Stu Cowan: At quarter-mark of season, Canadiens have much to improve upon

In the second full season of its rebuild, Montreal has a 9-10-2 record, three points behind where the team was at this point last year.

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Nobody said this Canadiens rebuild would be easy.

This is the second full season of the rebuild and the Canadiens reached the quarter-mark with a 9-10-2 record for 20 points — that’s three points less than they had at this point last season when they were 11-9-1.

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The Canadiens have been hurt once again by injuries. Forward Kirby Dach is done for the season after suffering a knee injury in the second game, while forward Rafaël Harvey-Pinard (lower body), defencemen Jordan Harris (lower body), David Savard (fractured hand), Arber Xhekaj (upper body) and Chris Wideman (back) are also out of the lineup. Last season, the Canadiens set an NHL record with 751 man-games lost to injury, breaking their own record of 720 from the previous season.

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“I feel like we’re staying the course,” head coach Martin St. Louis told reporters in Columbus Monday when asked about the process his team is going through. “It’s funny, you get better at something and then you slip somewhere else. It’s constantly trying to improve and you have to be careful and be very specific — like this is what we’re going to work on today. I feel we’ve done a good job of that. I feel our team is a better team than we were 20 games ago and that’s the goal — to keep improving at everything.”

The Canadiens still have a lot to improve on as they prepare to face the Blue Jackets Wednesday in Columbus (7 p.m., SN, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

Offence: The Canadiens rank 28th in the NHL, scoring an average of 2.71 goals per game. Last season, they ranked 26th with an average of 2.77.

Defence: They rank 25th, allowing an average of 3.48 goals per game. Last season, they ranked 29th, allowing an average of 3.72.

Power play: They rank 23rd with an 18 per cent success rate. Last season, they ranked 29th at 16.1 per cent.

Penalty-killing: They rank 27th with a 73.5 per cent success rate. Last season, they ranked 29th at 72.7 per cent.

Shots: They rank 28th, averaging 28.5 shots per game. Last season, they ranked 30th with an average of 27.3.

Shots against: They rank 30th, allowing an average of 34.5 shots against per game. Last season, they ranked 28th at 33.6.

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One place where the Canadiens have made a huge improvement is in the faceoff circle. They rank sixth at 52.7 per cent, led by Sean Monahan, who is winning 58.8 per cent of his faceoffs. Last season, when Monahan was limited to 25 games because of injuries, the Canadiens ranked 25th at 48.5 per cent.

Monahan has been a bright spot this season simply by staying healthy. The 29-year-old is tied for the team lead with six goals and ranks fourth in scoring with 6-7-13 totals, trailing Nick Suzuki (6-11-17), Cole Caufield (6-11-17) and Mike Matheson (5-10-15). Matheson has been another bright spot after being limited to 48 games last season because of injuries. He leads the team in ice time and ranks seventh in the NHL with an average of 24:51 per game.

Another bright spot is defenceman Justin Barron, who is showing why the Colorado Avalanche selected him in the first round (25th overall) of the 2020 NHL Draft and why Canadiens GM Kent Hughes was willing to give up Artturi Lehkonen to get him in a trade. Barron has 4-2-6 totals to go along with a plus-2 differential while averaging 19:45 of ice time.

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“J.B. has improved a lot in his defensive assignment,” St. Louis said. “We always knew that he’s got great offensive instinct.”

Kaiden Guhle has been showing why former Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin selected him in the first round (16th overall) of the 2020 NHL Draft with 2-5-7 totals and a team-best plus-5 while averaging 20:56 of ice time.

The Canadiens are still carrying three goalies, which isn’t good for Jake Allen, Samuel Montembeault or Cayden Primeau. At some point soon, you have to think Hughes will trade one of them or send Primeau back to the AHL’s Laval Rocket and risk losing him on waivers. Allen has a 3-5-1 record with a 3.59 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage, while Montembeault is 4-3-1 with a 2.81 GAA and a .908 save percentage and Primeau is 2-2-0 with a 3.41 GAA and a .898 save percentage.

The biggest disappointment has to be Josh Anderson, who is still looking for his first goal after 354 minutes of ice time — including 76 minutes on the power play — which ranks fourth among forwards on the team. Anderson is in the fourth season of a seven-year, US$38.5-million contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $5.5 million, but he is actually earning US$8 million this season.

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“I think in those 21 games we’ve had ups and downs,” Monahan told reporters in Columbus Monday. “We’re at a point where we know how good we can be, so we got to be a consistent team and try and get that level every night. When we’re there, I think we’re a team that can compete and win against anybody in this league.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done.

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