Friday, April 1, 2011

Why the Habs offense is struggling

Pacioretty paying the price
As the regular season winds down and teams jostle for playoff ranking, the Habs currently sit 24th in goal scoring average, 20th at home and 24th on the road… a paltry 0.03 goals a game better than last year, even though the Canadiens have twice as many forwards on pace to be healthy enough for 70+ games.

So what gives? Is it Jacques Martin’s system, too many small forwards, an overall lack of talent, key injuries or a combination of reasons? The objective of this study is to examine the Habs offense, at home and on the road and in comparison to their opponents to provide insight on what’s really happening on the ice.


Of course it hurts to lose Markov just 7 games in and Gorges near mid-season but their production and rolls have, for the most part, been replaced by Subban and Wisniewski while Mara and Sopel have been playing 3rd pairing minutes covering for the loss of Spacek. Among the forwards who log the most minutes that are relied on to carry the offense, Cammalleri has been the only key injury, and he’s still on pace to play more games than last year.

Even with the Canadiens spending most of their season and much of their available cash covering for a seemingly endless stream of injuries on defense, the team is still mid-pack (17th) in terms of man-games lost. Injuries affect every team so given the Habs have had a rather healthy group of forwards this season, any attempt to blame the stuttering offense on injuries and a need to tighten up on defense as a result doesn’t really carry a lot of weight in the grand scheme of things.

The Power Play

On average, 79.7% of a hockey game passes without someone taking a penalty. That’s two teams combining for 12.2 minutes a night so when you factor in the number of off-setting penalties, fighting majors especially, it’s easy to lose focus and talk too much about power play % vs. penalty kill efficiency.

When comparing teams, it’s usually the first stat thrown up on TV screens after looking at the goalies, even though the clear majority of the game and offense is at even strength. Rarely do we see even strength stats mentioned during a hockey game while special teams are a constant hot topic.

Yes the power play is important and it’s nice to see the Habs ranked 7th in power play percentage, 13th at home and 8th on the road but context is needed to fully understand how special teams really contribute to the offense.

Power play differential is where that context can be found. At home, the Habs are -8 in power play opportunities and just +1 in goals scored with short-handed markers factored in. On the road, the Habs are a miserable -28 in opportunities and -3 in goals. The situation would’ve been worse if the PK wasn’t able to limit opposing power plays to just 15% away from the Bell Centre.

Suddenly, that 7th best power play percentage doesn’t look so good when the power play differential results in -2 goals scored. Simply put, even though the PP has been solid, it’s being wasted and costing the Canadiens wins.

If the bulk of your core group of skilled forwards are small and you don’t have last change on the road, the best defense against teams leaning on your players physically is keeping them honest with a punishing power play. Hard to do when your -28 on the road and -36 overall, while giving up more power play goals than you score.

Anyone watching the Canadiens knows most of the penalties taken are stick infractions, especially on the road and usually well away from the crease. It’s a gross lack of discipline and that’s on the coach. That’s why I can’t help but notice it took all of two weeks for Jacques Lemaire to regain discipline in New Jersey after taking over so what's the issue in Montreal?

Even Strength

The meat and potatoes of offense. Two-thirds of a hockey game is typically played at even strength, be it 5-on-5, 4-on-4 or 3-on-3 and how teams perform in those situations has the greatest impact on winning or losing.

In the case of the Habs, with the bulk of their offensive forwards healthy most of the season they’ve managed to be a playoff team while ranked 26th in even strength scoring. Thank you Carey Price. While offensive support for Price has improved from 2.28 goals last season to 2.53, one really can’t help but wonder what he could do with the 2.93 goals per game the club scored for Jaroslav Halak last season.

And as tempting as it may be for some to try and point fingers at Carey’s recent performance, the fact remains he’s done more with less and is far and away the biggest reason Habs fans dare utter the word “playoffs” this spring. The blame for the current slump, like the slump in December could be shifted more towards Price if the Habs offense was doing it's share.

Personally, I have difficulty blaming goaltending for losses when the team is averaging a laughable 1.00 goals a game the last 5, just as I had difficulty blaming Price during the mid December slump when the team scored an average of 1.90 goals spanning 10 games.

