Friday, June 27, 2014

NHL Draft 2014 - Habs organizational needs

Going into the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia tonight, two organizational areas of weakness for the Montreal Canadiens are Centers and Right Wingers with top 6 potential. Down the middle the Habs only have Connor Crisp, a left-handed shot, who’ll be starting his first full season in Hamilton this fall.

At Right Wing, Montreal has Mike McCarron, Sven Andrighetto and Artturi Lehkonen with top 6 potential. McCarron is the only right-handed shot among them and still 2-3 years away, Andrighetto has shown a lot of promise and Lehkonen plays a lot like Gallagher but it’s very, very difficult to play 3 small forwards in the top 6, assuming Desharnais stays put, let alone 4.

Below are my picks for the first round, with a brief write-up for each prospect the Habs should have particular interest in, should they fall into range:

1. Aaron Ekblad - D, Barrie Colts (OHL)

2. Sam Reinhart - C, Kootenay Ice (WHL)

3. Leon Draisaitl - C, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

4. Sam Bennett - C, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)

5. Michael Dal Colle - LW, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

6. Nick Ritchie - LW, Peterborough Petes (OHL)

7. Nikolaj Ehlers - LW, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)

8. Jake Virtanen - LW, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

9. William Nylander - F, Sodertalje (Sweden-Allsvenskan)

10. Haydn Fleury - D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

11. Alex Tuch - RW, US NTDP (USHL)

12. Dylan Larkin - C, US NTDP (USHL)

13. Sonny Milano - LW, US NTDP (USHL)

14. Brendan Perlini - LW, Niagara Ice Dogs (OHL)

15. Kasperi Kapanen - RW, Kalpa (Finland-Liiga)

16. Ivan Barbashev – C/LW, Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL) – 6’00, 185, Shoots Left. Has all the markings of a solid, second-line player. Plays with high intensity, finishes checks, very good wrist shot and protects the puck well. Also displays strong leadership skills.

17. Kevin Fiala - LW, HV71 (Sweden-SHL)

18. Jakub Vrana - LW/RW, Linkoping (SHL) – 5’11, 185, Shoots Left. Excellent skater with an excellent shot and release. High hockey IQ with the skillset to be a solid second line player, if he can round out his defensive game.

19. Adrian Kempe - LW, Modo (Sweden-SHL) – 6’02, 187, Shoots Left. High hockey IQ and excellent skater. Hard working with a very good defensive game. Only question will be how much offense he can generate to be more than a 3rd line player.

20. David Pastrnak - RW, Sodertalje (Sweden-Allsvenskan) – 6’00, 167, Shoots Right. Strong skater, excellent work ethic with top 6 offensive skills, thanks to a higher gear and excellent lateral mobility. Suffered a concussion and didn’t play well when he returned, that might drop him into the range of Trevor Timmins.

21. Robert Fabbri - C, Guelph Storm (OHL) – 5’10, 166, Shoots Left. Plays with the heart and determination of a Jack Russell Terrier. Excellent faceoff and playmaking skills but needs to bulk up, work of his balance and learn to protect the puck better.  Has the extra gear all smaller players need to succeed.

22. Jared McCann - C, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) – 6’00, 179, Shoots Left. Solid offensive skills but a suspect defensive game, even though he’s used in all situations. Has the hockey IQ to improve but also needs to bulk up.

23. Nick Schmaltz - C, Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) – 6’00, 170, Shoots Left. Excellent offensive skillset but often makes plays on the perimeter. If he learns to buy in and commit to a stronger work ethic and play more in traffic, could easily play second line minutes. If not, likely a bust.

24. Julius Honka - D, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)

25. Travis Sanheim - D, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

26. Nikita Scherbak - RW/LW, Saskatoon Blades (WHL) – 6’02, 190, Shoots Left. Escape speed and excellent mobility, vision and passing skills. Plays a gritty game but must work on his defensive game.

27. Josh Ho-Sang - C/RW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL) – 5’11, 166, Shoots Right. A coaching nightmare and pain in the ass to a front office. Has a lot to learn about being a professional. If he can grow up and fit into a team structure, has the hands and playmaking ability to be a home run player, or complete bust.

