I don't think I'd be alone in saying these Canadiens are a fair bit better than I expected them to be. With a serious face, I repeatedly called for this team to be a basement dweller, a team with negligible (if any) improvement) from a 15th-place finisher.
If you want surprises, this is the way to go, let me tell you. The team greatly surpassing an out-of-whack evaluation is more fun to follow than the 2012 edition where the team similarly surprised, but in the opposite direction.
So what happened that this team could totally catch a horde of commentators off guard and surge to first in the East at the one third pole? I have some suggestions (in no particular order):
1) Andrei Markov
It's been said already, but it bears repeating. We all knew that Markov was good, and we could see how this might bear out in stats and in lineup changes as a result of his inclusion. All that said, I just don't think we properly understood the impact he might have. Though he has cooled a bit, his contributions of late have been meaningful in victories. And those go with his single-handed effort to jumpstart the season.
His biggest impact is on the PP (he's actually a goal to the bad at ES, with non yet created himself). On the PP, however, he has been creating goals that were never even shots last year. He has made taking a penalty against the Habs a bad idea again. The demonstration of his effectiveness can be seen in both his own contributions and those of his PP lieutenant.
Markov 2013: 2.72 PP goals created /60
Plekanec 2013: 2.62 PP goals created /60
Plekanec 2011/12: 1.34 PP goals created /60
2) Physical readiness
One of the big questions over the lock-out was the question of training effect. Would it be better to sit at home and rest legs and minds that never get rested? or would it be better to set off to Europe and join in some high-tempo games. I've always stuck by the latter, particularly given a shortened season.
I think that the effects of the different approaches have likely been seen now. With a full month of top NHL play, the proxy games do less to separate the competitors from the idlers anymore. But in the Habs case, I think there has been a great benefit from the increased readiness that European play provided players. Particularly some of the key performers.
I mentioned Markov, and from his first 5 games, it was clear that he was on the ball and looked a step ahead of just about everyone on the ice. Those 4 wins and a loss put the Canadiens in very good stead and affected a lot of decisions by knock on effect. Subban ended up signing during a winning spree that may have helped sway his decision to move. The rookies got their place in Montreal because they were part of a winning formula. There's probably more.
But enough about Markov, there were other key players ready to go as well.
Tomas Plekanec is the poster boy for a Euro stint. He got the opportunity to play with a better line than he can count on in the NHL and came into camp fine-tuned and ready to go. His starts are always good, but this has been one of his best relatively speaking. He currently stands atop the Habs scoring with 8 goals and 13 points in 16 games. He is nearly tripling his goal rate from last season and has created a whopping 12% of all the Habs goals thus far.
Alexei Emelin and Diaz are fitting right in too, and seem to have benefited from a good fall spent conditioning their bodies in real play. more on them later.
The rookie Gallies are fresh out of junior and the AHL and look like they never missed a step. More on them later too.
3) Attacking options
Last season, the Canadiens scoring came largely from the Desharnais line:
Top line (Desharnais line): 84 goals
Other forwards: 97 goals
Top line (Desharnais line): 36% of goals created
Other forwards: 44% of goals created
This season, the balance is remarkably similar, but the attack is carried by three altogether separate players:
Top line (Plekanec line): 16 goals
Other scoring forwards: 20 goals
Top line (Plekanec line): 37% of goals created
Other scoring forwards: 47% of goals created
What this does is complicate matters for the opposition. Opponents can no longer simply concentrate their efforts on the Desharnais line (with 2 recent 30 goalscorers), but must show proper respect to the new number one line which is setting a pace to score a similar amount of goals (pro rata).
Besides that, the Desharnais line has actually almost been a dormant presence (a looming threat) and the other depth on the team provided by Lars Eller and the two Gallies has been further complicating the pre-game chats of visiting teams.
The balance in attack must surely be opening options for the top line, and creating a virtuous circle in which forwards can find mismatches to exploit.
4) Home ice
Let's not forget that the Canadiens schedule has been kind so far. 10 games at home with only 6 on the road, and only one trip of more than one game (that being Florida) so far.
But this is not what I wanted to say. Because give the Canadiens of a season ago this plum schedule and they would have found a way to squander it. Whether it be the message over the dressing room, the enthusiasm of fans or some combination of factors, the Habs have been a better team at home than on the road. IN fact, they've been a really good team at home: going 7-3-0 thus far. Last season, this team won a mere 16 of their 41 home games and managed to gather a paltry 42 of a possible 82 points. No team had fewer wins than the 2011-12 Habs at their own home arena, and you don't need me to tell you that all good teams build on a strong home record.
5) The rookies
When all of us naysayers were readying you for the second year at the draft lottery pinnacle, one of the tightly held beliefs was that the Habs were a little changed outfit over the year before.
But I ask, what other team added two high-octane and dynamic offensive producers like the Habs did?
I think it was fair to be cautious about the success the Habs rookies would experience at a new tier of hockey. I don't think anyone, no matter how prescient, could honestly have called the two Gallies being on the ice for more than 4 goals every 60 minutes of even strength ice time by the 16 game mark.
While there may be a come down in recorded production, what the two players have shown is that their talents are bright enough not only to be included in the men's league, but also to be given prominent roles therein. Of the nice surprises, the two rookies up front have to be one of the biggest.
6) Diaz and Emelin
In the same line of thinking, I cite Diaz and Emelin. Sure, I note that they got a boost from their early season fitness, but the test so far has been long enough to suggest that they have done more than that.
