Plus/Minus: Habs Defense and Goaltending

The 2010-11 NHL season is still in its infancy but there are already so many ups and downs for pretty much every team in the league.

Well, ups and downs is maybe not the right way to looks at it. Perhaps positives and negatives is more accurate. Some teams are scoring tons of goals but their goaltender can’t stop a beach ball. Others have an outstanding power play but no 5-on-5 scoring. The Montreal Canadiens, like all other teams in the league, are not immune to these early season pluses and minuses.

So, with their first five games of the season in the books—and an unusually long four-day break from play—I thought it was a good time to look at what is working and what isn’t in this first edition of what I am calling Plus/Minus.

The Defense

- On the plus side, let’s start with the best and most solid defensive pairing, and that is Josh Gorges and Hal Gill.

As they did during the playoffs last season, this pair is showing that they are simply indispensable to the Canadiens lineup. Blocking shots, often assigned to shut down the opposition’s big guns, and continually being the Habs top shutdown duo.

Gorges, in particular, is excelling in every area of play, even getting time—and a game winning goal—on the power play. The numbers don’t lie: Five games played, three points (one goals, two assists) with average time on ice of 23:48—tops among all Habs defenders.

-Roman Hamrlik looks to have picked up where he left off at the beginning of last season. Not the end, but the beginning—as he looked like he had played too many minutes by the end of last season. Since his return, he has been a rock on the back end and is helping to stabilize a Canadiens’ D-corp that is sorely missing Andrei Markov.

-P.K. Subban—who has strangely been paired with a so far ineffective Spacek—has looked very good and very bad at times.

The good part of his game is his creativity, on-ice vision, strength, speed and skill with the puck. He has excellent positioning on the ice and is able to win physical battles and dig pucks out of the corners. Moreover, he has a great first pass and has the ability to make brilliant end-to-end rushes.

The problem so far for Subban, is that he has not yet learned how to pick his spots. In the Canadiens first home game for example—against the Buffalo Sabres—Subban seemed like he was trying to play to the crowd rather than just focusing on his game. Watching his play that night you could see he was often pinching at the wrong time, missing defensive assignments, and trying low-percentage plays. The result was a lot of turnovers and scoring chances against the Canadiens.

Subban is a young, talented player who just needs to simplify his game. He is trying to do too much and maybe he should just try and do a little less. That will come with time and experience, however, and is nothing to worry about.

-Alexandre Picard and Ryan O’Byrne were paired together for a few games before Jacques Martin et al. finally broke up that disastrous duo. The duo seemed to have terrible or non-existent communication on the ice, were constantly out of position, and were getting easily beat by the opposition. They were playing like two individuals rather than a duo, and that is never a good thing for a defensive pairing.

-Since Hamrlik’s return to the lineup, it has been O’Byrne who has been sitting in the press box to the benefit of Picard. While Hamrlik has been a steadying influence on the Habs back end, his Czech compatriot, Jaroslav Spacek, has been absolutely horrendous. One assist, minus-1, averaging 21:34 ice time and paired with Subban, Spacek has been the weak link in that duo. He is just not working out with P.K. and I’m not sure why the coach has kept them together so long. You would have thought that Martin would have put Subban and Hamrlik together once the latter returned from injury, but that has not yet happened.

Spacek is not a useless player but the number of mistakes and giveaways that he has been making is horrendous. Spacek is getting beat one-on-one, standing still, and that is never something that you should see from a veteran defenseman.

Spacek has, to a large degree, looked like maybe age has caught up to him as he doesn’t seem to be able to keep us with the pace of the play. You’ve got to hope that this is just early season rust because the Habs still have one more year on Spacek’s contract.

Goaltending

I’ll make this short and sweet: Carey Price is assuming his responsibilities and doing all of the things he needs to in order to be successful.

Thought I would be gushing more?

Don’t get me wrong, because Price’s play so far has been the brightest spot in a team filled with bright spots, this season. With five games played, three wins, one loss, one overtime loss, a 2.57 GAA, and a .914 save percentage, Price has been playing some of the best hockey of his NHL career. Were it not for a few defensive errors and slips by his teammates, the Canadiens could very easily be 5-0-0 right now.

The most refreshing thing that I’ve seen has been the players rallying around Price and producing offense when their goaltender needs it. We all know that a big part of Price’s disastrous 2009 season was due to his team’s inability to score goals in front of him. So far this season, there have been two occasions where Price let in a weak goal or two, and in both cases the team in front of his was able to mount a comeback and at least tie, if not win, the game.

Tomorrow, I’ll give my breakdown of the Canadiens forwards and special teams.


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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Plus/Minus: Habs Forwards and Special Teams | INSIDE HOCKEY - October 21, 2010

    [...] Canadiens | 21. Oct, 2010 by Kamal Panesar | 0 Comments In part one of Plus/Minus, I reviewed the Canadiens’ defense and goaltending so far. Granted, it is only five games into the season, but there have been a lot of good and bad [...]