28. Conner Bleackley - C, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

29. Thatcher Demko - G, Boston College (NCAA)

30. Roland McKeown - D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)

Monday, June 23, 2014

It was a mistake to re-sign Andrei Markov for 3 years

Andrei Markov owes P.K. Subban a lot of steak dinners
Count me in the minority who firmly believe signing Andrei Markov to a 35+ contract worth 3 years x $5.75 million AAV was a very bad idea. Simply put, too much term and too much coin for a player who'll turn 36 in December and entering a stage of his career where he's little more than a power play support piece.

Signing such a deal MIGHT have made some sense in the two or three years following the 2003-04 lockout, when a power play specialist was indeed a valuable commodity but in an era of far greater dependency on 5v5 offense to win hockey games, it’s wasteful spending.

Most people defending the Markov signing are doing do with the primary belief he’s the straw that stirs Subban’s drink, forgetting of course that Markov stopped being his regular 5v5 partner before the Christmas break and were a horrible even strength pairing the entire time.

Just how bad you ask? Going into the break, Markov had just 2 non-power play points (1 SH & 1 EV) while paired with Subban, who had 5 through 38 games. Markov would go on to score 10 more the rest of the regular season away from Subban while PK’s new partners, namely offensive notables Josh Gorges and Frankie Bouillon combined for 8. How many power play points did Markov score without Subban? The number you're looking for is Zero.

Once away from Markov after Christmas, Subban went on to score 12 more even strength points and 11 of those were either goals and first assists… with Gorges and Bouillon as his main partner. Imagine what he could do paired with a positive possession puck-mover?

Given the zone time and minutes, Andrei Markov put up very pedestrian even strength numbers so his main value is feeding pucks to P.K. Subban on the power play, while defenders increasingly cheat towards him and taking their chances with Markov. Not an ideal situation.

Retaining Markov also means one or both of Emelin and Beaulieu will continue to be asked to play their off-side at even strength, unless Gorges is traded. Beaulieu has been very reluctant to use his slap shot which removes the one-timer from his repertoire, at least in the short term so that’s a concern for any secondary power play offense.

That leaves Subban as the only D in the top 5 with the mobility, puck possession and consistently accurate shot to score from distance, on a defensive squad that was one of the worst even strength scoring units in the NHL last year… on a team that’s had a very difficult time maintaining a positive even strength scoring differential for more than 10 years.

I’d much prefer to see Marc Bergevin sign players whose biggest asset was driving even strength possession into the opponent’s end, not players (hello Daniel Briere) with fading even strength game that can't be compensated for on a power play that matters far less to winning games than it used to. And when you spend almost $6 million on a defenseman, you want an even strength horse, not immediately hope Bergevin finds him a puck rushing partner and Therrien cuts his TOI.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Should they stay, or should they go?

Andrei Markov - New contract or trade bait?
Marc Bergevin arrived in Montreal on May 2nd, 2012 with a mission; rebuild the Canadiens through the draft. Just two years into restocking the franchise after four straight years (2008-2011) of damage done through a combination of poor drafting and trading high round picks, the Habs were caught between a talent gap coming through their system and a lower salary cap.

The only option at the time were cheap stop-gaps but that’s now served its purpose and through ten trades Bergevin has made since being named GM, he’s traded away two 5ths (one today for Mike Weaver from Florida) and one 7th round pick while acquiring a 3rd that was used on Connor Crisp this past summer. So far, his only significant misstep managing the youth movement has been trading Danny Kristo to the New York Rangers for Christian Thomas; one player with only his defensive game keeping him from the NHL for a player that in no way fits the current or near-future makeup of the Montreal Canadiens.

So with the trade deadline less than 24 hours away, will Marc Bergevin stay the course being future-focused and avoid paying homage to the disaster of 2008-09 that ultimately saw Koivu, Kovalev, Tanguay, Higgins, Schneider and Komisarek all walk for nothing as UFAs? A painful but necessary reminder of how far back George Gillett and Bob Gainey set the Canadiens for one round of playoff revenue.

