Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Habs 2013-14 Season Preview

The Montreal Canadiens have gone through 5 General Managers and made 9 Head Coaching changes in the last 15 years but something unusual happened with the latest regime change; the philosophical iceberg that has been their over-reliance on the power play to win hockey games appears to have finally changed course.

While the disingenuous might credit last season’s success on the Habs staying quite healthy through the regular season, and teams with less than 250 (Habs pro-rated: 226) man games lost to injury are certainly that, the reality is that Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien appear to have ended the Montreal Canadiens over-reliance on special teams and shifted focus towards winning games at even strength.

Why is this change so important for the future success of the Habs? Being the 2nd most dependent team in the NHL on the power play for total offense over the last 9 years hasn't and doesn't win many hockey games in an era of declining power plays. The 2 least dependent teams? The Blackhawks and Bruins who've won 3 Stanley Cups the last 4 years, thanks to excellent even strength play.


Meanwhile, for the last 14 years, the Canadiens have had a NEGATIVE even strength scoring differential TEN times and the reason was pretty simple; they were consistently outshot and outscored at close range. Two thirds of all ES goals are scored from 25 feet or less and the Habs have been a perimeter team, year after year… until last season.

Let that chart sink in for a moment. Last season’s +.354 ES scoring differential was far and away the best it’s been in 15+ years, a span that happens to include many healthy seasons. Even so, the Habs never posted back to back positive ES DIF seasons during that time so you can see what the litmus test will be for the 2013-14 Montreal Canadiens. The Habs will be on their way back to competitive relevance if the glimpse we saw over 48 games can hold up for 82. Meanwhile, Stanley Cup winning teams have averaged +.450 over the past 15 years so the reason why the Habs need to raise their ES bar is pretty damn obvious.

So, how exactly did the Habs improve so dramatically at even strength? They outshot and outscored the opposition at close range. While they were just +2 on goals scored beyond 25 feet, they were +13 in-close, a shocking number when you consider how they’ve been dominated in that department over the years. ES shot volume and distance matters and teams hoping to score from the perimeter, where goalies have a .970 SA% is no substitute for getting in close.

Fancy stat folks wondering why a few teams are winning hockey games while being outshot at ES might want to take a closer look at the quality of those shots. Is it "luck" or are they just outplaying the opposition within 25 feet of the net? I suspect the latter. The benefit of increased net-drive for the Habs was that for the 1st time in 15+ years, they averaged more than 2 ES goals scored per game. Can they maintain those averages over a full 82 game season? I certainly hope so.

Teams built to win at even strength on the road tend to win games at home. The opposite, to be certain, is rarely true. The average Stanley Cup winning team over the past 15 years has had a +13 ES goal differential on the road. The Habs average during that time? MINUS TEN! Last season however, it was +8. While it isn't a spectacular number, it is the highest it’s been since 1997-98. There’s more to be done but as Marc Bergevin has said repeatedly, "It’s a process”. It’s going to take more time but for the Habs to be a consistently better road team, it’ll come from driving the net more on the road without last change and that usually requires players rarely found outside the draft.

Now, wanting to drive the net is one thing; being capable of getting there and having the will to stay, especially in the playoffs with 2-3 times the physicality with few, if any penalties being called in series-deciding games? That's another thing entirely. David Desharnais buckled vs. Ottawa in the playoffs but players like Galchenyuk, Gallagher, Prust (playing hurt) and Bourque didn’t.


77.2% of goals scored in the NHL last season didn't come on the power play, an understandable number when you consider teams now average a measly 3.32 power play opportunities per game. To put that decrease into perspective, it translates to every team averaging 38 fewer power play goals than 2005-06 when teams averaged 5.85 power plays a night.

Now, if you focused purely on the percentages, and boy do fans and the media obsess over them, the Habs PK would appear to be a major problem. Of course if there were almost 6 power plays a night rather than a number closer to 3, I’d be equally concerned but all-in, the Habs still had the 6th best special team goal differential in the East last season.

After percentage fixation, the next biggest faux debate is over PK formation; Diamond vs. Box. The formation used, and no, not Carey Price having the worst PK SA% among starters in the NHL last season was the problem. Right. Personnel decisions on the D pairings obviously played a role but the usual forward pairs were largely healthy and outside of Emelin, the same could be said for the D. If Carey Price had even a starter's average PK SA% of .872 instead of a putrid .804, the PK would have been much better.

