Week 18 in One Word: Riddle

March 7, 2022

riddle

/ˈridl/

something that is confusing, or a problem that is difficult to solve

Similar: puzzle, conundrum, question, mystery, stumper

to make a lot of holes in something

The 18th week of action for the Montreal Canadiens featured three games. Tuesday’s game in Winnipeg was an up and down affair and a hat trick from Josh Anderson was not enough in an 8-4 loss. Nick Suzuki led the way in an exciting 5-4 overtime win in Calgary on Thursday. The Saturday game was in Edmonton brought fans to their feet again in a 5-2 win.

Here’s how I saw Week 18 go down.

The most important thing Martin St. Louis has accomplished so far is removing the riddles from the Habs equation.  

Soon after Marty’s hire, Jeff Petry offered some commentary on what had changed in defensive zone coverage. He said the game plan was simpler, with less switching, and less time spent in the D-zone.

Mathieu Perreault, after working his way back after injury, also had comments about Marty. “He’s so smart” and “All the things he says just make sense.”

Andrew Hammond joined the team after Marty’s hire and noted he was impressed by how the coach “thinks the game.”

After his big game in Calgary, Nick Suzuki commented on the effectiveness of the Marty-constructed top line. “We’ve had a good line so far; it’s nice to play with the same guys over and over again. You can build that chemistry.”

Then on Sunday Brett Kulak added his impressions of the new coach after a big personal performance in Edmonton. “I think, personally, the biggest difference I’ve noticed is I’m just playing hockey. I’m not out there running through the checklist in my mind of where I’m supposed to be at that given moment or what I’m supposed to do exactly. I think I’m just playing the game, reading and reacting, and I think that’s our whole system right now and it’s allowing us to play better and we’re just kind of dictating the game right now. It’s guys jumping up in the play and there’s no hesitation in our game anywhere. Just executing really well.”

In just a few weeks it appears St. Louis has solved a riddle that confounded Ducharme all season – the players want to play for him. The irony for Ducharme is that the riddle was of his own making.

In one game in Winnipeg, the riddle that is this season’s Habs was on full display.  

The team that started the game looked like the one we saw for most of the season. Slow to start, sloppy in their own end and goaltending that is riddled with holes. They suffered four straight goals against in the first ten minutes to begin the game. Then Josh Anderson put on a show and by early in the second period the game was tied. Then the Jets scored four – yes four – unanswered power play goals to win it. Not a great night for special teams.

This game was an excellent reminder, in a series of exciting wins under St. Louis, that there are still holes on this Habs team. Laurent Dauphin is not a second line centre, and neither are Jake Evans or Ryan Poehling. The closest thing the Habs have to a top pair defenceman is Jeff Petry, and he’s on his way out. There are some interesting kids in the Habs pipeline, but none of them are elite or close to ready. Then there is the goaltending situation which is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Churchill would say.

Let’s not be fooled by a few wins. There are still some riddles to solve, and HuGo shouldn’t hesitate to make the big moves necessary.

The entire team has been riddled with injuries this season, but the situation in net is a riddle beyond solving.

We don’t need to recount the injury story, or the Carey Price unexpected absence story. Those are well known. The riddle that is the Habs net is beyond joke-making at this point.

Sam Montembeault has been up and down like a roller coaster. We’d consider it an improvement if we could say that about Cayden Primeau. In a tiny bit of brilliance HuGo brought in Andrew Hammond, and the Hamburgler was just what the doctor ordered. HuGo followed with another slick bit of business, giving Michael McNiven the new home he wanted, and freeing up a contract.

Apparently, you cannot play net for the Habs this season and escape unscathed. Hammond is now injured, Jake Allen is not yet ready, and Primeau has returned as the back-up. At this point I’d throw Cedric Paquette in net if he wasn’t always injured himself.

Where the Habs net is concerned, as Emerson would say, all is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle.

The Habs took a giant step in solving their player development riddle this week.

On Friday the Canadiens announced the hire of Adam Nicholoas as the director of player development. Nicholas had been with the Toronto Maple Leafs since 2019 as a skills development consultant.

If Marc Bergevin is ever hired by another NHL team, you can guess that the hiring panel does not value player development. Take this in, if you can – the Montreal Canadiens did not have a skills coach under Bergevin. Why did the Habs struggle to graduate their picks to the next level? No riddles to see here.

Solving the Habs riddle may not be a marathon, but it’s also more than a sprint.

The riddle on everyone’s mind where the Habs are concerned is this – how deep will the rebuild be? When HuGo took control of the ship, the team was mired in losses and there were many calls to strip the thing to the bare bones and start over.

HuGo never saw it that way. They immediately acknowledged the good young pieces to build around and specifically named Suzuki and Caufield. Marty’s success since he took over is exemplified in those two kids, and the HuGo first impression is confirmed.

Kent Hughes said something else. My favourite quote from Hughes at the presser that introduced Martin St. Louis as the new coach was this. “There will be changes. This is the first of several.” I am convinced we will see big changes for the Habs – on the ice and off – over the next 18 months.  

In 2001, leadership guru Jim Collins wrote a book called Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap… and others don’t. The book is famous for a quote that I think nails what is happening around the Habs right now. Collins said, “Good is the enemy of great.” Applied to the Habs we can say it this way – if we fall in love with a good Habs team we may be sacrificing the opportunity for a great Habs team.

That’s what I see in fans falling in love again with players like Ben Chiarot and Artturi Lehkonen. Fans watched Bergevin tinker around the edges for a decade and can no longer imagine what it would be like to see a truly transformed roster that includes some elite players.

HuGo knows the Habs are a good team. They intend to build a great team.

Another riddle on the minds of Habs fans and pundits is just how many players will be gone when the trade deadline strikes at 3 p.m. EST on March 21st. Some think what happens in the next two weeks will be the tell in how deep the rebuild goes. I’m not convinced.

I’m looking at six significant junctures for the Habs – trade deadline 2022 and 2023, amateur draft 2022 and 2023, and free agency in the summer of 2022 and 2023. In 18 months the Habs will be in training camp for the 2023-24 season and by then the riddle will be all but solved.

HuGo seems intent on solving the Habs riddle but it won’t happen in a sprint.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

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