Thankfully, Bergevin’s UFA concerns this season are limited to Markov, Gionta, Murray, Weaver, Bouillon and Parros with the last two prime waiver candidates for lack of value. Recovering from asset mistakes by restocking core players with UFAs (Cammalleri, Gionta, etc.) is no longer a viable option, if it ever was, to build a team so the only real option to either sign or trade Markov, Gionta and Murray before 3 p.m. Wednesday.

The cost of Bergevin stopping his plan mid-stream to re-sign Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta to 35+ contracts, along with a soon to be 34 year old Douglas Murray would be the trading of picks/prospects from a cupboard that’s still only half-full for help in the playoffs. Needless to say, any significant help would cost much more than 5th round picks while the value of Markov, Gionta and even Murray will never be higher than it is right now for teams loading up as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Meanwhile, Geoff Molson hopes for the short-term reward of one round of playoff revenue while selling the hope of “anything can happen” for a bit more than that.

I much rather see Bergevin stay the course with more low cost, stop-gap help like Mike Weaver to buy time for the next wave to arrive while protecting the organization’s best assets. Beaulieu, Tinordi and Pateryn are now NHL-ready on D, although I have difficulty imagining the Habs breaking in all three together. That’s why I believe of the young guns, Greg Pateryn is probably the most available for help up front.

Mike Weaver for a 5th round pick in 2015 today could mean a few things: Murray and Weaver could be together on the 3rd ES pairing and work the PK together which would result in Tinordi going down to join Beaulieu and Pateryn in Hamilton. It could also mean one of the three will get the call to play with Weaver if Murray is traded for something of greater value than a 5th round pick. Ideally, both Markov and Murray will be traded to create pairings along the lines of: Gorges/Subban, Beaulieu/Emelin, Tinordi/Weaver.

As it stands now with Andrei Markov in the lineup, the Habs are among the absolute worst D units in the NHL generating 5v5 offense so it’s not a stretch to believe Nathan Beaulieu could help improve it. With contenders looking for a power play specialist, Markov could go a long way towards getting the Habs that young, top 6 scoring right winger they’re in desperate need of.

The only reason I can see Brian Gionta possibly re-signing for 1 or 2 years is the lack of high ceiling, NHL-ready right wingers in Hamilton. Once you get past Sven Andrighetto, all 5 foot 9" of him, there’s going to be a wait and some finger-crossing for Sebastian Collberg and/or Mike McCarron. If a package involving Markov gets you that RW, then Bergevin has the flexibility move Gionta as well.

Which brings me to Lars Eller. Although he’s improved on faceoffs against quality checkers in the offensive zone this season, improved his overall defensive game and has received the most even strength TOI/G in his four years with Montreal,  it’s looking like he'll never have the consistency needed to be the future 2nd line center everyone hoped they were getting in the Jaroslav Halak trade.

This season, Eller's has had three major scoring slumps; a singular assist in his last 21 GP and counting, a singular assist in 11 GP and two assists in 12 GP. All in, that's zero goals and four assists spanning 44 games while logging the 5th most ES time per game among the forwards. In my season preview, I wrote that I expected no more than 40 points from Lars Eller this season if he remained in a 3rd line role and now it’s looking like he won’t even crack 30.

The opportunity was there for Eller to take on a greater role early in the season when David Desharnais struggled badly his first 19 games but he simply blew it. I'm now at a point where the endless excuses made on Eller’s behalf have truly become tiresome, especially now that he’s got 280 NHL games under his belt; 24 less than Max Pacioretty and 32 more than David Desharnais.

It's also worth noting Daniel Briere has as many points in 13 fewer games while bouncing all over the lineup, often with worse line mates than Eller so at some point it’s up to the player to change their destiny. His obvious talent makes the situation horribly frustrating so while I’d be very surprised if Eller was traded by the deadline, given the Habs lack of depth down the middle, I wouldn't be shocked if it happened.

Either way, as an RFA this summer, a decision on Eller’s future in Montreal is fast approaching. Fortunately for Bergevin, Eller's coming off a cheap deal meaning the RFA has no leverage whatsoever and that should remove any urgency to make a move by deadline day, unless it ends with a substantial upgrade down the middle.

