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.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Therrien and Subban: Perception vs. Reality

With news that Habs GM Marc Bergevin will supposedly start contract talks with P.K. Subban in the next couple weeks, coach Michel Therrien couldn’t have picked a worse time to slide into some of the bad habits that ultimately cost him his job in Pittsburgh; namely using the media to send snarky messages to players.

The problem Therrien creates for himself is the disconnect between his public perception of a player and how he actually utilizes that player, and what’s frustrating is knowing all the grief and distraction he generates is easily avoidable and ultimately benefits no one. There’s no gain to be had using the media to embarrass a player, especially with someone not visibly susceptible to the tactic. What it does do is bring to the surface a major concern I and many others had about Michel Therrien being hired in the first place; that temper being his own worst enemy.

Does Subban even care what Therrien says publicly? It’s impossible to know for certain but Subban clearly has a lot of personal pride and given the hard line Bergevin took demanding a cheap, two year bridge contract, you can be certain Therrien isn’t doing the Habs any favours whatsoever to help dissuade Newport Sports Management from returning the favour with their own hard line approach; demanding a couple one year deals or a two year extension that’ll make P.K. Subban an unrestricted free agent in 2016-17.

So, given all the gasoline Michel Therrien has spilled on himself while pouring it on Subban in media scrums and 24CH, I wanted to take a closer look at the perception vs. reality. Does Therrien really not trust Subban late in games, and if not, is that concern valid? To do that, I decided to look at the TOI of the defensemen Therrien and Daigneault put out to start a shift in the last 5 minutes of games:

1. Andrei Markov

35 shifts for a total of 31:43, averaging 54.4 seconds over 16 games. There were three games where Markov got one shift in the last five minutes, and nobody seemed to notice or care. Since being paired with Subban, Markov’s overall game has improved but there has to be concern over how much Therrien’s depending on the soon-to-be 35 year old, currently 10th and trailing Shea Weber for total TOI among defensemen. Nothing good will come from it in the 2nd half of the season if that pace is maintained for 82+ games but so far in the last 5 minutes of games, Markov has been on the ice for six goals scored and one (empty net) against.

2. P.K. Subban

29 shifts for a total of 28:52, averaging 59.7 seconds over 16 games. There were five games where Subban got one shift and just one game where he received none. In spite of a recent four game streak (ANA, SJS, NYR and DAL) where Subban only got one shift, he has still managed to log the 2nd most late minutes this season for the Habs. And that zero shift game vs. St. Louis which everyone got worked up over? That was a direct result of Therrien putting him out for a 1:54 shift on a power play that ended with 4:38 to go. In the last 5 minutes of 16 games played, Subban has been on the ice for four goals scored and two (one empty net) against.

Making the assumption Therrien's lost trust in Subban, mainly because of that 4 game stretch is a stretch in itself, given only Markov has played more minutes late in games this season but truth is, Therrien only has himself to blame for how badly this story has blown up in the media. He's the one doing all the talking and leaving the door open for others to draw their own conclusions, just as he did in Pittsburgh.

3. Raphael Diaz

36 shifts for a total of 28:43, averaging 47.9 seconds over 16 games. There were no games where Diaz received less than two shifts. In the last 5 minutes of games, Diaz has been on the ice for one goal scored and none against. Clearly, some of the late shifts Subban hasn’t been getting recently have gone to Diaz but since he hasn’t given up any goals and Subban trails only Markov in late TOI, it’s hard to get overly concerned with 80% of the season still to go. Once we get into the new year, expect to see Emelin shunt Diaz down the list. In the meantime, however, it's starting to look like it's just a matter of time before Bergevin makes a long term contract offer to Diaz.

4. Francis Bouillon

34 shifts for a total of 27:10, averaging 47.9 seconds over 16 games. There were five games where Bouillon got one shift. In the last 5 minutes of games, Bouillon has been on the ice for no goal scored and none against. Situational shifts as a stop-gap with Emelin out of the lineup, Bouillon hasn’t hurt the Habs late in games... so far.

