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Week 1 in One Word: Tardy

tar·dy /ˈtärdē/ delaying or delayed beyond the right or expected time; late. Similar: late, unpunctual, behind time, behind schedule, delayed, slow slow in action or response; sluggish.

The Montreal Canadiens have entered Week 1 of the 2021-22 season into the history books. The week featured two road games – in Toronto on Wednesday and Buffalo on Thursday – and a Saturday night home opener at the Bell Centre. Here’s what I saw shake down.

Game 1 was a disorganized affair with a couple of bright spots.

The Habs got off to a strong start. It was the Drouin-Dvorak-Anderson line that came out looking particularly dangerous, and it was that line that opened the scoring when Anderson fed Drouin on a sweet 2-on-1. That would be the only time Montreal would light the lamp. The Leafs tied the game on a first period power play goal and William Nylander fired a beauty in the third for the winner. The Habs lost 2-1.

Jake Allen was brilliant in net for the Habs. The netminder, in addition to the Dvorak line, were the only bright spots. They looked like what they are – a team with a ton of off-season changes and players lost to injury that didn’t maximize the benefits of camp. Chemistry was lacking, particularly amongst the D group, most of which were playing together for the first time in the last pre-season game.

Power play woes continued from last season (and the one before that and the one before that and…) as the Habs were unable to capitalize on a 5-3. Well, forget capitalizing. They were hardly able to get out of their own end on the power play.

Disorganization dissolved into lethargy for Game 2.

It’s not odd for a team to show some lethargy in the second game of a back-to-back, but a family of sloths could be regarded as manic in comparison to the Habs on Thursday night. I saw a little urgency rearing its head about halfway through the third period, but it was too little too late.

The Buffalo Sabres dominated, a sentiment I expect to be rare this season. Three of their five goals were scored on the power play. Conversely, the Habs ineffectiveness with the man advantage continued and another 5-on-3 was squandered. Back-up goalie Samuel Montembeault was checking the rule books to see if he could put himself back on waivers on Friday.

The third game – the home opener – was marginally better, but nowhere near good enough.

I thought the Canadiens played with a little more urgency on Saturday than we had seen since the opening 10 minutes of Game 1. But it was still so much less energy than one would expect in the home opener following an emotional opening ceremony.

Jake Allen was fantastic in net. It was midway through the second before the Rags opened the scoring. Midway through the third, Drouin scored on a beautiful passing play with Dvorak to tie the game. But 26 second later, the visiting local kid reclaimed the lead for New York. An empty netter finished it. The Habs lost 3-1.

It’s odd to say mid-October, but Montreal needed this one. Earlier in the day pundits were reporting stats that indicated that teams who lose three games to start the season have not been very successful at making the playoffs.

So why are the Habs looking so bad?

Special teams are special for all the wrong reasons.

First of all, don’t let anyone tell you the Habs are missing Shea Weber on the power play and that’s why they look so bad. That power play has been putrid for years and hasn’t had a legit quarterback since Andrei Markov was allowed to walk. Zone entries look like a three-legged race on skates. They’ve got no one that can cruise the blue line looking for feeds. Passes are slow and telegraphed. Players are either immobile or being deployed in positions that don’t suit their strengths.

But here is the kicker. Absolutely every detail of that description was true with Weber in the line-up. It’s an ancient issue.

It’s been years of Bergevin’s failure to secure a puck-moving defenceman who could play the point on the power play, and years of coaching staffs who were unable to implement a system to make up for it. We’re used to the power play being this bad.

A weak penalty kill is a little less common in Habsland. Yes, there have been bumps along the road, but complete futility hasn’t been the case for the PK. In fact, the PK was excellent in last year’s playoffs. Here is where the Habs are missing Weber… and Phil Danault and Joel Edmundson and Paul Byron.

They’re slow to apply pressure on the zone entry. They’re slow to block passing and shooting lanes. They’re slow to adjust to fakes from the opposition. They’re slow to clear rebounds.

You might say they are tardy.

The off-season brought dramatic changes for the Habs down the middle.