Rene Bourque is a trade candidate but I'm not expecting him to move until the summer when his salary becomes 833k less than his cap hit, which might be somewhat appealing to a cap floor team. Anything before then would likely mean Bergevin taking on a bad contract to get it done. Travis Moen has had a much better season than last year but given Brandon Prust's shoulder problems, he'll likely stay on a bit longer as insurance for the PK.

The Habs are traditionally mild sellers leading into trade deadlines so I'm not expecting a lot of movement again this year, which will satisfy no one. If Marc Bergevin is serious about rebuilding the Montreal Canadiens through the draft, the path forward requires the trading of Markov, Gionta and Murray but unfortunately the Habs also have a long history of sacrificing their future for a bite of playoff revenue, even if it's a small bite.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inside Game: The Effects of Net Drive on Special Teams

Welcome back to the PK Alexei Emelin (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
A few weeks ago I wrote about the effects of net drive 5v5 so now it’s time to cover special teams which in an era of declining power plays, now makes up about 23% of total offense. Strong special teams are pretty much wasted on those with a weak even strength game but for teams that do and get home ice advantage in the playoffs as a result, strong special teams is finishing school.

The biggest driver for robust special teams is opportunity; first by generating surplus (PP-PK) power play minutes and the best way to do that is to be first on pucks at even strength. Over the last five 82 game seasons, 75% of home teams generated surplus power play minutes and as a result, averaged 16% more power play goals at home in a given year than they did on the road.

Next up is maintaining surplus power play minutes on the road; and by that I mean maintaining a shallow grave and going from there.  Considering we’re talking about a 23% slice of the offensive pie, a look at the best surplus road teams in a given year typically reveals a mixed bag of good even strength teams and some very, very bad ones. With home teams getting the majority of surplus power play minutes every year, the only option for visiting teams is a combination of discipline and being first on pucks without last change.

League Averages

To better gauge the Canadiens, it’s important to first identify the league averages and so far this season, teams are averaging 7 unblocked shot attempts per game on the power play; 37.6% of them coming within 25 feet but generating 63.4% of all power play goals scored. That translates to teams shooting 19.6% in-close and 7.4% beyond 25 feet, both of which are higher numbers than at 5v5, which is understandable. As for rebound control and puck clearance, 19.6% of all power play goals scored came within three seconds of an initial save, up about 2% over 5v5 play, which comes as a bit of a surprise.

Last Season

Last season, the Habs allowed 5.8 unblocked shot attempts per game on the PK but a disturbing 48.7% of them came within 25 feet. Fewer attempts surrendered than the league average but far too many of them coming in-close. The result was opponents shooting 24.5% on the Habs goaltenders!

Another telling number for me was rebound control; just 11.8% of the red-zone (within 25 feet) power play goals against came within three seconds of a save. To me, that means Price and Budaj were being beaten clean beyond the crease more than as a result of defensemen losing crease battles for position and rebounds.

Had the Habs not led the league in surplus power play minutes last season, their 23rd ranked PK would have buried their special teams. Instead, with short-handed goals accounted for, they finished +5 in power play goal differential which tied them for 6th best in the East.

So, how are the Habs faring this season? At first glance, they enter game 25 vs. Buffalo with the 4th best PP%, 13th best PK% and ranked 12th in surplus power play minutes.

This Season

On the power play, they’re averaging 7.7 unblocked shot attempts per game so far, which is .7 above the league average and 1.3 more than their opposition. Of those shot attempts, 38.3% are coming within 25 feet which is also above average. Impressively, the Habs power play is shooting 25.9% in the red zone while opponents are shooting 21.8%, slightly above the league average of 19.6%.

All in, the Canadiens are +2 in PP goals within 25 feet, +4 beyond and with short-handed goals accounted for; their specials teams are first in the East at +9. On the surface, things look pretty good but there are some concerns.

Borrowed Time

First off, the Habs have only played 10 road games and three of the next five are on the road. That should mean fewer power play minutes and a PK that’s about to get tested. What’s especially concerning is that 47% of opponent power play shot attempts are coming within 25 feet. Just like last year, that number is way, way too high but so far, they’ve gotten away with it.

