The Montreal Canadiens with the Winnipeg Jets at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens would have to completely collapse to not make the playoffs but time to get back to winning, but not on Saturday night. Montreal is one and four in its last five after getting shutout at home 5-0.
Was there really anything of high quality to note here? Would we be just looking to fill a section for the sake of mentioning someone, anyone? Okay, Paul Byron and Tomas Tatar. They had some jump that ended in nothing. This section is over now … like the Habs season would have been playing like this, if they weren’t fortunate enough to be in a division with three horrific teams this season.
Dominique Ducharme is the top goat because he is making the Canadiens team have difficulties because of his own decisions. His usage is not working on many fronts, and these fronts are vital.
The most important is what he has done to the Canadiens’ defence. Shea Weber doesn’t have to have this much trouble getting out of his own zone. However, paired with another player who can not move the puck up well at all in Joel Edmundson, and you have a partnership that is so much worse than the individuals. In the last three games that they have started the game, in two they were scored on and in the one on Saturday night, they were almost scored on again. This is his top partnership and this is what happens in a stuck-at-home partnership.
There is no argument to be made here that it can be perfect for a club without enough puck movers on the blue line, but you don’t put your worst two puck movers together and then think you’re not going to be struggling to get out of your own zone.
Two of the better puck movers on the blue line are Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak. Don’t put them together. This is a pairing that has now less grit. Edmundson worked with Petry as one of the top pairings in the league because Petry could do all of the puck moving while relying on Edmundson to be taking care of the responsibilities and the puck battles. Break up the two pairs. Make Petry and Edmundson the go-to pairing with the most minutes. Reduce Weber’s minutes because you simply have to. Put him with Kulak and you have two more sensical pairings with at least one player having some ability to move the puck out of the zone.
The same Ducharme poor usage exists at the forward position as well. Eric Staal can’t do it like he could ten years ago. He’s not the same player. He’s slow. He’s not a second line centre with Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson on his flanks. This usage is not working. As good as Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been on the right side filling the spot vacated by Brendan Gallagher, he’s more valuable as a centre. The top three centres need to be the three centres who were responsible for the winning streaks that the club has had this year. Staal should be the fourth line centre on the club. He might just only be good enough for the wing, but let’s see fourth line first. There’s a good chance that Jake Evans is a better fourth line centre.
Staal was supposed to be a support piece. He wasn’t supposed to be expected to turn back the clock. The hope is that when Joel Armia returns, he takes the wing spot on Danalt’s line. That allows Kotkaniemi to go back to centre, and drops Staal down the depth chart.
They left everything that was working when they were winning games on a regular basis, and replaced it by throwing everything into a blender. It all got re-blended in the third period to see if he could ignite something. Kotkaniemi was put back at centre and Staal was dropped down the depth chart. We shall see what comes up Monday morning. Perhaps, the head coach has seen enough and will make big changes. Habs fans can only hope.
Usage being done right is important. You want to get the most out of your players, and they want that too. Give them a chance to shine, and they’ll appreciate you more.
One hour after winning the Hobey Baker Award, Cole Caufield began dominating the American Hockey League. In his first contest as a pro, he made it look easy. Even in the first shifts, Caufield was hunting the puck, and not being shy about it in the slightest. His period of adjustment seemed to last about 15 seconds.
He dominated the contest and made the rest of the players look like they were a level below him. He has a terrific shot as seen so many times during his time at Wisconsin that included a sophomore season when he scored 30 goals in 31 games. But he also has a lot more hockey sense and smarts than he gets credit for. His vision is outstanding already.
Caufield leapt to this level so easily, it didn’t look like he needs much time in Laval. The benefit though for the Canadiens organization is that they can be patient with him. The big club does not need Caufield at the moment. Montreal is basically locked in to a playoff spot, so with that target essentially reached, they don’t need to rush Caufield at all. He will spend more time with the puck at the AHL level, and that is extremely valuable. Never arrest a player’s development by jumping him up to a spot that he can’t get the puck enough. Let him prove night after night that he can own the puck at the AHL level. Let him develop skills with the puck. There is no reason to bring him up when he is not needed. The Habs are locked in. Caufield doesn’t change that.
