Just as few could have predicted at the start of the season that the Florida Panthers would be the hottest team in hockey and riding high atop the Atlantic Division in January, it would have been tough to predict the state in which the Montreal Canadiens currently find themselves.
Montreal came flying out of the gate 9-0 to start the season. The Habs’ success was always going to be a delicate balance, however. If they were going to reclaim the Atlantic crown, goaltender Carey Price had to be as sublime as he was last season. When he went down with a lower-body injury on November 25, he had played only 12 games. He’d suffered what is believed to be a similar injury earlier this season and is not expected back until after the All-Star break at the end of the month. The Canadiens are 23-17-3 but have won just three of their last 10 games.
Yes, the “Montreal without Price” narrative has been played nearly to death, but you would think by this point team management would understand that what is needed to salvage the season are changes to the roster that can deliver immediately.
Price had a .934 save percentage when he was injured. Since then, the barely adequate trifecta of Mike Condon, the recently departed Dustin Tokarski and the recently acquired Ben Scrivens have managed a paltry .891. But going out and acquiring a starting goaltender is obviously out of the question. The Habs will be forced to ride out Price’s injury and hope that by the time he returns they’re still within striking distance of a playoff berth. However, their changes should be swift and drastic.
The Habs have been continually hit by injuries, the latest being defenseman Jeff Petry, who is now day-to-day with a lower body injury. Forward Brendan Gallagher was sidelined for all of December by two broken fingers and while he was incredibly effective in his return for the Winter Classic, Montreal has since dropped two of three. Both losses came against teams outside of the playoffs.
Since Price’s latest injury, the Canadiens have the third-lowest goals-for total in the NHL. Even with Gallagher and leading scorer Max Pacioretty, Montreal has struggled to score as a collective. It is mind-boggling that they handled Alex Semin the way they did: He was a possession driver and almost certainly could’ve contributed more offensively had he been given more ice time.
But the ill-fated Semin experiment was a bargain for a team that doesn’t exactly have a lot of wiggle room under the cap. Now that the trade market has opened up after the flurry of deals that occurred last week, the Canadiens cannot wait much longer. They have just a three-point playoff cushion and cannot waste another month waiting for Price to return. If they’re going to roll with the goaltenders they have, they should accept that allowing more goals is an inevitable reality and see what they can do about scoring more.
If Petry’s injury isn’t a serious one, it’s about time for the Canadiens to part ways with 37-year old defenseman Andrei Markov in an attempt to find more offense. In December, coach Michel Therrien moved Markov off the top unit. “I didn’t like the pairing of (Andrei) Markov and (P.K.) Subban, so I decided to change it,” Therrien said. It is believed that he was also trying to softly manage Markov’s minutes so the aging blueliner would be ready for a deep playoff run.
But now, that playoff run is hardly a guarantee.
Markov isn’t the player he used to be (only 12 even strength points this season), so the Canadiens should be able to survive without the veteran leadership he brings to the dressing room if it means bringing in immediate offensive help.
His contract (AAV of $5.75 million for this season and next) isn’t exactly an albatross, but it’s not one that teams will be eagerly lining up to take off Montreal’s books either. However if acquiring a veteran defenseman starts to make sense for a sure playoff-bound team, it could help convince Markov to waive his no trade clause.
Look, the core of the Canadiens is a good one and there are more than a few untouchables on the roster. In the short-term, moving Markov for a second- or third-line scorer might not present the best optics. But with their next four games against the Bruins, the Blues, and two against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, things could quickly go from bad to worse especially with the Lightning, who are currently three points behind with a game in hand, showing signs of emerging from their struggles.
Waiting until the Feb. 29 trade deadline could be too late. In the short-term, something must be done for the Canadiens to stop the bleeding.