Carey Price has done a fantastic job making initial saves and limiting rebounds on the PK but he’s also only played in 5 of 10 road games where opponents get more opportunities and more chances. Budaj has been great on the road but unless they find a way to keep power play shooters to the outside more than they have, it’s a dam in danger of breaking; just at a time when the Habs appear to be finally turning the corner on their even strength scoring woes.

Needless to say, the timing for Emelin’s return couldn’t have been better and with Therrien easing him back onto the PK, hopefully we’ll see a drop in those red-zone chances against.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Habs Q1 Review: Chicken Little Edition

Gallagher knows where goals come from
With the 1st quarter of the Canadiens 2013-14 season now in the books, it’s time to stand back and evaluate what’s working and what isn’t to better understand why the Habs are currently sitting 5th in the Atlantic and clinging to the 2nd Wild Card spot.

The Positives

Only Minnesota, Boston and Los Angeles have given up fewer even strength goals against per game than the Montreal Canadiens, thanks in large part to a system that’s been successful limiting 5v5 red-zone chances within 25 feet. Let’s look at the league averages and then see how the Habs stack up.

To date, 67.9% of all 5v5 goals are scored in the red zone with teams averaging 33.6% of their total unblocked shot attempts coming in-close. That’s one third of 5v5 shots generating two-thirds of the offense so yes, shot distance matters.

Excluding blocks and empty net situations, teams are averaging 10.8 5v5 zed zone shot attempts per game and scoring at a rate of 14.9%. As for defensive net presence and rebound control, 18.2% of those goals came within 3 seconds of the goaltender making an initial save.

So, how did the Montreal Canadiens compare to those metrics through Q1? The Habs limited opponents to 60.7% red zone goals 5v5; the result of limiting in-close shots to 32.3% of the total for an average of 10.2 red-zone shots per game. All in, opponents shot 10.6% with 17.9% of their 5v5 red-zone goals coming off rebounds.

What I see is a team with a healthy, functional defensive system that’s done a good job boxing teams out 5v5. They’re allowing more perimeter shots but fewer quality shots and prime rebounds in-close. That’s a fine blend of disciplined forwards, defensemen and goaltenders working together to limit the opposition so it’s hard to complain about Therrien’s defensive coaching when the players are executing the system well 5v5.

On the offensive side, the Habs are actually outshooting the opposition 5v5 in the red-zone by 1.62 shot attempts per game with 36.4% of the attempt total coming in-close. Throw in the fact the Habs are also out-blocking the opposition at even strength by 3.3 shots per game and it’s hard to draw any negatives from that either.

So long as they continue to out-chance the opposition in-close, you won’t see me yelling that the sky is falling over Therrien’s bench management or Bergevin’s quota choices; mandated from ownership or not. Given the overall picture, fretting over the 4th line and 3rd D pairings is a distraction game, given both are locks to be -50% Corsi on every team but legit final four contenders. So long as they aren’t bleeding goals (they aren’t) there are bigger fish to fry.

Which leads me to the real problem…

The Negatives

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink it. Overall, solid coaching and player discipline to date has allowed the Habs to keep out-chancing the opposition in-close; an aspect of the Habs game that’s been a major problem for the club for most of the last 15 years. Through Q1, we’re still seeing the system sea-change that Bergevin and Therrien brought to Montreal; that winning hockey ultimately comes from strong even strength play in-close, not perimeter play and special teams.

While the Canadiens are generating 11.8 5v5 red-zone shot attempts per game, a healthy 36.4% of their total, the Habs are scoring on just 11.2% of their shots on net… in a league averaging 14.9% and where Cup contenders shoot north of 18.0%. As for capitalizing on rebound chances in the crease, the Habs are below average there as well, scoring just 16% of their 5v5 goals off puck scrambles.

The opportunities are there to score in-close so the lack of offense isn’t a coaching problem; it’s too many players not executing. And by executing, I mean hitting the damn net. Below is a chart to illustrate their shooting woes 5v5; both inside and outside of 25 feet, excluding empty net situations:

Those following me on Twitter know I’ve been going on about red-zone missed shots for a while now and this chart does a good job visualizing the concerns. The 1st thing that jumps out from the forward group is Gallagher and Galchenyuk; two sophomores leading the Montreal Canadiens in 5v5 red-zone shot attempts with young Lars Eller in third. That’s an entire line that was expected to provide secondary offense, leading the team in net drive and actual pucks on net.