Forget that most of the NHL uses a 1-3-1 power play, or Center Flood, if you prefer and the default formation to defend against it is basically the Diamond. The play is fluid so if the PP shifts to 2 men on the point, the PK morphs into a Box and on the chess-match goes. The whole point of fluid movement on the PP is to draw a defender out of position to create an outnumbered opportunity in front of the net. To suggest the Habs PK woes were primarily the result of formation selection is an incredible over-simplification.

As for personnel decisions, I have great difficulty imagining P.K. Subban getting little more than table scraps on the PK again this season. Perhaps early on but as the season unfolds his minutes should grow while Andrei Markov gets less, if for no other reason than it has to happen. The stop-gaps have a purpose to serve so by mid-season I expect Tinordi to be logging more PK minutes than Frankie Bouillon with Beaulieu pushing for a roster spot and time on the power play. The PK needs smart, mobile players and Therrien/Daigneault seem fixated on assigning roles to certain players. It's these stubborn attachments on special teams that may ultimately bite them in the ass so if there's justifiable criticism to be directed towards the coaching staff, this is it.  


Point totals vary from season to season and nothing has a greater impact than a role change. When it comes to TOI, there's more to it than just minutes, it's also about where those shifts start and end. A balanced player should generally see their even strength shifts spread across all 3 zones, or about 33% for each. Where it goes above or below that number signifies the roles assigned to each player and the likely impact, both positive and negative on their point totals. With that in mind, here's a rundown of what to expect this season:

Max Pacioretty - 70 points. When you start just 22.4% of ES shifts in your own end, offensive production in expected. Patches led the Habs with 40.7% ES starts in the O-zone and I highly doubt that'll change this season. He's their best offensive weapon and with that, he should lead the team in scoring once again. While Pacioretty doesn't contribute on the PK, he is defensively responsible and has gotten better maintaining puck possession across the offensive blueline. He'll need to be even better this season because his linemates (Desharnais & Briere) to start the year are not. To take another step in his development and become a PPG player, Pacioretty need to drive the net more and release that excellent wrist shot more often from 25 feet, rather than 35. If he doesn't, frustrating scoring droughts while he dials-in the range are to be expected.

Tomas Plekanec - 60 points. Every year I'm disappointed to see all the criticism Plekanec gets for his lack of offensive production and this year certainly won't be any different. The thought of 60 points from only 28.8% O-zone starts at ES, against front line checkers, is pretty impressive if you ask me. With 31.2% D-zone starts, the Habs best two-way center will once again receive the greatest workload defensively against the oppositions best. Plekanec won 58.7% of his faceoffs in front of his own net so if he doesn't put up the offensive numbers fans/media expect, it's only because of the role he's been asked to play.

Daniel Briere - 50 points. Just days away from turning 36, Briere is going to get cherry O-zone starts and power play minutes but the real question is the quality of his defensive game. Neither he nor Desharnais are solid without the puck and even with 40%+ O-zone starts likely to happen, a major role change post-Flyers, a lot of shifts are going to end in front of Carey Price. Briere will start the year with Pacioretty & Desharnais but I’m concerned how well that line will play at even strength, especially on the road. The line needs a puck hound and ultimately, that might be Gallagher.   

David Desharnais - 50 points. No Habs center got more 5v5 offensive minutes last season and no Habs center was on the ice for more 5v5 goals against. Disturbing when 39.1% of his starts were in the O-zone with just 23.0% in front of Carey Price. Losing some weight may help his acceleration and mobility but Desharnais will continue to be dominated on the boards. His career performance on the power play away from the Bell Centre is simply atrocious and at some point, it should cost him minutes. Should. Desharnais and Briere lacked chemistry in camp but one thing is clear; Desharnais will be the net presence on that line so look for about 1/4 of his goal total to come off deflections. He's been given every opportunity to succeed offensively and there's mounting evidence it isn't justified. Fortunately, he isn't being paid top 6 money but I seriously question how useful Desharnais would be in the bottom 6. 

Alex Galchenyuk - 45 points. While Galchenyuk played a preseason game at center, and did well, look for him to spend most of the season at LW. Part of the sophomore jinx is that many prospects have difficulty making the adjustment from cherry, O-zone minutes to being held more accountable defensively. If he plays the entire season with Eller, that defensive load will surely be a significant change from last season where he started just 25.5% of his ES shifts in the D-zone. While the offensive chemistry with Eller and Gallagher was lacking in preseason, I do like what I’ve seen from them without the puck. Galchenyuk’s board work has improved and he’s stronger on the puck but what excites me most is what I saw from him in the playoffs; he never stopped driving the net. The only thing holding the trio back from 50+ point seasons will be offensive minutes. Barring injuries, they'll be counted on for secondary offense with 3rd line minutes, unless the unexpected happens and Desharnais drops down the depth chart.