Diaz has been a slick element on the PP, but as the guys on L'antichambre were noting yesterday, he is far more than a one trick pony. Thus far this season, for example, Raffa has a goals against average during even strength of 1.03 ESGA/60. This is balanced by his production of 2.57 ESGF/60. Credit his partner for the help, but in outdoing his partner in both these stats, lots of credit must go to the man who lit up Switzerland before hitting Montreal ice at full stride.
Emelin for his part is the second most used player at even-strength (to Josh Gorges) and clearly has the full confidence of his coach at every turn. While he no longer leads the league in hits, he probably leads it in hits that you noticed (and that the opponents noticed). He's keeping the opposition honest with a mere 6 minutes in penalties to his name.
What's striking about these descriptions is that we're talking about two second-year players who started their NHL careers very late. Usually, one would hope for a complementary player from such a fishing expedition, but Pierre Gauthier snagged two very able NHL defenders in his outing in 2011. I'm sure many took a conservative look and warned there could be a come down for these two players, with questions to be answered. Both coming through so far in flying colours is another surprise.
7) Drawing penalties
I'm not the sure the word drawing necessarily describes what we've seen. The Canadiens, however, through their own guile, the insistence of 21,000 or the generosity of NHL officials have the most PP opportunities of any team in the league. Not only that, they have been gifted some important penalties at critical times: a few 5-on-3s (most in the league), OT PPs and even a goal that didn't go in.
Whatever the magical reason may be, these 78 PP opportunities have played large part in garnering 11 victories from 16 games. It will be interesting to see if their road-heavy schedule from here slows their favour with the refs.
8) Rene Bourque
OK, I said in no particular order. But as the second guy I have to mention by name, this surprise has to be the biggest. With Markov, we may have forgotten how good a player we had, but we expected quite a lot. The rookies we knew would flourish one day, just not sure when. The two Eurostars showed plenty last season to suggest this might come. But Rene Bourque?
Last season, Bourque was a pathetic shell of a hockey player. This season he has been an engine for the whole team. Last season, his pathetic stats-line over-represented his actual contribution. This season, there's no way his 5 goals and 10 points spell out his importance. Last season we longed that he might once go to the net as per his "reputation". This season, he can't be moved from there.
Quite a few of us critics have to eat our words (and I am glad I held off on publishing my overly negative review of his season now). Rene Bourque, in doing whatever he did to cause this turn of fortune, has almost single-handedly been responsible for much of the good that has come so far. With the Bourque of last season, there is no new #1 line, no scoring depth, no rampant PP, no quick start to sway the Subban and rookie decisions.
All credit to Rene Bourque, he had me fooled. If I had had any inkling he had any of these 16 games in him, I'd have had a different view to be sure.
9) Key departures
Let's not forget the dearly departed. their omissions to the roster have been key.
Lest we forget that there were a fair number of games last season where Louis Leblanc, Mathieu Darche and Brad Staubitz all played in the same lineup. That Kaberle sometimes paired Campoli on the back line. That Gomez was being shoehorned into minutes he could no longer handle.
The departures of the depth forwards made the necessary room for the rookies and a proper role for Lars Eller. The departure of Gomez in particular removed the pressure to play a player out of his depth to save salary face. Galchenyuk's career so far depends on this buy out. The departure of the bottom of the line up from last season has made room too, and it's nice to see Colby Armstrong as the worst player in the lineup. His NHL credibility (and effectiveness) so much greater than that of his immediate predecessors.
10) Defensive excellence
I think we have all made a lot of the offence this season. Our notion that the last edition of the team did not score enough, and could not score when necessary so embedded. BUt the difference in the offensive production of our team (from 2.52 GF/G to 2.81 GF/G) is actually far less pronounced than the defensive improvement (2.61 GA/G to 2.12 GA/G).
That's impressive enough, but consider also that the team sits fourth in the entire league for shots allowed. A stingy 26.6 that is bested only by the last 2 Stanley Cup champs and the Jennings-holding St Louis Blues.
I very much Carey Price (and Budaj of his last 2 starts) in this thinking. I feel like the best goaltenders are a part of the team's seamless defence, and that is on greater display this season than at any time in the recent past. Price's particular ability to be relied on to stop almost all straightforward first shots is a great thing to design a defence around, and I feel it has allowed the system to come together better. From there, one can insert defencemen with quickness and mobility (like the whole Habs stable at the moment) and get about to limiting the good chances. We don't have the ultimate measure for shot quality. But from a purely subjective view, I'd say that top quality chances are reduced from last season (even if chances from the home plate area are not).
To count on the pairings that work and a player like PK Subban as a third operative is nice luxury. But even with the lineup card in front of us, this had to be unexpected. To go from fumbling bottom dwellers to join the company of all recent contenders in such an important statistical realm is impressive. Even more for a team that only shed some neer-do-wells and added a fighter from the Rangers.
Notably off the list I think is luck. Last season all you heard if you wanted to was that the team was not as bad as it looked in the standings and on paper. That the luck had all gone the wrong way. I'll leave that for now.
But could it be said that the reverse is true for this season's edition?
I think it's certainly possible. But I'm not one to look at luck as a primary cause (or a top 10 cause apparently).
I have kept track of the games so far, and using a formula whereby I am weighting some events to give an inkling of their importance, I would say that 10 games so far (including 8 wins) have gone the way they should have gone according to the balance of play. Besides that, the Habs have squeaked three wins that they probably shouldn't have won, but also lost 2 games that they shouldn't have lost. The remaining game (that wretched Leafs one) should not have been a lopsided loss, if a loss at all based on all the attempts given and taken. It's by no means a perfected system, but I think it's fair to point out the Habs have had some unlucky bounces this season, even with their lofty position.
Luck may yet play a new role in deciding the fate of this team, but for now, I'm comfortable in saying I was wrong and not unlucky to have underestimated the 2013 Habs.