Ideally, you want to see shooters missing in-close on about one third of their attempts, excluding blocks. Of the red-zone misses for Gally and Chucky; a healthy percentage are from tip attempts; meaning they were where they needed to be for rebound chances.

The forwards are, for the most part, where they need to be and as a result, the Habs are still out-chancing the opposition in the red-zone 5v5. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that only six teams miss the net more than the Habs do and through Q1, that miss rate is being compounded by the forwards shooting wide on prime shot attempts in-close.

To hammer the point home a bit more, only two NHL players have missed the net 5v5 more than Tomas Plekanec has so far this season and it’s having a drag effect on Brian Gionta and to a lesser extent Rene Bourque and Michael Bournival, his part-time left wingers through Q1.

That said, I’d rather see a player miss the net in-close than not being there in the first place for the attempt. That’s why I’m not overly concerned yet about Max Pacioretty. He’s shooting from closer range than years past and as a result, is missing the net less. A notoriously streaky player with 10 and 11 game goal droughts the last two years, the signs are there for his drought to end once he stops firing pucks into team logos. Beyond Eller however, the other centers have all struggled badly distributing pucks and creating rebound opportunities.

Which brings me to David Desharnais. On the surface, just five red-zone misses with 15 pucks on net looks okay but most fans have seen the quality of those shots. Desharnais has a bad shot and worse finish with an unhealthy dependence on his ass, chest and forehead to score goals in-close. Deflections are why he sports a 14% career shooting percentage and in a league of adjustments, DD hasn’t been able to develop the strength or skills to compete for crease position with the composure needed to generate quality chances at loose pucks like Gallagher; who I might add completely outclassed Desharnais when the going got tough in-close during the playoffs last year vs. Ottawa.

It’s good that DD hasn’t given up going to the net but he isn’t a top 2C. And with a very limited defensive game, he never was. Few teams can move a Desharnais into the bottom 6 and still provide the minutes and strong, offensive wingers needed to succeed so the best hope is that he rebounds enough to gain at least some trade value. And yes, I’d like to think Therrien putting him on a line in practice with Pacioretty and Gallagher is an attempt at that. Meanwhile, the Plekanec line gets the role, yet again, of shutting down the opposition’s best every night while being expected to generate primary offense.

At least Gallagher showed good chemistry with Pacioretty last year so if the sophomore can turn the two around, I’m sure some will be tempted to shunt the credit to Desharnais for his past “chemistry” with Patch and glaze over why Therrien moved Gallagher onto the line in the 1st place. As for the line juggling to get others going, well… that’s been in the NHL for as long as I can remember. I’ve always felt Desharnais and Briere was an either/or situation for the Habs so we’ll see how that plays out over the next 20 games.

Since a lot of 5v5 red-zone offense can be generated from the back-end, utilizing perimeter shots with forwards driving the net for tips, deflections and rebounds, let’s take a look at the Habs defensemen:

Two things immediately jump off that chart. First off, remember when everyone complained about how wild P.K. Subban was with his shot? Two off-seasons working to change his golf-swing into a more compact shot has certainly paid dividends 5v5; demonstrated by 44 shot attempts and just 8 misses beyond 25 feet. Meanwhile, Diaz and Gorges miss the net more than they hit it. Yeah, that’s not helping at all.

Why all the fuss about generating in-close shots? Take a look at those charts again and tally up how many 5v5 goals the Habs have actually scored beyond 25 feet through 21 games. That's right, SIX goals. Goaltenders on average stop 96% of all 5v5 shots on net beyond 25 feet so capitalizing on the in-close chances you do get is critical.

So there we have it. Outside of the majority of the team’s veteran core missing the side of the barn much too often, the offensive and defensive fundamentals are still sound enough to keep the Canadiens in the Wild Card mix. If they somehow go another 10-20 games with Storm Trooper shot accuracy, then yes, sky will indeed be falling.