In my weekly column on the Canadiens this season, we’ll be focusing on player trends, evaluating players who are struggling, players who are exceeding expectations and those who are trending upward but have yet to start producing points.
It’s quite early, but heading into Thursday’s home opener against the Los Angeles Kings, a few players have stood out and one in particular has been underwhelming. Given that we’re only two games into the NHL season, we should keep in mind that things can, and will, change quite quickly.
Standout: Mike Reilly, defence
Although he’s yet to register a point, Reilly has performed quite admirably through the first two games of the season.
He’s always had a reputation as a rearguard who can move the puck up the ice quickly, a skill that is essential in today’s NHL. Teams are getting smaller and faster, which puts an onus on quickly transitioning through the neutral zone with control of the puck. That’s where Reilly’s skill set comes into play.
But the most noticeable change in Reilly’s play has been his defensive prowess. He is supporting the attack as well as shutting down opposing forwards, all while playing the most even-strength minutes on the team. During his even-strength shifts, the Canadiens have controlled over 61 per cent of the shots, 54.9 per cent of the scoring chances and have scored three goals while allowing none.
A stick tap goes out to Noah Juulsen, Reilly’s defensive partner. His rock-steady play has allowed Reilly the freedom to support the attack at will.
Standout: Paul Byron, left-wing
The Canadiens have put an emphasis on speed over size, and no player epitomizes that shift in philosophy better than Byron.
With two goals and two assists in two games, Byron is off to a red hot start to the season and leads the team in scoring.
While he’s been on the ice, the Canadiens have created 19 scoring chances and have only allowed eight against, meaning the team has controlled more than 70 per cent of the chances. If we switch to high-danger chances, Byron’s stats are even more impressive, as the Habs control 81.8 per cent of high-danger scoring chances during his shifts.
And while his torrid 164-point pace will be impossible to sustain, there’s no doubt that Byron is quickly reassuring all those who questioned whether his next contract would bring value to the team.
Standout (honourable mention): Carey Price, goaltender
Price has saved all but two of the 38 even-strength shots sent his way (94.7 per cent).
But the most noticeable change can’t be found on any spreadsheet. He looks like the Price of old, making smart saves without expending any unnecessary energy.
Breakout potential: Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher
This line has only managed to score one goal, but their play has been incredibly encouraging. They’ve had more than two shot attempts for every one they’ve allowed, and have controlled over 64 per cent of the high-danger scoring chances.
The line itself is a classic build, with a puck-retrieving centre in Danault, a pure shooter in Tatar and a player who makes life hell on opposing goaltenders in Gallagher.
Given their early-season chemistry, don’t be surprised if they start scoring in bunches.
Slow start: Jonathan Drouin
On the surface, Drouin’s first two games were very underwhelming. Now that he no longer has to worry about the defensive responsibilities that came with playing as a centre, no points and only two shots is a poor start to the season. But once we start digging, the numbers become even more concerning. During his shifts, the Canadiens have only controlled 48 per cent of the shots and a paltry 38 per cent of the scoring chances.
The issue isn’t necessarily that he isn’t producing, it’s that his play isn’t conducive to producing, so we’re not dealing with a streak of bad luck, it’s simply poor play. His decision-making seems to be the biggest issue, as his shot selection and passing plays have lacked foresight and often lead to turnovers.
He was acquired as a winger, played the vast majority of the 2017-18 season as a centre, but has returned to the wing. It’ll take some time before he’s back to being comfortable on the wing, but if he hopes to reach the pantheon of elite players in the NHL, he needs to take the next step, and soon.
Hopefully his identity crisis, which was brought on by management and lack of quality centres in Montreal, is over and he can concentrate on creating offence.
Statistic of the week
Jesperi Kotkaniemi leads the Canadiens when it comes to controlling high-danger chances, to the tune of 85.7 per cent.
Marc Dumont is an analyst and editor for The Athletic Montreal.
(All statistics, even-strength unless otherwise noted, via NaturalStatTrick.com)