5. Josh Gorges

31 shifts for a total of 24:06, averaging 46.6 seconds over 16 games. There were six games where Gorges got one shift and one game where he received none. In the last five minutes of games, Gorges has been on the ice for two goal scored and one against. You know all that concern over the perceived lack of trust and late minutes for Subban? Well, Gorges is the real concern for me. He should be a solid number three in late minutes on the team missing Emelin and at the very least, should be out there late more than Bouillon.

6. Jarred Tinordi

Six shifts for a total of 2:36, averaging 26.0 seconds over six games. There were two games where Tinordi got one shift and two games where he received none. Pretty much what I would expect from a young D getting his feet wet. Look for Tinordi to ultimately play a half season in Montreal or at the very least, be up long enough this season to show Marc Bergevin if he’s ready for a full workload on a Habs D core that’s ripe for major change.

7. Douglas Murray

Four shifts for a total of 2:08, averaging 32.0 seconds over five games. There were three games where Murray he received none. Early signs suggest Murray won’t be counted on much late in games, which is a good thing for the stop-gap.

8. Nathan Beaulieu

Three shifts for a total of 1:41, averaging 33.7 seconds over five games. There were three games where Beaulieu got one shift and two games where he received none. Like Tinordi, Beaulieu got limited late shifts and needs to show Bergevin he’s part of the immediate solution between now and next summer. What time they get this season will go a long way towards defining their roles for next season and if the money saved on their cheap contracts can be used elsewhere on the roster with the cap primed for a big jump.

Control Thyself

What Therrien needs to do is keep teaching his Norris Trophy winner how to improve his game, a process that should never stop and at the very least, take a more neutral position when accessing his performance with the media.

Or better yet, with teams lining up to throw a max offer at Subban, either as a pending RFA or as UFA if he deems a two year contract extension to be more than enough, Therrien should balance his comments with how much he actually relies on Subban to win hockey games. Because he does. For the most part, Therrien’s done a good job controlling his temper but those media scrums are really starting to create an unnecessary problem for everyone.

If his temper continues to get the better of him with the media, a repeat of his ending in Pittsburgh is on the horizon and it’ll be up to Bergevin to make sure he doesn’t cost them Subban in the process. A mess Bergevin should be able to avoid with one closed-door meeting with his coach, and if that hasn't happened yet, it better be soon.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Inside Game: The Effects of Net Drive 5v5

Gallagher, Eller and Galchenyuk lead the Habs in Net Drive 5v5
Like moths to a flame, stats-folk are drawn to numbers and even when there are seemingly obvious reasons to be cautious, the temptation can often be too difficult to resist. So when it comes to drawing nectar from the NHL’s play-by-play game data, just how close can you get to shot distance and location without getting burned?

Until the NHL takes itself more seriously and stops relying on unverified play-by-play data, collected by part-time NHL employees with day jobs who are making what you probably think they’re making for a few hours’ work, a few times a week; trusting shot data carries a greater risk of combustion than sweet reward.

Simply put, the Elias Sports Bureau can process and track all the data they want for the NHL but when the raw data collected is based on live, screen-touching guesstimates of part-time individuals tracking a game in near-constant motion with no built-in redundancy or review process, delving too deep into shot data isn’t so much advanced as it is folly.

Trust Issues

So, how far do I trust play-by-play shot data? Just enough to paint in broad strokes to highlight patterns within teams and the league. Unfortunately, with passes and pass location completely untracked, there just isn’t data to break down what exactly happens in the final moments before a goal.

Short of analysing video of what preceded each and every shot attempt, all we have to go on is what type of shot was supposedly taken and if it went in, caused a rebound, missed the net, was blocked, tipped or deflected, etc., and more importantly of late; the on-ice coordinates of where the shot attempt was supposedly taken from, excluding blocked shots.

The thing is, trust in play-by-play data is entirely dependent on the NHL’s give-a-damn about verifying accuracy and once you get past goals, assists and TOI, their give-a-damn quotient towards reliable stats is easily the lowest among the four major North American sports. That lack of caring by the NHL is also the achilles heel of hockey analytics; stat-folk caring a heck of a lot more about the numbers than the NHL's part-time employees entering them no validation or oversight.

