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Quarter-mark review: Canadiens’ early-season pain paves road to Shane Wright

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A snapshot of the Montreal Canadiens through the first 20 games of the 2021-22 season is almost too grotesque to look at, but we’re presenting it anyway.

Our editor asked us for a quarter-mark review — a report card of sorts.

This one will read as the kind you’d want to hide from your parents.

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How did the Canadiens get to 5-13-2?

Let us count the ways.

They allowed more than five goals in eight of their games. Their power play scored on less than 15 per cent of its chances and now ranks 28th in the NHL, and their penalty kill is 29th after operating at less than 70 per cent. Also, only three teams have scored fewer goals per game, and only two teams have given up more goals per game.

That’s a capital F all around. It can stand for “Fail,” or another word of your choosing that starts with F.

It’s not just that the Canadiens have been bad; they’ve also been unlucky. At 5-on-5, they’ve controlled more than 50 per cent of the shot attempts and close to 50 per cent of the expected goals, but they have the third-worst shooting percentage (6.12) and the 12th-worst save percentage (91.75) in the league.

It was expected they would struggle coming off an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final that shortened their off-season considerably, that Christian Dvorak and Jake Evans might not be able to fully offset the loss of Phillip Danault in free agency and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet, and that the team would be seriously challenged by Shea Weber being too injured to continue his playing career, by Joel Edmundson being too injured to play through the first quarter, by Mike Hoffman being unavailable to start and Paul Byron being unavailable until late December at the earliest.

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When Carey Price checked into the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program just days before things got underway in Toronto, everyone knew the Canadiens would be in tough to get themselves into a favourable position in the standings.

However, with the depth of quality players still available to them and the good chemistry established on their run to the final, it was unanticipated they wouldn’t be competitive at all, that they would drop their first five games of the season by a combined score of 19-4.

With other injuries incurred and confidence plundered, the Canadiens weren’t able to do much better over the next 15 games, giving us the hideous picture described above.

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Can they change it?

As unlikely as it is — especially with Price nowhere near prepared to resume playing — it’s still possible.

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Assuming it’ll take 97 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference (the New Jersey Devils are occupying the second wild-card position at the moment and are on pace for that many), the Canadiens will have to earn 85 points over their last 62 games to qualify.

There are currently five teams in the league that have produced at the clip the Canadiens need to produce at for the rest of the season, so they can draw a bit of inspiration from there.

Even if we feel the Canadiens aren’t good enough to do it, they believe they are. They believe they’re much better than they’ve shown, and they’re going to push as hard as they can to prove it.

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Should they?

We asked Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin last Saturday and he was unequivocal about it.

“Players have pride,” Bergevin said. “You don’t go out there just to blow up games. That’s insane to think that way.”

We didn’t expect him to say otherwise.

For as bad as things have gone, it’s only November. Three quarters of the season remain, and hope remains and must be sold.

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Tickets and merchandise must be sold, too.

But even if the Canadiens rebound this season, they aren’t structured to contend for a championship, and they won’t be for the foreseeable future if they damage their chances at drafting in the top five and perhaps even first overall.

That’s their only out here. As we suggested to Bergevin, the Canadiens didn’t try to land in the spot they’re currently in, but they’re there and it’s worth taking advantage of because they aren’t in a position to embark on a rebuild.

According to CapFriendly.com, including long-term injury reserve dollars designated to Weber, they have $84 million committed to 14 players next season. Six forwards — Dvorak, Evans, Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Joel Armia and Nick Suzuki — are signed through the 2024-25 season or beyond. Defencemen Jeff Petry and David Savard are inked for just as long. Hoffman and Tyler Toffoli are under contract for two more seasons after this one, as is Edmundson, and Price’s $10.5-million cap hit is on the books through 2026.

Bergevin would be selling these assets at major losses if he went to market at this point, especially with the salary cap expected to remain within one or two million dollars of the $81.5-million upper limit for the next couple of years.

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Not that he should want to, anyway. There are good pieces to move forward with there, and a quick injection of talent through the coming draft — in addition to some promising prospects taking the next step in their development — could bring the Canadiens back to prominence in a hurry.

Still, there are steps Bergevin should take, even if he said if he manages the team to lose games he should be fired immediately.

He said it wouldn’t be right, that only generational talents like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid would be worth potentially doing it for and they don’t come around in the draft more than once a decade.

But Shane Wright, by all accounts, is a clear-cut No. 1 in this year’s draft, and he can make a huge difference for anyone who gets him.

The Canadiens have already taken a step towards Wright with their start, and Bergevin can improve their chances of attaining him in Montreal this summer.

