Montreal Canadiens

Should fans worry about slow Canadiens start?

New York Rangers' Mika Zibanejad (93) celebrates after scoring a goal past Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in the third period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in New York. The Rangers won 2-0. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
AP Photo/Adam Hunger

It has not been a particularly inspiring start for the Montreal Canadiens.

After losing to Chicago on Monday night, a game that saw them score just a single goal, they fell to 1-3-0 on the young season, have yet to win a game in regulation, and have only actually played with the lead in a game for about 16 minutes. Overall, they have scored just four goals in four games, and their biggest offseason acquisition, Jonathan Drouin, has registered just a single assist.

Not great.

Given that this is Montreal, a team that still seems to have Stanley Cup aspirations this season, there is going to be some level of panic about that slow start.

How much of that panic is justified, and is there a reason to actually be worried about this team?

The easy answer to this is no, that early season panic is most certainly not justified. Even though the early season results are not what the Canadiens or their fans want to see — on both a team and individual level — there probably is not reason to be too worried about them.

That’s not to say that they aren’t concerns both short-term and long-term.

They still do not seem to have an answer to that No. 1 center question, though it is fair to point out that the Drouin experiment is only four games old.

They don’t have a particularly mobile or puck-moving defense, something that can hold back even the most talented teams up front. They have also hitched their wagon to a goalie (a great one, it is worth noting) and a defenseman for the next eight years at a combined salary cap hit of more than $18 million per season. Both players are over the age of 30. There is no other franchise in the league built around similar players.

There are a lot of things to question here.

But let’s try to focus strictly on the short-term, because it is probably not as bad as it seems.

It is a case study in process vs. results.

So far, the results stink. But the process at least seems to be sound, especially when you look at each individual result.

The only game where the Canadiens were really not competitive was that 6-1 blowout loss in Washington in Game 2 of the season.

Beyond that, they have done a lot of things well.

They dominated their game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers only to have two early goals disallowed and then get shut down by Henrik Lundqvist. Their game on Monday against Chicago saw them outshoot the Blackhawks by a 42-25 margin.

Overall, the Canadiens are averaging 39 shots on goal, the fifth-best mark in the league.

They already have 206 total shot attempts during 5-on-5 play, by far the most in the league, and their 5-on-5 shot attempts percentage of 60.4 percent is second-best in the league, behind only a Florida Panthers team that — as of Tuesday — had only played two games.

They are getting pucks on net, they are dominating puck possession and at times they are controlling the pace of the game. They are doing a lot of things that will eventually lead to goals. Those goals simply are not coming right now in any situation. Their overall team shooting percentage of 2.6 percent is by far the worst in the league. The second-worst team, the Edmonton Oilers, is at 5.9 percent.

No team maintains a shooting percentage that low for an extended period of time. Eventually,  those percentages revert back to the mean, which is why shot volume (which the Canadiens currently have) is so important. Eventually, some of those pucks directed at the net are going to get deflected in. Or they are going to result in a second- or third-chance opportunity that ends up in the back of the net. There’s also the chance for a goalie to misplay one.

They also have yet to break through on the power play. Losing Andrei Markov from that role is obviously going to hurt a bit because he was still so good at it, even as recently as last season.  But they are not going to completely get shut out.

On an individual level, their two best and most important offensive players — Max Pacioretty and Drouin — have combined for one goal, even though both are averaging more than four shots on goal per game. Eventually, they will have their breakthrough, too. Pacioretty is one of the top goal scorers in the league, and Drouin is still an incredible talent who has star potential. But even the best, most talented players are prone to slumps or scoring droughts.

The same is true for entire teams.

The NHL season is 82 games long. It is a grind. It is going to be filled with peaks and valleys,  where good teams and good players will go cold and lesser teams will get hot and score goals in bunches with lengthy winning streaks. When those streaks happen in the middle of the season we tend to overlook them, because there is such a large body of work around them that they kind of get lost in the season. But when they happen at the start of the season, when all eyes are still on everything and there is nothing else to compare it to, we tend to notice it a little more. Then we tend to rush to unfair decisions and inaccurate results.

Right now, the Canadiens are stuck in one of those slumps that is just happening at a time when everybody is going to notice it.

Is this team a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that can win it all? That remains to be seen. There are still enough question marks on the roster.

It is also not a team that is as bad as its early season record would indicate.

The process is there. If they stick with it, the results will soon follow.

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