through September was the piece in the return for former captain Max Pacioretty in Nick Suzuki.  As he gains his bearings in the NHL along the wing, the need for Suzuki –like many youngsters looking to make the transition– was to see how he would fare with the timing and pace of the NHL.  It was visible from the first game of camp that Suzuki’s intelligence, positioning and awareness would make that transition seamless.  What he showed against the Sabres in particular was that he can wisely apply pressure while remaining patient as he displayed tremendous hockey IQ and vision.  He was rewarded for forcing the Sabres into a mistake as Suzuki grabbed his first NHL point, an assist on the power play.  Playing meaningful minutes in the top six on even strength shifts plus having the faith of the coaching staff to play in all scenarios spells that he is here to stay for the Habs and the kind of help that brings to the much maligned power play will make a difference of thunderous proportions by the time Spring shows its face again.

 

  • Speaking of the Habs power play, the worst its been this season still looks better than almost anything it showcased at any point last season.  One visible difference is that when the Habs need to find their way back into the offensive zone, they do continue to stress the desire to attack with numbers but they are thinking less and acting more.  Instead of gingerly looking for the safest point of entry, the Habs brazenly explode through any opening that they can get before it has the chance to close on them all over again.  With these strides thus far, the room for improvement remains but the challenge is a more feasible task this year with some necessary adjustments and the personnel it evidently needed to bolster their efforts.

 

  • Ben Chiarot appears likely to have the next great love/hate relationship with the Habs faithful.  His transition into Claude Julien’s system is not going to happen overnight but with the likes of Joel Armia there to help him along, familiarity will hopefully breed comfort.  His mistakes have shown plainly in the early stages of these growing pains but he skates well for a defender of his stature, displaying comparatively silky agility and deceptively strong edge work along with that.  He is an upgrade over predecessors such as Karl Alzner (who showed well in preseason) and Jordie Benn on a blue line that still leaves something to be desired but this notion currently applies to most or all parties that compromise the Habs defensive unit.

 

  • The good and bad surrounding Claude Julien are the same as ever to start the season: with too many men penalties being called at an astonishingly higher rate than the past two seasons, his team continues to be maybe the guiltiest offenders in this category and that is not simply in jest to his time spent with the Bruins that now seems like a lifetime ago.  For a coach that has a reputation for communicating well, something is lost in translation there.  Meanwhile, Saturday night saw a spectacular comeback win over the Toronto Maple Leafs after being down 4-1 in the third period.  Julien is also an expert at getting his players to buy into what he is selling and that includes sticking to the game plan, scoreboard be damned.  As long as Julien can lead his team to reputation 4-1 comebacks to break the hearts of the Toronto Maple Leafs and their long suffering fans, he may never wear out his welcome in Montreal.

 

  • Nick Cousins is a horse of a different color on the Habs fourth line.  Should his back prove to have any serious ailments, the Habs will be missing a unique dimension in the depth of their roster.

 

  • Nate Thompson had looked out of place to say the least to start the season but answered nicely with some strong special teams work on Wednesday.  Unfortunately for Thompson, the Habs have no shortage of forwards and he could wind up a day late and a dollar short once the roster gets closer to being 100% healthy again.

 

  • These ones won’t be popular but they have to be said: Through about two games and two periods to kick off the season, Shea Weber had not looked good.  There is obviously no cause to panic yet but when other parties that are difficult to criticize in the likes of Phillip Danault and Paul Byron have shown lapses at times (though Byron certainly sparkled in the shootout against the Leafs) these are gaps that lead to penalty kill errors and a lack of gap control that led to Jack Eichel scoring a goal that new Hab Keith Kinkaid would certainly like to have back.

 

  • In spite of Keith Kinkaid not having the kind of display that would inspire may nights off for Carey Price as the season progresses, going on the road with a backup goalie and getting a point against a divisional foe is not a loss.  In a time where every team in the league has a statistical chance, having zero games settled in regulation thus far is just as symptomatic of the time of year as a blue line that leaves something to be desired as a unit.

 

No one likes to conclude anything on a sour note so an optimistic light should be cast here as best as it can be: while moving Andrew Shaw is perhaps as understandable as it is heartbreaking, trading the guy that is the prototypical definition of the type of player that gets his team through the playoffs may prove to be a bad move come April or May.

 

In looking for the next guy that is likeliest to deliver in a Shaw-esque fashion, eyes should be on Max Domi.  Max’s perfect blend of speed, skill, sandpaper and getting under the skin of the opposition creates an ideal hockey cocktail.  Spotted chirping the Leafs bench with the remark “Atta boy, Kapanen, you fuckin’ idiot!” after the struggling Leaf threw his broken stick at Jeff Petry before Petry tied the game on the ensuing penalty shot the way that a small child would throw a broken toy in a tantrum, Max Domi has set a high bar for himself in this season and future seasons alike.  All of this has observers wondering just what type of ceiling he would have when the spotlight and the resulting pressure he relishes in multiplies endlessly.

 

As answers present themselves in the coming weeks and months, so too will new questions.

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