Get hit location wrong and nobody really cares so long as the count is somewhat accurate and before shot coordinates became publicly available, nobody really cared where they came from so long as the right players were credited with the goals and assists. NHL.com pulled on-ice coordinates from their Ice Tracker prior to last season but other sites still have access to them, offering them up for analysis and with that, the topic of “shot quality” swung into high gear.

The problem I had studying the Habs shot quality for the past three seasons was finding a sweet spot where the shot data could be trusted enough to actually be useful. I wanted to know how much of an impact net drive was having on goal production, or in the case of the Montreal Canadiens over the past 15 years, their lack of it.

During that time, I compared 5v5 goal distance and location from video highlights spanning 500+ games across the NHL to the stated goal distance recorded by the NHL’s part-timers and location data from sites that kept offering it. The NHL’s play-by-play distance data was consistently wrong by an average of 20% and with that, so was the location data, obviously. My trust and interest in on-ice coordinates ended there but play-by-play shot distance appeared to still have value.

The Sweet Spot

What the video highlights showed was that more than 70% of 5v5 goals are scored within 30 feet of the net, with the greatest concentration towards the middle of the ice, from the goal crease out to just beyond the hash marks and fading on either side towards the faceoff dots. The percentage might be higher than some may have expected but where most of the goals are scored from shouldn’t be.

From there, I analysed play-by-play shot data from every NHL game last season and the average 5v5 goal distance registered within 25 feet of the net, excluding empty net goals was a comfortable 67%. Knowing that recorded shot distance is typically off 20%, 25 feet became my trust sweet spot between what the NHL part-timers are recording and what’s actually happening on the ice. For this story on the effects of net drive 5v5, settling on 25 feet wasn’t an arbitrary decision; it’s as close as I dare get to the flame. As for location, I’ll let others risk getting burned on shot coordinates or distance averages.

Now, before I go into more detail, here’s a small sample of the NHL's shot location accuracy stat-folk must deal with; their most blatant play-by-play mistakes involving the Habs last season. Mistakes that were never corrected:

March 05, 2013 - Montreal Canadiens @ NY Islanders

1 EV 5:21 GOAL MTL #14 PLEKANEC(10), Snap, Neu. Zone, 107 ft.
Plekanec actually scored from about eight feet away, not 107.

2 PP 12:10 GOAL NYI #17 MARTIN(2), Snap, Def. Zone, 153 ft.
Good example of an NHL part-time employee marking the shot at the wrong end of the rink. Martin actually scored from about 21 feet away, not 153.

2 PP 1:23 GOAL NYI #26 MOULSON(11), Snap, Neu. Zone, 111 ft.
Moulson actually scored from about 20 feet away, not 111.

March 19, 2013 - Buffalo Sabres @ Montreal Canadiens

1 EV 18:59 GOAL BUF #63 ENNIS(8), Wrist, Def. Zone, 140 ft.
Ennis actually scored off a tip from about 13 feet away, not a wrist shot from 140.

That’s four goals with a combined distance of about 62 feet (Avg 15.5) registered as a combined distance of 511 feet (Avg 127.8). Think a scoring change would trigger a play-by-play data correction? Nope. Let’s look at a recent Habs game:

October 29, 2013 – Dallas Stars @ Montreal Canadiens

1 EV 12:02 GOAL MTL #49 BOURNIVAL(3), Slap, Off. Zone, 63 ft.
The goal was initially credited to Diaz but changed shortly after to Bournival, who had the puck deflect in off his body from about six feet away. Beyond the goal and assist credits to Diaz and Plekanec, nothing else was changed in the play-by-play data.

Net Drive Effects 5v5

Prior to Thursday night’s games, there has been a total of 12,015 goals, shots and misses recorded 5v5 and 33.9% of them came within 25 feet of the net. That translates to a game average of 10.9 shot attempts in-close per team. Unfortunately, blocked shots don’t have a recorded distance so I have to exclude them from this story. What’s especially interesting is that 33.9% has accounted for 68.7% of all 5v5 goals scored, within 1% of last year’s average. To put that into context, you’d have to shoot the puck 4.3 times as much beyond 25 feet to score as much within 25 feet 5v5.

