Jack Todd: Canadiens’ poor start to 2024 exposes systemic problems

The Canadiens’s limited success seems smoke, mirrors, goals from the defence and (especially) goaltending, writes Jack Todd.

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This one was uglier than a Walmart Black Friday at closing time.

The Sharks, a team so bad it doesn’t know the way to San Jose, had lost a dozen in a row, a losing streak so awful it began last year. Their point differential was in green jacket territory at minus-90.

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The Sharks are so bad that all in all, even Cutter Gauthier would rather be in Philadelphia.

And yet through most of the second period, the Canadiens made San Jose look like the Red Army circa 1973.

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It was bizarre. Montreal killed a penalty to Jordan Harris for tripping Filip Zadina and nothing changed. They still couldn’t get out of their own zone. For shift change after shift change, the Sharks buzzed around at will and on the rare occasions when the Canadiens got the puck out of the zone, they were lucky to string together two passes before San Jose had it back in again.

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Yes, the Habs took a run at it over the last five minutes and might easily have tied it — but they didn’t. A 3-2 loss doesn’t look that bad but coming on the heels of two awful periods in Philadelphia, it was as bad a stretch as the club has had under Martin St. Louis.

It was also a grotesque way to hit the halfway mark, 41 games into the season. Somehow the last five games have included wins over Dallas and the Rangers, a 6-1 home loss to Buffalo, a dispiriting shootout loss to Philadelphia and the worst game of the season against San Jose.

Bottom line? If you’re thinking about betting on a Canadiens game, don’t.

The natives, predictably, are getting restless. The Canadiens have won only eight games in regulation, tied with the Sharks for the worst mark in the league. Their goal differential now stands at minus-28, one better than the Blue Jackets in the east.

Montreal is tied with the Sabres at 40 points, seventh worst in the league. And although they have a game in hand on Buffalo, the Sabres are on the upswing and the Canadiens are not.

Some of the individual numbers are no better: Cole Caufield had 26 goals in 46 games last season before a shoulder injury put him on the shelf. Most observers had him down for a solid 40 goals this time around but he’s stuck on 11 goals through 41 games and his shooting percentage, 16.5 per cent last year, is at 7.5 per cent now.

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Caufield still fires plenty of shots on goal (147 this season to date) but most are somewhat outside his usual range and goalies are gobbling them up with relative ease.

Caufield’s start leaves linemate Nick Suzuki as the team leader in goals at the halfway mark with 12, one ahead of Caufield and Sean Monahan. Every other team leader in the NHL has more goals and having the high-flying Edmonton Oilers in town Saturday night (7 p.m., CBC, SN1, TVA Sports, TSN Radio 690, 98.5 FM) is just rubbing it in.

It’s no secret the Canadiens need goals and that they need far more scoring up front, especially with Caufield in a slump. In many ways, their season ended in the first period of the home opener when Kirby Dach was caught in an awkward position against the glass, limped to the bench, stood leaning against the boards to test his leg for a few moments, and left the ice for the season.

Add the injuries to Alex Newhook and the more recent injury to Christian Dvorak and they are perilously thin up the middle — so much so that hardworking Jake Evans logged nearly 18 minutes against San Jose while fourth-liner Mitchell Stephens scarcely saw the ice.

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Still, the reality is that Evans had two goals last season and he has two goals now. On a team desperately in need of scoring from the forwards, he’s not going to provide it.

You get the sense now that the limited success the Canadiens have had so far is built on smoke, mirrors, goals from the defence and (especially) goaltending. That it may turn out to be unsustainable, given the injuries, is no surprise.

There have been two particular bright spots in the first half: the out-of-nowhere emergence of Jayden Struble on the blue line (and never mind that gaffe against San Jose, which might be his first so far) and the emergence of goalie Cayden Primeau as a solid backup to Samuel Montembeault.

Obviously, the team is knee-deep in young defencemen. Obviously too, there will be movement between now and the trade deadline (just please don’t let it be Arber “Wifi” Xhekaj.)

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On the bright side, the club is well-positioned for a top 10 pick in the draft. The average fan wants the Canadiens to tank while simultaneously winning every game. That the two goals are antithetical seems to have occurred to very few.

The one thing Montreal fans won’t stand for is a lack of effort. It may be a January night in a long, long season but the effort they saw against San Jose simply won’t cut it with the fans.

Yes, that attitude sometimes makes it tough to play here. But it’s what separates us from Toronto.

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