Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Breaking down the Habs road scoring woes

Carey Price deserves the Hart Trophy, if only for his play on the road this season, because the Canadiens are 17-9-1… with the 27th best road offense. Having a 5v5 Red Zone (25 Ft) USAT of 49.5% vs. their opposition and just 47.8% on the road means they are still being out chanced too often in-tight, where the league shoots 14.5% 5v5. Fortunately, opponents are shooting 13.4%, thanks almost entirely to Carey Price buying time for his teammates to turn things around, and failing that, time for his GM to do something about it.

The greatest problem for the Habs, and Marc Bergevin in particular, is that the team is shooting just 14.1% overall and a paltry 10.4% on the road. To understand what is, or isn't going on, I wanted to break down the Canadiens forwards, to see where the problems are that might possibly explain why the Canadiens are tied with Colorado for 27th fewest road goals per game played.

The breakdown is pretty straight forward; Unblocked 5v5 shot attempts within and beyond 25 feet, at home and on the road, excluding empty net goals. I believe it casts some light on how each forward is performing and where they’re contributing on the ice:

Without doubt, secondary 5v5 road scoring is a huge problem for this team and I believe some of the numbers will surprise/shock some readers. Pay particular attention to Galchenyuk, Eller, Parenteau, Weise, Sekac (now in Anaheim) and Desharnais, and feel free to post your observations in the Comments.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Possession War: A look at the Habs Inside Game

Carey Price playing the best hockey of his career (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
How on earth does a 23rd ranked offense warrant a 37-15-4 record? Well, it sure isn’t because of the power play; the Canadiens offensive crutch of choice for almost 20 years. Even for the last 10 years, the Habs trail only the San Jose Sharks by just 0.19% for being the most PP dependent team in the NHL for creating offense. That means their even strength game, and 5v5 in particular, has been brutal for a very, very long time while teams who’ve been rather good at it have been winning Stanley Cups.

Before I get to the current season, historical context is needed because the Habs even strength problems have been an organizational issue spanning multiple coaches and GMs. As you can see in the chart below, the Canadiens haven’t been able to string together positive EV scoring differential seasons since 1997… that is, until Marc Bergevin & Michel Therrien arrived in Montreal. And for the few Jacques Martin defenders still hanging on, take a close look at his era of “possession hockey”.

Say what you will about Therrien and the Habs front office , it’s important to look at where the Habs EV game needs to be, compared to the teams winning Stanley Cups. Sure, it should be blatantly obvious there’s a lot of work to be done before anyone can seriously call them “Contenders” but there is much to like in their upward EV trend, by Canadiens standards anyway. It’s worth noting that as of December 9th last season, the Habs had a +.23 EV scoring differential so much of the slide (still ended in positive territory) can be attributed to the Carey Price’s knee problems in the second half of the season.

So the Habs record and positive EV differential baby steps is all because of Carey Price? Well, yes and no. St├ęphane Waite wholeheartedly deserves a lot of credit for his work with Price but the answer isn’t as simple as that, and that’s what this story is really about.

What’s really going on?

In a fluid, team sport it’s easy to focus on one thing for a simple answer as to why things are the way they are. What I wanted to do was drill down and look at both sides of the puck, where EV goals are being scored… or not. What’s happening with 25 feet of the net where two thirds of all 5v5 goals are scored and beyond, where Price recently referred to distance shots as “cosmetic a lot of the time”.

Last season, NHL goaltenders averaged a .960 SA% on 21.4 unblocked 5v5 shot attempts per game beyond 25 feet and had a .923 SA% killing penalties on 4.3 attempts. Within 25 feet, the SA% dropped to just .855 on 10.8 attempts 5v5 and .804 on 2.6 attempts killing penalties. Easy to see why heat maps tend to glow in tight. Of course, getting there with regularity and producing on those limited chances is far easier said than done but doing it better than your opposition is how you win more hockey games over time.

Puck possession just for the sake of it means little in a game of small percentages if you aren’t generating quality offensive pressure with the puck time you do have. By breaking down the real-time scoring data from games, it’s possible to generate a Fenwick% to see what the battle looks like where most of 5v5 goals are being scored.

A couple weeks ago, the Habs were supposedly the 5th best team in the NHL at puck possession time, yet after 56 games, they actually have a 48.4 Fen% in tight 5v5 and are only 47.1% on the road. That’s not acceptable of course but it’s actually an upward trend over years of 44-47 Fen%. Did I mention the Habs have been a brutal even strength team for a very long time?  So, even though the Canadiens are supposedly the 5th best team in the NHL for having puck possession, they’re actually getting out chanced where most of the goals are scored, especially on the road. It’s just not as bad as before so hey, progress, right?

Let’s look at how the Habs are doing with those limited offensive chances. They’re averaging 20.7 unblocked shot attempts beyond 25 feet and have a 4.3 SH%, which is in the ballpark of the league average on both counts, while the power play generates 3.6 attempts and a 8.8 SH%. from distance. Within 25 feet on the power play the Habs are shooting 17.3% on 2.1 attempts per game. Solid shooting percentages undermined by being 25th in total power play time, which is much more of a problem than mere PP%.

The inside game for the Habs is really telling. Overall, the Habs have a very pedestrian 14.7 SH% within 25 feet 5v5 on 11.1 attempts but the Home/Road splits are simply frightening. The Habs are very good at home with a 17.7 SH% but are a miserable 10.8% on the road. The road chances are barely average but the SH% has been pathetic. Anyone wondering how the Habs are 29th in road goals can look right there for the problem. So, how the hell can they be 17-8-1 on the road while shooting 10.8% 5v5 in tight? Two words: Carey Price.

While Price hasn’t needed to be elite on home ice, just excellent where he’s been downright Hart Trophy worthy on the road. Overall, opponents are shooting just 2.63% on the Habs from distance 5v5 while Carey Price has been beaten on just 2.37% of all 5v5 unblocked shots beyond 25 feet, including a stretch of 14 home games where he was beaten just once from distance. But wait, there’s more.

Opponents are shooting just 13.2% overall within 25 feet 5v5 and just 12% on Carey Price, off an average of 12.1 shot attempts per game. The league averages 10.8 red zone attempts so he's been facing a lot more quality shots than say, Pekka Rinne. Still not impressed? Carey Price has a 5v5 red zone SA% of .880 and is a staggering .893 on the road. .Again, the league average is .855. Overall, Carey Price has a .947 SA% in 5v5 play so if you want some heat map context, there it is.

Unsustainable?  Yes, but the question is what gives first? Carey Price stonewalling the opposition on the road while the Habs are being out chanced every night 5v5 in tight, or the Habs offense doing something about that pathetic 10.8 SH% when opponents can line match on the road? Considering the Habs shot 16.2% in tight 5v5 on the road last season and just 13.9% at home, at least some improvement is overdue so a little movement on both is likely.

Still, barring a major trade or patience for the likes of Nikita Scherbak and maybe a Michael McCarron, the Habs inside game 5v5 remains their greatest weakness, just not as bad as its been for a very long time. But until that changes, the Montreal Canadiens had better finish the regular season with home ice advantage in the playoffs because "Anything can happen in the Playoffs" is more wishful thinking than anything tangible.

So long as Marc Bergevin keeps working to improve the Habs 5v5 game, and there’s still a lot of work to be done, it’s hard to complain too much, given where this organization is coming from. True contender talk will hinge on the Habs getting closer to that +.45 EV scoring differential, where "Anything can happen in the Playoffs" actually means something.

In my next story, I'll look at the Habs forwards individually.

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.