The league average save percentage this season on all shots beyond 25 feet is .963, which is within .010 of last year’s average. Within 25 feet of the net, the average SA% drops to just .852, once again within .010 of last season. It certainly doesn’t take long for the league averages at distance to settle within a tight band of fluctuation.

Looking for evidence that the closer you get to the net, greater the odds of scoring, no matter what kind of shot you take? The league as a whole is currently shooting 14.8% with 25 feet 5v5. That's a 30+ goal scorer for anyone playing top 6 minutes that's willing to consistently drive the net. In addition, 18.7% of all 5v5 goals scored came off rebounds, where an initial save was made within 3 seconds. As for shot selection, 54% of 5v5 goals within 25 feet were scored with a wrist shot.

So what's the lesson for teams looking to improve 5v5? Generate more shot attempts in-close while limiting the opposition’s chances. Driving the net for a shot, pass, rebound, tip, deflection or screen clearly has its rewards, as does a quick release. And given the average league SH%, missing the net in-close should carry some form of team punishment program to drive home the fact that pucks on net do matter.

As for the Canadiens last season, their 5v5 in-close chances represented 33.5% of their total, slightly below the league average but much better than previous years. With a Fenwick of 54.3% within 25 feet, combined with a 17.1 shooting percentage vs. 15.8% against, the Habs were +13 on 5v5 goals scored and they won more games because of it. For teams like the Leafs who were getting outshot in-close last season by more than 2 shots a game, the only salvation for being out chanced in-close 5v5 is rebound control and excellent goaltending. I'm just not sure how long you want to hang onto that carton of milk before things go sour. Habs fans know it shouldn't be a long-term lifestyle choice on how to play the game.

Early Trends for the Habs

The 2013-14 season is just 13 games young so let’s look at how the Habs are doing so far. Their 5v5 in-close chances currently represent 39.6% of their total, well above the 33.9% league average while their Fenwick within 25 feet sits at 51.1%. Overall, the Habs are off to a decent start, generating 12.6 shot attempts in-close per game but they're also missing the net a full shot a game over the league average and that's costing them goals.

One area of concern for Michel Therrien is the Habs shooting just 11.2% in-close 5v5. Fortunately, Price and Budaj are limiting shooters to just 9.0%, thanks in large part to fewer rebounds. As a net result, the Habs are +3 on 5v5 goals scored in-close. If it wasn't for quality goaltending to start the year, their lack of in-close efficiently could've been a big problem. Bullet dodged... for now.

Carey Price is certainly playing much better than last year 5v5. Opponents are shooting just 9.8% in-close on him so far with the league average currently at 14.8%. Last year, Price was beaten in-close 5v5 14.5% of the time. Some regression to the mean should be expected in Price’s in-close numbers but hopefully they’ll be timed with the Habs improving their own SH% while he settles into an even strength SA% range that will no longer be described as “average”.

If the Habs are to go anywhere this season, that's a term that needs to be erased from memory and only Price can do it. While the regular season would be a good start, the jury is out until he performs in the playoffs and that's where I'm hoping Stephane Waite can help the most.

League Highs and Lows

Meanwhile in San Jose, folks wondering why the Sharks are off to a great start can look to their inside game. They're averaging 13.1 5v5 shot attempts per game within 25 feet and shooting 16.9%. At the other end of the scale we have the New York Rangers, averaging 11.2 shot attempts and shooting an embarrassing 5.4%. In Philadelphia, the Flyers are averaging just 10.0 chances and shooting only 8.7%. How about the defending Stanley Cup Champions? The Blackhawks are cruising along just fine, averaging 12.8 in-close chances per game and shooting an impressive 18.2%.

And then there's the Toronto Maple Leafs, the bane of stat geeks everywhere. You know the hockey gods have a sense of humour when they average a miniscule 8.6 5v5 hot attempts in-close and shoot a staggering 21.9%. That said, there's something to be said about pucks on net because the Leafs in-close are only missing the net 1.8 times a night, almost a full shot less than the league average and missing half as much as the Habs do.

Given the league average SH% is currently 14.8% within 25 feet 5v5, there's strong evidence the Leafs sky-high SH% is partly related to the team being among the league's best at getting pucks on net in-close for rebounds.

Next up, a look at the effects of net drive on special teams.