Brendan Gallagher - 45 points. Consistency is Gallagher’s middle name. Even with 4 games lost due to a concussion, his splits were 6,7,8 & 7 points last season. Fearless in front of the net with an excellent wrist shot, Gallagher has what all small wingers need, an extra gear and willingness to be 1st on the puck. Always. That hustle will probably be rewarded with PK time at some point this season.

Lars Eller - 40 points. Lack of consistency continues to be a problem for Eller. He improved defensively but again had extended periods last season where his give-a-damn quotient and faceoff % fell off. Playing with a Jack Russell terrier like Gallagher and an elite talent in Galchenyuk should remove all excuses. The opportunity is now for Eller to prove he's a top 2 center and shunt Desharnais down the depth chart. Even if that happens, can the Habs can afford to give more D-zone starts to Desharnais to free up Eller offensively? If that happens and Eller's line do get 2nd line minutes, expect 50+ points from the 3 kids.

Brian Gionta - 35 points. This will surely be Gionta’s last year in Montreal. A true leader and well-respected in the room, he had a very consistent season; posting splits of 6,6,8 & 6 points over 48 games. IF Gionta can stay healthy, he’ll be a calming influence on a team with little in the way of NHL-ready right wingers capable of producing in the top 9.

Rene Bourque - 35 points. A quarter of Bourque's goal production typically comes off deflections, not shots so while he lost 21 games to concussion from a cheap-shot, he was among the Habs best going to the net in the playoffs vs. Ottawa. That bodes well for this season. He's an underrated defensive player so like Plekanec, Bourque will be asked to generate offense starting in his own end more often than the O-zone.

Brandon Prust - 25 points. I liked the signing last year because while some dismiss Prust as a goon, he’s a versatile hockey player; capable of playing on lines 2-4 at all 3 positions. Oh, and he can kill penalties. George Parros will hopefully allow Prust to fight less because he’s far more useful on the ice than off it.

Michael Bournival - 10 points. Speed and versatility should ultimately get Bournival 40+ games with the Habs. Bournival has the acceleration and extra gear to pressure opposition energy lines and the skillset to take advantage. His ability to play both center (did well on preseason draws) and left wing will ultimately cost Ryan White or Travis Moen a roster spot. Works hard on the boards and has shown the hockey sense and agility needed to contribute on the PK. Has 30 point upside in the next few years.

George Parros  - 5 points. George turns 34 in December and will probably be spot-dressed as needed all season. As a sub-7 minute player, I don’t expect him to play more than 40-50 games but he’ll certainly have the opportunity to play a lot (starting in game 1 vs. Toronto) until December when fighting in the NHL starts to plateau.

Ryan White - 5 points. Tremendous heart but White’s on his last legs in Montreal. Discipline will continue to be a concern so while he’s a useful 4th liner who’s good on faceoffs and can bang on the wing; he gets as good as he receives in fights, which is certainly not a good thing. Beyond injuries, the only thing that might keep White in Montreal all season is the fact there's no C/RW in Hamilton capable of replacing his jam.

Forward Depth: Christian Thomas RW/LW, Louis Leblanc RW, Patrick Holland RW/C, Erik Nystrom LW, Mike Blunden RW, Gabriel Dumont C/LW.

Outside of Christian Thomas; who had a lacklustre preseason before suffering what appears to be a sports-hernia, there’s little offensive help coming from Hamilton this season. There’s passable bottom 6 depth for short-term help but if anyone in the top 6 goes down for a big chunk of the season, the Habs will lean on the kids; Galchenyuk & Gallagher to step up. No pressure.


P.K Subban - 55 points. Fresh off a Norris Trophy winning season, this year is about rounding out Subban's overall game. During the preseason, he demonstrated a more compact release and a heavier, more accurate shot. Subban also bulked up in the off-season so we’ll see how Therrien plans to use him during the regular season. P.K. led the Habs in ES, PP and overall TOI/G during the playoffs so really, the only element that raises an eyebrow, is why Therrien doesn’t want to use him on the PK? Bouillon, Drewiske & Diaz all took turns on the PK last year so it’s hard to fathom how Subban could possibly do worse. This season, Tinordi will get worked in in the PK and they signed Douglas Murray to help out as well so Subban's time on the PK will most likely be a topic of debate once again.

