Nothing at all has changed for the Montreal Canadiens. During the 2015-16 season, both goalie Carey Price and forward Brendan Gallagher were injured, and, just like then, the Habs still need their forward back to a larger degree.
Price Returns to Lineup
Even the injuries are the same for crying out loud, with Gallagher currently out with a broken thumb. Back then it was a broken finger. Meanwhile, Price has returned from a nagging lower-body injury (just like in 2015). With Price returning against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, the Habs listlessly lost 4-0 to the last-place team in the North Division, making it crystal clear they need Gallagher back to a greater extent.
The Canadiens had coincidentally been missing both players since April 5, when the Habs pulled out an emotional 3-2 overtime, comeback victory over the Edmonton Oilers. Since then, they’ve gone 2-5.
While backup Jake Allen sustained a mediocre .900 save percentage in the five games he played in Price’s absence, the general consensus is he’s been better than the stats say. True, at the end of the day, he wasn’t able to get the job done, but, as has been the case since the start of the season, his goal support was severely lacking in those games. The Habs scored just 11 goals in the six games he played in that span, less than two per game.
The Subban Trade as Historical Context
For some additional background, the Habs also coincidentally managed just 11 goals in their embarrassing six-game, first-round loss to the New York Rangers in 2017. The defeat sparked somewhat of an identity crisis, especially since it came the season after the infamous P.K. Subban-Shea Weber trade, with the Nashville Predators reaching the third round and then the Stanley Cup Final for the first time ever with Subban on the back end.
Now, thankfully, this piece isn’t going to be another analysis of that trade. However, there are some parallels in that the 2015-16 season beforehand, after which Subban was effectively scapegoated, the Canadiens similarly shot out of a cannon with a historic 9-0 start, only to miss the playoffs due in large part to the injuries to Gallagher and Price.
To be clear, Gallagher was in the lineup for that 2017 first-round loss. So, his presence is not necessarily a cure-all. However, if you listen to what the Canadiens themselves are saying, they sorely miss what Gallagher brings to the lineup. For example, following the latest loss to the Sens, forward Paul Byron told the media it’s on everybody to replace Gallagher by committee. Furthermore, defenseman Ben Chiarot, who himself has just returned from a fractured hand, said the Habs need to create more chances around the net.
“We have lots of guys up front and on the back end who can create offense. I think first of all going to that area… There’s usually some punishment doled out when you want to stand in front of the net or in the slot,” he said. “We’ve got to be better at that.”
If that’s not Gallagher to a tee, nothing is. However, Chiarot also hit the nail on the head in one other way, speaking to how the depth the Canadiens now have up front that they arguably didn’t back in 2015-16. Beyond Gallagher, Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, putting up the only 30-goal season of his career, the Habs didn’t have much in the way of offensive talent. They now do, with arguably three lines that can score on paper, even without Gallagher in the lineup. The problem is they’re not performing as expected.
What’s Wrong with the Canadiens?
Part of issue stems from the condensed schedule. To illustrate just how bad it is following their impromptu lay-off due to the NHL COVID-19 protocol, the Canadiens are set to play their third game in four nights on Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers, followed immediately thereafter by another set of three games in four nights.
The fact that the Canadiens are without a top-end, left-handed puck-moving defenseman to play with Shea Weber is arguably a larger factor. After all, Pacioretty and the Habs suffered through similar issues following the departure of Andrei Markov in 2017. Without someone to adequately move the puck up ice and transition to the offensive zone, Pacioretty scored just 17 goals in 2017-18, effectively half his normal output. He’s since regained his knack for scoring goals with the Vegas Golden Knights.
However, considering how the Canadiens opened up the season with 33 goals in their first seven games when healthy, the potential (and talent) is there. Now, because every other North Division team has had the chance to adapt following a shortened training camp, the Habs obviously won’t regain the same offensive form up front, but it’s not unrealistic to believe they should be able to put the puck in the net with some regularity when everyone is going, yet another main talking point on the part of the Canadiens, how that’s what it takes for them to be successful. To get going, you need an engine though, which is how Gallagher’s been described, by his very own teammates, as the heart of this team.
Biologically speaking, there is only one heart. One would have hoped the Canadiens would have been able to find some way to adapt without Gallagher, survival of the fittest and all that, especially after five seasons, but here we are. Thankfully, Gallagher is poised to return for the playoffs and, despite their struggles, there’s very good reason to believe the Canadiens will still make them. If they don’t, you’ll know why: a systemic inability to learn from past mistakes.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.