January 8, 2023
The first week of 2023 featured three games for the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs finished an arduous road trip on Tuesday in Nashville and the losing skid from 2022 continued, dropping this one 6-3. On Thursday, they were back at home to welcome the New York Rangers, but the 4-1 result was the same as the losses continued. The St. Louis Blues were in town for the Saturday night feature and the slump was broken as the Habs won 5-4.
On Monday, the coach tried to jolt his team out of losing skid with an arduous practice.
So far, Martin St. Louis has been Mr. Nice Guy. But with four consecutive regulation losses and a December record of 4-9-2, it was time for the coach to administer some tough love. In Monday’s practice in Nashville, in the middle of the Moms’ trip, the players were subjected to that tough love in an attempt to jolt them out of their losing funk.
Marty followed that up by healthy scratching Joel Armia and moving Anthony Richard up to the second line. Juraj Slafkovsky was demoted to the fourth line again. While there were some signs of life, on the balance it didn’t work, and another loss to Nashville was the outcome.
The healthy scratch may have been the jolt Joel Armia needed.
Armia had a solid game against the New York Rangers on Thursday night, scoring once and almost notching a second. Unfortunately, it was the only goal scored in a 4-1 loss. On Saturday, Armia was strong again against the Blues, scoring two in the win. Three goals in two games since the healthy scratch – perhaps Marty’s tough love was successful after all.
The other point of note is that Armia’s success came on a line with Jake Evans and Evgenii Dadanov. The game against New York was the first time that this trio has come together, and it’s the best we have seen from all three players this season. Take note Marty.
I’ve been particularly concerned about Evans, who is accustomed to a rotating cast of wingers being the typical fourth line centre for the Habs. He has always managed to produce in that role. Last year he had 13 goals and 16 assists in 72 games. He’s at just one goal and nine assists in 40 games so far this season, and three of those assists have come in the last two games. Take note Marty.
It might be time to introduce some rookies to a developmental jolt.
The shift should be on – with the record what it is at this point of the season, surely we are close to shifting to a purely developmental approach. Much has been said about Juraj Slafkovsky and whether he would be sent to Laval before the 40 game mark last night. He played, impacting the time calculation for him to reach unrestricted free agent status.
Nothing I’ve heard from HuGo would lead me to believe that any decisions about Slaf would be made based on his ELC – they have only talked about what is best for his development and, at this point, it appears they see Montreal to be the best spot for him. I don’t think the ELC issue will prevent them from sending Slafkovsky to Laval at a later time if they feel it is best.
If he is remaining in Montreal, they need to set him up for success. The jolt he needs is not coming alongside Jake Evans and, frankly, playing with Slaf hasn’t been good for Evans either. They have been a pair for 17 of 40 games this season, and the number should top out right there. Michael Pezzetta, who I am convinced is not an NHLer, completed the trio on too many of those 17. This is not a developmental pathway for the Habs prized rookie.
It may become beneficial to send some others to Laval – that rotation of defensemen in and out of Laval that they promoted before the season began may not be the worst idea if the losses continue to pile up and if they see trends that can be focal points at a lower level. In the meanwhile, if they’re keeping Justin Barron in Montreal he should be on the ice, not in the press box. The coaching staff may need a little jolt message from management about the purpose of this season.
This return to earth, after a solid start to the season, may be the jolt needed to clarify where the Habs are headed.
Do you remember the early weeks of the season when folks were thinking maybe the Habs would make the playoffs? In one interview Jeff Gorton was asked if they would be buyers should Montreal be in playoff contention come February. Looking back, it was fairly obvious that Gorton did not expect to be a buyer. He knew.
Management and coaching staff began the season by setting some clear expectations for fans and pundits. This was a developmental year, and developing young talent would be prioritized over wins. But then the wins came anyway, perhaps by the same adrenaline that was fueling fans after an inspirational off-season. It was enough to create some doubt about just how deep this rebuild might need to be.
There’s nothing like an ugly losing streak to provide a jolt back to reality. Settle in for the next window of change.