The Canadiens might finally be relevant again

It’s still early, but the season is short, and Montreal is on fire.
It’s still early, but the season is short, and Montreal is on fire.
Photo: Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens are the most important team in the NHL. If you don’t believe it, just ask them or any one of their fans. When scrolling through your NHL.TV or Center Ice package, you have to make sure to add 12 minutes to any scheduled start time for games in Montreal, thanks to whatever pregame ceremony they’re running that night to celebrate their perceived place. There can be no hockey without them, as we all know.

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While you might be tempted to point out that most of the Canadiens’ “tradition” is based on a time when there were just six teams and they may or may not have been gaming the system to essentially harvest any player out of Quebec, really the only cudgel you need to point out the Canadiens are something like the Chicago Bears of the NHL is that they’ve been to two conference finals in 27 years. They may have helped start the league, but their esteem is all based in ancient history at this point.

We may only be 17 percent through a condensed schedule, and some of the other top-tier teams have struggled to even get their games in, and may continue to do so for a while, but the Habs currently sit atop the entire NHL with 16 points in 10 games, having only lost once in regulation. And by every metric, they belong there.

So what are they doing now atop the mountain where they’ve always claimed to reside, but actually haven’t seen in decades? Well, it’s kind of the Carolina Hurricanes model of the past few years. The Canadiens don’t really have a star outside of the crease, and Carey Price might not even qualify as one anymore anyway.

No, the Habs are the kind of team hockey media tends to lose its mud over, in that they’re populated by guys who would be in the “worker bee” or proletariat category. What they are is packed with speed among their forwards. Of their top-12 forwards in ice-time, the only one who wouldn’t be labeled as having above average speed is Corey Perry, because shit-demons tend to move pretty slowly, especially elderly shit-demons.

So while the Habs might not have any glitterati, the dropoff from their first line to their third is barely noticeable, and that’s especially true when it comes to the pace at which they play. Coach Claude Julien has been one of the better coaches in the league for a long while, and he’s not so full of himself that he can’t recognize what he has and give them instructions too much more complicated than “go fuck shit up as fast as you can.” The Canadiens have a hellish forecheck thanks to their speed, sending two forwards after the puck below the other team’s goal line as if their balls had just been singed. They pressure the points in their own end just about as aggressively as any other team in the league. They can do this knowing they have the speed to recover, and the forecheck allows a still slow-ish defense at points to push up the ice and make entry into their zone complicated. With all that speed, any chase for a loose puck — and there are plenty thanks to the Habs’ speed — is likely to favor them.

All of it has led the Habs to being one of the best possession teams in the league. In fact, the best. Their share of attempts per game is second behind Carolina, at 57.9 percent. Their expected-goals share, a good measure of the types of chances they’re getting and giving up (and more descriptive than just attempts) is a league-best 59.3 percent. For reference, Vegas led in expected-goals percentage last year at 56 percent.

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This isn’t the first time the Canadiens have done this. They were one of the league’s better teams on paper last year, too. But they ran into the same problems the Hurricanes do every year, where they sit among the leaders in “process,” i.e. keeping the puck in the right end of the ice and generating better chances. They had no sharp end of the stick, nor any finish. It doesn’t matter if you generate the most and best chances if you can’t finish them, and it doesn’t matter if you can’t stop the other team from finishing theirs. Price was the definition of middling last year, and the Canadiens shot just 7.4 percent, sixth-worst in the league.

Price hasn’t been any better so far this year, but backup Jake Allen has been superlative in his four starts, rocking a .930 save-percentage. Meanwhile, at the other end the Habs have finally made it to the fireworks factory, shooting 10.4 percent.

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The leader of this revival has been free agent pickup Tyler Toffoli, who has nine goals and 13 points in 10 games. Now is Toffoli a 73-goal scorer? Of course he isn’t. We have more than enough evidence to know that he’s a solid second-line contributor. But at the moment, he’s pulling rabbits like this out of his hat.

https://twitter.com/NHL/status/1356780230862647298

Let us pray that Jordie Benn had all his affairs in order before this.

Toffoli isn’t the only one wreaking mayhem in a Canadiens system designed for it. Josh Anderson, acquired for Nepotism All-Star Max Domi, has six goals and might be the fastest of all their forwards. Anderson had teased being a souped-up power forward in the past, but injuries and general Columbus malaise that seems to eventually afflict everyone there has kept him from that. Nick Suzuki, Anderson’s linemate and the prize of the Max Pacioretty deal, has 11 points.

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Can they keep this up? Well no, not all of it. Toffoli is not going to score on a quarter of his shots all season. And if he does, time will indeed be a flat circle. But he is getting better chances than he has at any point in his career, with an individual expected-goals rate the highest he’s managed so far. So it’s not all a mirage. Same goes for Anderson, who’s getting more chances and more shots than ever before. They’re not this, but career years are also not out of the question for either or both.

Combine that with having two of the better defensive centers in the game in Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi behind that top line and a host of annoying and quick wingers like Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, Paul Byron, and Joel Armia, and the one thing we know is that they Habs will be a stone-bitch to play against most nights.

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In a normal season, playing less than a fifth of the schedule can lead to false dawns. It’s even more accentuated in this one thanks to the intra-division only setup. Montreal has played Vancouver in literally half their games, and Vancouver is probably at best a representative NHL team. They’ve played Edmonton twice (definitely suck), Calgary twice (can’t seem to decide whether they suck or not), and the Leafs once. They’ll get two hanging curveballs this week in the Senators, before three games with the Leafs over the next two weeks that might, might give us more of a picture of what they truly are.

But this is this season. There’s no standout team in the North, other than maybe the Leafs. And they can only reach the bar of “maybe” on that. The Habs might just get to be this all year because they won’t see who can stop them from being so until the third round of the playoffs.

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