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He can move impending unrestricted free agent Ben Chiarot to the highest bidder, trade other players on expiring contracts for depth picks, gauge the market on Byron and Jonathan Drouin (who each only have one year left under contract after this one) and try to move one or both, tell any player playing through injury to rest and heal and anyone in need of surgery to do it now before the Canadiens hurt their chances at Wright with a winning streak that likely won’t save their season and definitely won’t turn them into a Cup contender.





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Alexi Lalas breaks down why USMNT should be optimistic ahead of 2022 FIFA World Cup | SOTU

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Following a disappointing loss to Japan and a draw to Saudi Arabia, Alexi Lalas explains why USMNT should still be optimistic ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.



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What should USMNT fans expect from Christian Pulisic with Chelsea? | SOTU

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After not appearing in Chelsea’s champions league match against AC Milan, Alexi Lalas and David Mosse break down what to expect from Pulisic moving forward with newly appointed manager Graham Potter.



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Flames Takeaways: PTO hopefuls lacklustre in attempts to secure top-nine vacancy

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Two tryouts for the Calgary Flames all but officially ended Wednesday night, as another one began.

With the Flames looking to shore up their lines and pairings in preparation for next week’s season opener, it was telling that the starting lineup in Wednesday’s 5-0 loss in Winnipeg did not include PTO hopefuls Sonny Milano or Cody Eakin.

Neither appears destined to stick with the team much longer.    

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Instead, the Flames got their first look at the 6-foot-6, 220-pound winger they plucked off waivers Monday from Pittsburgh, Radim Zohorna.

As hard as it is to miss a man of that size, the 26-year-old did little to impress on the third line with Adam Ruzicka and Blake Coleman.

In ten minutes of ice time he had one shot on a goal — a solid rebound chance in tight — and two hits.

To be fair, he joined the team at their morning skate Wednesday and will benefit from a practice Thursday before getting another look in Friday’s pre-season finale, at home against the Jets.

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“I know I can be an NHL player full time,” said the man who played 25 NHL games over the last two seasons with the Penguins.

“I try to play hard, and physical, and use my speed. I will have an opportunity to make the team here and play with these guys.”

Based on the advice of Flames scout Steve Pleau, Zohorna was brought in with hopes he can help shore up a top-nine vacancy the Flames have tried in vain to fill through camp.

By virtue of a solid camp and winning another fitness testing title, Dillon Dube has earned the chance to fill the second line role alongside Nazem Kadri and Andrew Mangiapane.

He had another strong outing with them Wednesday, firing five shots on goal and providing energy on a line that should be a crowd pleaser for Dome dwellers.

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Depending on how many players the Flames want to keep on their roster ahead of Thursday’s opener, Zohorna or Brett Ritchie could be a candidate to be placed on waivers with an eye on going to the AHL Wranglers.

But the Oilers had interest in Ritchie, so he might not clear.

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The Flames will also have an interesting decision to make on the back end, as they have nine defencemen in camp, which includes Michael Stone on a PTO.

Stone has been great in camp and will earn a deal in some fashion from the team, although it may have to wait past the opener.

That leaves the possibility of having to try pushing Connor Mackey, Juuso Valimaki or Nicolas Meloche through waivers.  

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NOTES
+ The game’s first star was former Flames backup David Rittich, who made 37 saves for the shutout as part of his preparation to play for his fourth NHL team. 

+ Despite the score, it was another good showing from starter Dan Vladar, who allowed two power play goals on 15 shots before he made his scheduled departure. All told, the Flames backup has compiled an impressive .942 save percentage this fall. Dustin Wolf was hung out to dry by a series of Flames mistakes, allowing three goals on 11 shots.

+ With the lineup just two or three bodies short of its opening day look, the Flames top power play unit included Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli and Rasmus Andersson. Lindholm rang one off the iron in the second period, but the unit went 0-for-6 on a night the team struggled with special teams.

The second unit included Dube, Ruzicka, Andrew Mangiapane, Noah Hanifin and Stone/MacKenzie Weegar.

+ One thing that has looked razor sharp for the Flames through the first six games was its penalty killing unit, which stymied the opposition on 25 of the first 26 man-advantages over six games. On Wednesday they allowed three goals on five chances, which had plenty to do with Flames mistakes and the fact two chief penalty killers, Mikael Backlund and Trevor Lewis, did not dress.  

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+ The Flames (4-3 in the pre-season) open their regular season Thursday against the defending champs from Colorado. 

“Funny how that worked out,” said former Avs star Nazem Kadri.

“I’m hoping maybe I’ll get my ring then.”

THE LINES

Huberdeau-Lindholm-Toffoli

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Dube-Kadri-Mangiapane

Zohorna-Ruzicka-Coleman

Lucic-Rooney-Ritchie

Weegar-Tanev 

Hanifin-Stone 

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Zadorov-Andersson 

Vladar

Wolf

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