The 3 Zones

To better understand how the Canadiens and their opponents perform at even strength I broke down the offensive zone into 3 groups:

Zone 1 – Front of the net area out to hash marks between the circles

Zone 2 – Extending out to face off dots and then parallel with boards to top of circles

Zone 3 – Anywhere beyond

The purpose is to quantify penetration towards the net, both for and against, at home and on the road. Good NHL starting goalies stop about 92% of all shots they face but not all shots are created equal.

Shots from Zone 1 will beat a goalie almost 20% of the time, shots from Zone 2 drop to less than 10% while shots from Zone 3 are typically stopped about 97% of the time. The zones will demonstrate how driving to the net is key and how shot totals are rarely indicative of how a game actually turned out.

Goal location at even strength

Looking at the Habs scoring zones clearly indicates the team is being forced to produce from greater distance on the road against teams with last change who, more often than not, get the match-ups they want:

Canadiens scoring zones


52.6% 39.7% 7.7%


47.0% 28.8% 24.2%

Opponents on the other hand aren’t being forced to score from father out as the Habs are. In fact, they are shifting goals from Zone 2 to Zone 1 while at the Bell Centre. These stats only tell half the story of course. It’s an indicator of shot quality and what it takes to beat a goalie. If you want to beat Carey Price you need to get in close and jam the net:

Opponent scoring zones


63.2% 21.1% 15.8%


67.7% 16.9% 15.4%

Shot location at even strength

The most striking stat in this story is that the Habs actually generate more shots from Zone 1 on the road than they do at home, albeit it just 2.4% more. This goes against the generally held believe that the Canadiens can’t or won’t drive to the net on the road. Overall however, the Habs get out-shot in Zone 1 no matter where they play, it’s just a matter of how bad:

Canadiens shooting zones


23.6% 34.2% 42.2%


26.0% 24.9% 49.1%

Overall we can see how the Canadiens are being forced outside on the road, taking lower percentage shots in an effort to score. As Carey Price and others have said, when the guys in front box out the opposition, life becomes a whole lot easier. Here we can see how the opposition is doing an even better job of boxing out the Habs:

Opponent shooting zones


30.7% 24.7% 44.6%


27.3% 28.7% 44.0%

Shooting percentages at even strength

Now that we know where the goals and shots are coming from, relative to their opposition, it’s important to put in all in context to see how successful the Habs are with their opportunities. As mentioned previously, it’s very surprising to see the Habs generating more shots on the road in Zone 1. Looking at shot accuracy however tells the full story.

The Canadiens struggle to penetrate through the offensive zone for prime Zone 1 shots but they do get them. Problem is, they’re rushed for lack of time and space to convert those chances, at home and on the road. That 4.6% decline in shot accuracy is 27% worse than at home, translating to a loss of 11 even strength goals and conservatively 3-5 road wins. Last change matters when the home team collapses to defend the net:

Canadiens shooting %


Z1% Z2% Z3%
17.2% 9.0% 1.4%


Z1% Z2% Z3%
12.6% 8.1% 3.4%

For opponents, we see just a 0.6% drop in Zone 1 shot accuracy when playing at the Bell Centre where the Habs have last change and a much better record. To better understand their home record, the Habs are -26 in Zone 1 shots but +67 in Zone 2 which translates to +13 in even strength goal differential:

Opponent shooting %


Z1% Z2% Z3%
17.3% 7.1% 3.0%


Z1% Z2% Z3%
16.7% 4.0% 2.3%

On the road however, the Habs are -32 in Zone 1 shots, +11 in Zone 2 and +56 in low percentage perimeter shots from Zone 3, translating to -10 in even strength goal differential. It doesn’t take much to see where the problem is and what needs to change.

Clearly, blaming the situation on defensive injuries while Habs forwards won’t or can’t pay the price more often to generate golden Zone 1 shots and capitalizing is misdirected. If the forwards had the intestinal fortitude and size to gain and maintain presence in front of the opposition net for more screens, tips and rebounds it’s safe to assume that horrid 12.6% shot accuracy would be significantly higher, resulting in more wins and who knows… maybe home ice advantage in round 1 of the playoffs?

Size for the sake of size won't fix the problem while the power play won't really matter much until team discipline is taken seriously. Going to the net requires a certain mindset to take the punishment in order to mine goals.

Max Pacioretty is a great start as 9 of his 14 goals came from Zone 1 but he needs to get healthy and have others capable of top 9 minutes equally willing to pay the price. If they won't or can't, it'll be up to Carey Price and a undetermined playoff hero to propel the Habs beyond round one.