Montreal Canadiens 2012-13 annual: Les Habitants (du sous-sol)

Cam Charron
August 17 2012 04:26PM

Some may suppose it's appropriate that the Montreal Canadiens were founded the same year they began building the Titanic. Built in the same year were the deck chairs that general manager Pierre Gauthier was shuffling around the deck as the ship began to sank. It's not that Gauthier was purposefully making moves that would ruin the Habs' chances at a playoff spot, but he made a number of questionable decisions in a bleak effort to save face and keep his job.

The butchered heads of failed managers rarely roll, and even when they do, they don't go too far. Gauthier lost his job with the Canadiens and ended up in Chicago as an assistant, while Marc Bergevin, an understudy of the successful Stan Bowman, was hired as Gauthier's replacement in Montreal to oversee hockey's Lower Canadian club.

Funnily enough, things weren't awful for le club hockey last season. Sure, they finished with an Eastern Conference-low 31 wins and 78 points, but that was partially thanks to a league-low 11 wins in 37 one-goal games they played. In games decided by three or more goals, the Habs were 14-12. So what made the difference?

Well, partially, there's the theory that winning one-goal games isn't necessarily a team talent. Scoring more goals than the opposition is. Not counting empty-net goals or goals awarded by the NHL after shootout victories, Montreal had a goal differential of minus-2 last season, 14th in the league and 6th in the conference, ahead of playoff clubs Ottawa (-4), Washington (-6), and Florida (-23).

I can't exactly fault any Habs fan for asserting that the 2012 Montreal Canadiens were *gulp* an okay hockey team. I stress okay because the East was very weak last season and Montreal was right in the middle of that. But then they got worse.

So what happened?

Well, observe the graph below via BehindtheNet

THAT is what happened. The Canadiens were a pretty good team in the first half of the season, controlling the shot clock, getting their chances, and just failing to convert. This led to a number of reactionary moves by Gauthier. He fired the coach Jacques Martin, acquired Tomas Kaberle, a defenceman of questionable pursuit since he had left the Toronto Maple Leafs and, probably most famously, dealt one of the team's best players in Michael Cammalleri mid-game for Rene Bourque.

Forget it, this wasn't Gauthier shuffling deck chairs. He was randomly fiddling with buttons in the safety control room of Sector-7G while the power plant was melting down around him. Prior to the axing of Martin, the Habs had a 48.8% tied Fenwick rate, which is an acceptable amount of puck possession, running fairly close to even, and with a goalie like Carey Price behind him, that can add up to a record that could conceivably make the post-season.

Also, after Martin was fired, the team's puck possession rate fell to 45.3%, and the team was surrounded by a bizarre language debate as Martin's replacement, Randy Cunneyworth, apparently didn't speak French.

Here are some numbers in chart form comparing the two halves of the season. "PDO" is the simple addition of shooting and save percentages. The idea is that they'll regress to '1' over the course of a season. The numbers are only score-tied, even strength numbers:

  Fenwick Tied MTL Shooting % MTL Save % MTL PDO Points (per 82)
Martin 48.8% 8.2% 0.926 1.008 84.6
Cunneyworth 45.3% 8.5% 0.915 1.000 73.8
           
Total 46.7% 8.4% 0.919 1.003 78.0

(From timeonice.com, here, here and here) So what does this tell us? Well, as average as they were in the first half, that's as how bad they were in the second half.

There is still, fortunately, a lot of room to improve, and teams can turn around their fortunes with one or two strong signings or trades.

Did they do it?

No.

Resolute, via Wikimedia commons

Forwards:

In 38 games, Mike Cammalleri had 9 goals. Pro-rated over a full season, that makes him the fourth most efficient scorer on the Habs. Andrei Kostitsyn had 12 over 53, rendering him fifth. Montreal has yet to add any significant offensive body to replace losing those two.

Rene Bourque is a capable player. Despite only scoring five goals in 38 games with Montreal last season, he also put up a remarkably low 7.5% shooting rate, which, over a full season, would represent a career-low. Realistically, Bourque is worth anywhere between 20 and 25 goals depending on the minutes he plays.

But, gee, is that their only guy? They added Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong in the offseason, two players who are as useful in the offensive zone as a single screwdriver is on a construction site. Sure, it's better than nothing at all, but they can be bought at the hardware store down the street.

Prust has played some meaningful hockey, but not "four-year contract" meaningful. He can play tough minutes in the defensive zone, but not very effectively and his career-high in goals is 13. Armstrong was so bad he was bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There is some goodness here, though. Max Pacioretty has developed into one of the elite scorers in the NHL, third in the NHL last season in even strength goals per 60 minutes behind just Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin. He was 10th in the league in shots and could crack the 300-shot mark during the next full NHL season. Headed into his 24-year old year, he's right in his prime and the Canadiens locked him up for the duration of his productive years with a six-year contract.

If there still is a playoff team here, the key lies with Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Erik Cole, who may be the only forwards on this team who provide positive value for the club. If they go into the season with a roster similar to what they have today, there are several replacement-level screwdrivers, and it makes no difference whether they're playing with Montreal or any other team.

Scott Gomez also deserves a mention. He fits into "goodness" more than "badness", and I've already explained why in a column from January. He's a strong playmaker and defensive forward, and the amount of money he makes doesn't strip him of that.