Andrei Markov - 40 points. Now in the last year of his contract, Markov is morphing quickly into a power play specialist. At even strength last season, he generated less ES offense than Francis Bouillon and was on the ice for a staggering 42% of the Habs ES goals against. As a power play QB, Markov is still outstanding but with him obviously slowing down at even strength, why the heck is he getting so much PK time? Meanwhile, the thought of Markov-Diaz as an ES pair, especially on the road makes me cringe. Markov needs to avoid contact on the boards whenever possible (Hybrid Icing will help) and Diaz avoids contact on the boards whenever possible. Clearly, Emelin can’t get healthy fast enough. It's highly unlikely Markov wants a 1 year extension and highly unlikely the Habs want to commit to a multi-year 35+ contract so this should be his last year in Montreal. If Bergevin has an opportunity to pull off a Rivet-style trade for the pending UFA, he's got to do it.

Raphael Diaz - 25 points. He’ll put up points on the 2nd power play unit but the jury’s out on how well he can cover for the loss of Emelin as Markov’s partner. Diaz isn’t eager to pay the price in the corners by getting to pucks first, so there’s a physical element clearly missing from the pair that will have to be addressed at some point.

Josh Gorges - 15 points. Gorges had a real tough time killing penalties last season and the revolving door of PK partners didn’t help at all; Bouillon, Diaz and a host of others. So many in fact that Subban, who was 9th in team SH TOI played more time on the PK with Gorges than anyone else. As an ES shutdown pairing, it makes no sense for them not to play heavy PK minutes together.

Francis Bouillon - 15 points. Stopgap #1. He’ll be paired with Tinordi to start the season and once everyone on D is healthy, a decision will need to be made though for PR and marketing reasons, Bouillon won't be the 1st D moved out to clear room for the kids. Regardless, with a strong batch of young defensemen nearing the NHL, this will certainly be his last season in Montreal.

Alexei Emelin - 10 points. If Emelin can play a half-season, I’ll be pleasantly surprised but it usually takes a full year to rebound from major knee surgery. The thunderous body checks will probably have to wait until next season so between now and then, it’s all about getting him healthy and signed to a new contract.

Jarred Tinordi - 5 points. He’s NHL-ready but the numbers game may see him sent down to Hamilton at some point this season. Regardless, I expect him to play at least 40 games in Montreal as they desperately need to work in his size, toughness and mobility.

Douglas Murray - 5 points. Stopgap #2. Habs fans have barely had a chance to see him in action since he signed a one year contract on August 22nd. He’s a bit of insurance for Emelin and will be asked to bring some toughness, block shots and play some PK. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s traded or winds up on waivers before the season is over.

Defense Depth: Nathan Beaulieu LD, Davis Drewiske RD/LD, Greg Pateryn RD, Magnus Nygren LD/RD, Darren Dietz RD, Morgan Ellis RD

Defensive depth shouldn’t be a problem for the Habs this season, even with the loss of Emelin. The stopgaps will buy time for Beaulieu, Nygren and Dietz especially to get a lot of minutes in Hamilton. A changing of the guard is coming and with 5 UFA defensemen in Montreal and Subban RFA, Bergevin & Therrien will need to work the kids in sooner, rather than later.


Carey Price - 37 Wins, .917 SA%, 2.40 GAA. If Stephane Waite can help Price improve his focus and play better in high-stakes games, the sky’s the limit. The 2 areas of concern are his PK SA% where he was beaten clean far too often; something that carried over into the playoffs after a month-long slump to end the regular season and a career playoff ES SA% over his career that's almost Fleury-bad.

Peter Budaj - Short of an injury to Price, Budaj will be hard-pressed to see 15 games.

Goaltending Depth: Dustin Tokarski, Robert Mayer

Price needs to be transported game to game in bubble wrap.


1. Detroit, 2. Boston, 3. Ottawa, 4. Montreal, 5. Toronto, 6. Tampa Bay, 7. Buffalo, 8. Florida.

1. Pittsburgh, 2. New York Rangers, 3. New York Islanders 4. Washington, 5. Philadelphia, 6. Columbus, 7. Carolina, 8. New Jersey

The Habs will finish 4th in the Atlantic but make the playoffs with one of the two wildcards.