Add to that, the NHL is a big leap. A great comparison is Trevor Zegras. He has been the best player at the junior level this season. He dominated the World Juniors. He was unstoppable. They tried him in Anaheim for 17 games and he got just one goal. They sent him back to the American Hockey League to play for the San Diego Gulls. It’s not easy, so when there is no hurry because of a calm situation in the NHL, don’t rush the player. Back in San Diego, Zegras has played ten games with five goals, six assists and 11 points. For different reasons, the Ducks don’t need to rush Zegras, and the Habs don’t need to rush Caufield. Let them feel their way with the puck on the stick a lot. That’s the best way to develop a player. Bring Caufield up for the playoffs, because that’s a different situation. That’s a situation where the Habs are not locked in situationally. It’s a situation where they need wins and goals.
On night one in the AHL, Caufield used that patented one time release for a shot into the top corner for his first goal. It was a play that anyone who watched him for the Badgers has seen many times. It was a cross-ice pass. The goalie is trying to move laterally across the net to see Caufield’s attempt, but while he is setting up, it’s already under the bar.
Caufield’s second goal was a partial breakaway. What was interesting in it was that Caufield was on the left side and getting cut off by a defender. Usually, here you will see a player get into a battle to cut across the front of the net and make it physical between the defender and him leveraging his stride advantage for positioning to perhaps get a half-chance or draw a penalty. Not Caufield as he stayed on the left side and shot right handed, which gave him a pretty good view. The first save was made. It almost felt like he planned that first part. The second part was a rebound right on his stick. This time the goalie was not physically set, and Caufield roofed it from about 18 inches away. A remarkable goal. A goal only made with excessive talent. A goal not defensible at any hockey level.
Caufield’s assist was all hands. He deked two Marlies defenders and took it to goal, where he was defended just enough to push it slightly off his stick where another Rocket player was waiting. A ton of skill for the helper. Certainly, not a cheap assist. Three points in his first AHL game.
The second contest didn’t result in as much, but there should be no disappointment over that as he continued to show why he scores so often. It was a low-event game with very little flow. However, Caufield managed to get at least four clean looks in the contest, and then late in the third a shot went off his skate for a third goal in two games. Not the prettiest of goals, of course, but you score them when you’re in the right place. In his first two games, Caufield had the game-winner twice.
Caufield finds dead space with extreme skill, and it is a skill. He floats in and out of areas and before a defender knows it, Caufield has lost him. Caufield finds gaps. He hunts them like other players hunt the opposition. He hunts open space. He’s never static. He’s never easy to defend.
Also, it is important to note that Caufield didn’t get hit at all when the play was on. He got cheap-shotted one time, but that was irrelevant as it had nothing to do with the play. He got blindsided with the puck 100 feet away. Nothing any hockey player can do about goonery.
Caufield was not challenged physically in the slightest. He doesn’t get in many puck battles, but he handled himself well in the ones that he was in. He’s not interested in puck battles. He’s interested in open ice. Better players would have found him three times for breakaways over the two games, but they didn’t even think to look up ice because no one is usually that heady to get that open reading the play that well. NHL players will find him when he does that.
There’s nothing negative to note. He was on ice for a couple goals against, but they had nothing to do with him. No one is going to want him to be a fifth body defending down low when the first four can’t get the job done. Sometimes you’re on the ice for goals against. It doesn’t have to mean much.
So the report card says A+. Caufield has enormous potential. He has the best potential to score goals that this organization has seen in ages. Everyone his entire life has said wait for the next level because of his size.
Well, Folks, there’s one level to go. He’s still climbing every one of the levels as the best player of his class.
The top rung is next. Don’t bet against him.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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