Nick Suzuki took over the 1C job in last season’s playoffs, but he had a ton of support from Danault, who is now a Los Angeles King. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, though inconsistent, was developing into a solid 3C who would move up the line-up. He’s now a Carolina boy. Jake Evans needed help to find his way at 4C last year, and he has suddenly inherited the 3C role with expectations to take over Danault’s defensive duties.

Suzuki and Evans are the two returning pivots. Christian Dvorak’s addition is a very good one, and he has been solid through three games. Cedric Paquette is a nice piece to have in the line-up, but I’m not sure he’s an everyday NHLer.

New centres means new forward lines, and only Dvorak’s line has looked good consistently. Otherwise, the players look out of sync. Passing to open spaces where no one is waiting because they’ve not yet learned each other’s habits. Offsides. Missed plays. It’s all to be expected with the amount of turnover they experienced, but the delay in finding that chemistry is hurting.

You might say they are tardy.

It’s also worth looking at the face-off situation.

As you can see from this chart, only one of the centremen is a reliable face-off man. He’s taking the lion’s share of draws. That impacts every element of the game. Power plays, penalty kills, five-on-five, late-game situations. The Habs can’t be dependent on one guy to get it done.

The defence group is both poorly constructed and poorly deployed, and it’s killing the Habs.

Fans are clamouring for line changes today. Ducharme can juggle until every circus on the planet is calling his name and it won’t fix what’s wrong. The offence will always be marred by the lack of balance on the back end.

Losing Shea Weber was big. Losing Edmundson, I would argue, was just as painful for this season’s Habs. Hopefully #44 is back soon and can bring some stability as a legitimate top-4 defenceman. But the issue, really and truly, is balance. The Habs have one valid puck-moving defenceman.

Brett Kulak is one, but the coaching staff doesn’t really trust him. Alexander Romanov may grow into one. Chris Wideman shows enough to make us long for one. Then you have the flock of stay at home guys – Bergevin adds one to the fold every summer. Edmundson, Chiarot and Savard. Three guys who are secure in the top six, no matter how many icings, or how many discipline penalties, or how slow.

That might be manageable if the other three guys were solid puck movers, and if each pair had one. But neither is the case.

Ducharme is bound and determined to play Chiarot and Savard. Fans make jokes about it. Pundits do radio hits about how they’re worried about this specific pair. But Ducharme will be the absolute last guy to ever acknowledge it’s not working.

You might say he’s tardy.

The Habs are busy working out kinks that should have been worked out in training camp.

Remember when we used to marvel at what Ducharme had accomplished in the face of adversity? And how we’d wonder at what he might be capable of with a full training camp? Good times, them.

In all three games, the Habs looked like what they are – a team holding training camp. They had enormous turnover in the off-season and came to camp with injuries. They needed this camp badly – not the random players who may never play in the NHL – the million-dollar men needed this camp.

All teams hold camp and invite their prospects and lower level players. All teams rotate in the veterans and let them ease in slowly. All teams mail it in a bit in those preseason games. But not every team had as much turnover as the Habs had in their off-seasons, and not all of them had a camp invitee list that looked like a Black Friday sale that wouldn’t end.

I talked about the problems on special teams. The season had begun, and it was not at all obvious who the power play units would be, or how they would set up. It’s still not. Each game is a surprise package. The power play is an embarrassment and has been for years. It needed to be a major focus of training camp. From day 1, it needed an urgency applied that we’re not seeing even three games in.

I mentioned the line chemistry because of the new centremen. Only the Dvorak line was consistent throughout camp, and shockingly, it’s the best line by far to start the season. Most lines carried an AHLer throughout.

The Habs D group was always going to struggle. They’re out of balance. Bergevin went yet another off-season without landing a legitimate puck-mover, which was their biggest need. Their success depended on Savard fitting in quickly and Romanov taking a big step forward from the guy Ducharme benched for most of the playoffs. Instead, the preseason saw veterans paired with young players who should not have even been in consideration to make the team. How many preseason games did each guy who made the team get with their actual partner? The answer is a very small number indeed.

So here we are, with three games done and three losses on the books and the Habs are busy doing all of the things that should have been the focus of training camp. Hopefully they can make up the ground quickly, but they’ve dug themselves a hole and other teams are already looking at them in the rearview mirror.

You might say they are tardy.

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