The road trip is finally over.
Seven games for the Montreal Canadiens over the holiday season proved too much for a club laden with rookies. It’s a grind, and the young club was ground down.
There was only one win on the trip, which concluded with the Nashville Predators handling the Canadiens easily, 6-3.
No matter how bad it gets, there’s always Cole Caufield. The goal that he scored in the first period was as outstanding a goal as he has scored in the NHL.
Caufield picked up a puck at centre and began a race with Filip Forsberg. The Predators winger is one of the best skaters in the league. They were beside each other. By the end of the race, Caufield had a clear breakaway leaving Forsberg in his wake.
The brilliance continued as Caufield had to stay on his backhand to avoid the long stick and reach of Forsberg trailing him. He managed to fake Juuse Saros to believe that he could go forehand. Caufield went backhand and actually roofed it at full speed. Saros wasn’t even close to saving it as he fell on his face.
It was a goal of extraordinary talent. That’s 22 on the season for Caufield. He is on pace for 47 goals on the season. Even Kirby Dach and Nick Suzuki have slowed down recently, but not Caufield. His brilliance continues with little support. He’s a special player.
It’s clearly getting to be a concern how many goals the Canadiens are giving up. Early in the campaign, this rookie defence held in there, but they’re getting caved in now. The goals-against totals are startling. Over the last 10 games the Canadiens have given up 49 goals. The last five are especially troubling with four, four, seven, nine and six allowed.
They are learning the hard way. The best learning is a mix of lessons and achievements, but right now, it is nothing but hard lessons for this young defence.
Four or five rookies playing is a big number. Veterans Joel Edmundson and David Savard are not able to settle it down, either. They are stay-at-home defencemen which means they are not ‘Cale Makar style’ skating it up ice to play 40 seconds in the offensive zone. Being brutally honest, Edmundson is struggling badly.
A lot of hockey is being played in Montreal’s end for another reason as well. Only one of the Canadiens’ four lines has the ability to create any offensive zone pressure. The other lines dump and chase, then don’t win that battle in the corner. Naturally, what follows is the opposition then spends 45 seconds in Montreal’s zone.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It looks certain a high draft pick is coming for Montreal this summer, and that’s a good thing, but it’s also difficult to learn that the losses aren’t going to be 5-4 in thrilling games where Montreal looked great, but got just a little unlucky.
This is what losing looks like. It is depressing. Only one way around it: Get better players. The depth of this malaise has to make that obvious to everyone. For that reason, fans should be thankful the slump has happened so fiercely.
Management must know that any thoughts of speeding it up, or taking short cuts, or keeping some aging veterans around, instead of getting draft picks is terrible strategy.
It’s going to take a while. It needs to be a complete overhaul. Management has its eyes wide open for sure now.
It’s time. After a strong start and continued improvements from Juraj Slafkovsky, his game is now stagnating.
It’s time to play in an easier league to continue developing. He has not developed at all on the seven-game road trip. The organization is likely to give him more time to see if he can figure this out, but the decision looks clear.
Slafkovsky needs to be shooting more. He needs to have the puck on his stick more. He needs to be in the play more. In the last five games, Slafkovsky has no points and only three shots on goal. He simply is not around the puck.
It’s not a slight to suggest this is a necessary phase of development. At 18, he is developing very nicely so far, but there is no development to the puck skills of a player if he doesn’t actually ever possess the puck.
This is a similar curve to Jesperi Kotkaniemi who also got off to a strong start, and then found the grind of the NHL too much in the second half of the season. Remember that European players are not used to games every second night. They are not used to 82-game regular seasons.
This is one heck of an initiation to become a pro, especially at 18 years of age. It’s easy to look at what Slovakia did at the World Juniors, playing competitive games that Slafkovsky would have benefitted from. In the end, Slafkovsky being in that mix fighting for ice in extremely important events was the better call for him.
That’s in the past now and it can not be changed, and that’s OK. When the Canadiens made the decision to keep him in the NHL, Slafkovsky was still faring well at the NHL level.
It’s this road trip that has revealed the kinks in his development, and also the entire team’s development, to be frank. However, the core of five rookie defencemen has to keep going because there is no backup defence to come in as if the cavalry.
In Laval, Slafkovsky can play the power play for the first minute and 20 seconds each time. He can get first line minutes. He can find the competition not as difficult to beat one-on-one, so he can get his shot off to test its merits.
He can also carry the puck in the offensive zone without being stripped right away. This will help his instincts at this valuable skill. These are instincts that are not developing even slightly at the moment.
The bottom line: development is when the puck is on a player’s stick, so he can make the choices, and do the actions that lead to improvement in one’s game.
What he is experiencing right now is not that. Kent Hughes will have a longer leash, no doubt, to make sure that Slafkovsky is truly stagnating, and the rookie may just snap out of it, but at this moment it feels like it is time.
Laval will be a good level for him. The American Hockey League is arguably the second best league in the world. The players in the league are big and they compete hard. Goals don’t come easily there either, so it will definitely be enough of a challenge.
The curve of learning is a long one. Jack Hughes was kept with New Jersey as an 18 year old, and he had an awful season. Look, though, how he has developed overall after time. Good players will rise above it.
Whatever decision the Habs’ brass makes, if Slafkovsky is a good player, he will find his way. However, the theory that persists here is that a player must have the puck on his stick to develop his skill set and his instincts. There is very little development skating up and down the ice without being implicated in the offence.
We shall see. No need to worry either way. He is doing well for 18, but one can not expect the progress to be linear. It just is not for an 18-year-old entering the NHL.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.