Canadiens Shine at the World Cup
Special to Hockey Pub by Mike Robinson
Team Canada won the World Cup of Hockey. This was no surprise to anyone who even had tangential interest in this event. Representing Team Canada, as well as three other teams in the tournament, were half a dozen Montreal Canadiens players. Two players, goalie Carey Price and new defenseman Shea Weber, won the title for Canada. The Canadiens also sent Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin to Team Russia, Max Pacioretty to Team USA and Tomas Plekanec to Team Czech Republic. Not everyone won, but there are takeaways from each player’s performance that shed some light on the early portion of their Montreal NHL season coming up.
Let’s start with those on Team Canada, Price and Weber. Price entered the tournament off a lost NHL season in 2015-16. It wasn’t even a sure thing that he would be the World Cup team’s starting goaltender because of his knee injury. It turns out Price was ready to go, and he performed like his former self before the injury took nearly a year from him. Price went 5-0 for Canada, with one shutout, a 1.40 goals-against average and .957 save percentage. His GAA was easily the best in the tournament of anyone who played in more than one game. The same goes for his save percentage, and while he won five times, no other player had more than three wins. Sidney Crosby won the MVP for Team Canada, but it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Price named most valuable. He was that good.
This performance bodes extremely well for Montreal in the coming season. Fans and perhaps even some team employees might have had some lingering concerns over how Price would fare in his return to game action. After all, he has sat out since November of last season. The World Cup was really the first chance folks had to see him play in serious competition since the injury, and he appeared to be back in Vezina form. Price may have been on his way to winning the Vezina last season. When he went down, he was 10-2, with two shutouts and a 2.06 GAA. Montreal was always hoping to get that guy back in 2016-17, and the World Cup performance indicates it very well might.
Weber didn’t make as big of a splash for Team Canada, but he could have as large of an impact for the Canadiens, attempting to replace fan favorite P.K. Subban. Weber played at least 27 shifts in each World Cup game and took 16 shots but failed to register a point. He was big and bruising, as always, but never dominated action. Attempting to find a impact role on a roster like this is hardly comparable to what he will have to do for Montreal starting later this month though. Weber is still only 31 years old and has collected at least 40 points in each of the past seven seasons not counting the strike-shortened 2012-13 season.
He is a big-time asset on both ends, averaging well over 200 shots per game in those aforementioned seasons while still playing heavy minutes and racking up hits and blocks on his 6-4 frame. As discussed ad nauseum during the offseason, Subban may be the more interesting player, but Weber is his peer in terms of impact defensemen in this league.
On Team Russia, Markov and Emelin found a similar problem to Weber, in that it was hard to make a lasting impression on a loaded team with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Nikita Kucherov leading the attack. The two combined for just one point and nine shots on goal in the tournament. Markov and especially Emelin have never been big scorers from their positions on defense, and since hit and block stats are not as readily available from the World Cup, it is harder to pinpoint their effectiveness or lack thereof. They did combine for a -3 plus/minus rating though and, according to some, both felt slow and out of place at times in this fast-moving tournament. The defense was always going to be Russia’s weakness because of the All-Star skaters up front, but neither Markov nor Emelin did their part to cover that hole well.
Markov is 37 years old, so it isn’t unexpected to see him struggle with speedy forwards. That could be an issue through the NHL regular season as well, especially as the season wears on. But he has a solidified spot in this defensive line rotation, as does Emelin. The two are necessary pieces of the Montreal defense and need to be better. Emelin reportedly missed assignments and has the habit of searching for hits instead of making the smarter hockey play. He has always been a huge hitter during his five-year career, but maybe discretion is a way for him to get better.
Essentially the entirety of Team USA flopped in this tournament, and Max Pacioretty is no exception. He did nothing in his three games, though maybe it’s a silver lining that he only had a -1 rating instead of something far worse. USA coach John Tortorella managed to single out Pacioretty by not singling him out at all, saying that the team needed to give more and “Patch simply has to be within that group.”
This performance, though disappointing, shouldn’t really affect Pacioretty for this coming NHL year. He is still team captain and a 30-goal scorer at just 27 years old. He topped 300 shots each of the past two seasons and should encounter another huge workload on the offensive end this season. It would have been fun to see Patch pull through as perhaps the leader of Team USA, but no one around him found that role either, so it’s not like he was outclassed by a peer. USA just didn’t bring it this year.
Tomas Plekanec on Team Czech Republic was actually worse, though his squad managed to defeat Team USA in the head-to-head game. His only impact as captain on a Czech team looking for stars was one shot on goal in three games. This was the most upsetting performance for a Habs player because of what was expected of Plekanec. He was named captain for a reason. And unlike these other countries that had plenty of play-making throughout the roster, Czech Republic was counting on Plekanec specifically for a lot of theirs.
At 33 years old, his goal-scoring and shot-making really tailed off last season. His 14 goals were his lowest in a full year since 2005. And his 7.4 shooting percentage was a career worst. That, combined with this World Cup performance, could be the sign of a trend moving forward. Maybe his days as a top scoring option are numbered. The World Cup of Hockey was just a few games, so making a grand statement is foolish, but it is something to keep an eye on during Montreal’s season.