Michael Miller, Wikimedia Commons

Defence:

PK Subban is one of the elite young defencemen in the NHL. Playing on a pairing with Josh Gorges, the two saw tough minutes and won possession battles despite all the terrible play in front of them.

After that, the barrel is a little thin. Kaberle's coaches no longer trust him in his mid-30s. In his last full season with Toronto, he averaged 22:21 on a pretty good defensive team that included Dion Phaneuf for the second half along with François Beauchemin. Last season he averaged just 17:43. Despite a Stanley Cup ring with Boston, he hasn't been able to put it together since leaving the Leafs. He had plus-Corsi per 60 rates in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 season and was only slightly below zero in 2011, but he was -5 per 60 minutes last year in easy minutes while not seeing a lot of ice time.

They brought back Francis Bouillon, and there's the off-chance Andrei Markov stays healthy for an entire year, so there's always that, but the rest of the D includes Alexei Yemelin, Raphael Diaz and Chris Campoli, and none of those players are worth writing home about.

Goaltending:

Presented without much comment:

  EV SV% NHL Average Win%
2009 0.920 0.919 0.469
2011 0.931 0.921 0.528
2012 0.918 0.921 0.400

Why did I leave win percentage in there? Because it's clear that even if Carey Price is the elite goalie he's perceived to be, although I have some doubts, the Canadiens still need a lot more done with their roster to break the .500 mark, something Price has only accomplished in one of his three seasons as a starter.

That's not entirely on him, of course. I think that of the four statistics used to judge goaltenders, only save percentage has any clout, and even strength save percentage, which doesn't make it onto your local team's broadcast, is superior to that. Price was roughly average one year, terrific the next and back to below average a year afterwards.

The point here isn't that "Carey Price is terrible" or even "Carey Price is merely average", the point is that Carey Price isn't good enough for the Canadiens to justify making him their highest-paid player behind Scott Gomez, and certainly not for $6.5M over six seasons. They have much more important priorities.

Anything else?

Well, their coaching ought to be better. They got rid of Cunneyworth after the season and put a real coach in place, the former Penguins boss Michel Therrien, who is good at short-term turnarounds. That may be worth a win or two. Enough to put them back in the playoffs? I don't think so.

The team also had a very impressive draft in Pittsburgh, landing Alex Galchenyuk, Sebastien Collberg and Charles Hudon, among others, but they aren't exactly short-term NHL solutions. Galchenyuk sat out most of last season with an injury, so I'd expect him to wind up in Sarnia for an extra season to develop. Even the good prospects take a year or two to get accostomed to the NHL, or even make the show, so it could be some time before we see the benefits of those selections.

This will be a below-average to average hockey team in the next year of competition and will need some good luck to make the postseason.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#1 Derek T.
August 17 2012, 12:14PM
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I rarely actually laugh out loud at anything I read on the internet but the "Did They Do It?" section did it for me. Great article Cam.

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#2 MathMan
August 17 2012, 12:33PM
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Montreal's possession nosedive actually started before Martin was fired. For 22 games, they were better than okay, they were easily in darkhorse-Cup-contender land. After that, they became pretty much horrid overnight. And that coincided with, I kid you not, the game where Scott Gomez suffered his long-term injury.

I think firing Martin prevented any kind of possible recovery, but the root of the problem was repetitive injuries. They had holes, but they had depth in other areas that could cover those holes. At some point the injuries became too much and they became unable to cover the holes.

That said, on paper it's a semi-decent club still. It's got good players at every position (do not forget Brian Gionta in your list of forwards, BTW; a tough-minutes guy who can pot 20-25 is not to be sneezed at), just perhaps not enough of them. The holes opened by Gauthier's firesale have not been filled at all, but they're not completely without oomph either.

I figure Therrien will be better than Cunneyworth but I doubt he will be as good as Martin.

I agree that Carey Price is overpaid, but the Habs were backed in a corner there. Price's career curve is ahead of most goalies his age, but IMO he's not elite (a notion that his hotly debated on Habs analytics blogs, BTW). He's a known-good goaltender though and I suppose there are worse things to overpay than that. But if it were me I'd have explored a trade.

If you'll allow me to plug in my article-with-charts, where I've split the season into segments to illustrate this: http://awinninghabit.com/2012/08/08/hockey-analytics-dissecting-the-2011-2012-season-piece-by-piece/

I think that it will need luck to get into the postseason, but since it is the East, not necessarily too much luck. It lost the most man-games of any club last year (or close to it) and that's unlikely to be repeated, and most of those man-games were to top-6 forward types (plus Markov). If it could get another top-6 forward and a spare second-pairing D-man we'd be in pretty good shape.

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#3 MathMan
August 17 2012, 12:35PM
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@MathMan

Also, David Desharnais is certainly going to provide positive value next year. Yes, he's putting up his scoring in softer minutes with great linemates. But he's also making 850k and that amount of scoring at that price tag is always going to be worth it.

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#4 nhleast
August 17 2012, 08:50PM
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It will be fun watching Burke and Bergevin battle for the basement this year. I suspect Bergevin will get the habs on the right track well before Burke

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#5 MathMan
August 18 2012, 06:30PM
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Well that depends. Overvaluing the Prusts of the world is unwise, but it may not matter much if you can sign top guys to deals like Pacioretty's.

Prust is overpaid, but he can play; he's not a useless punch-only goon. Bouillon is a decent player. Armstrong is a low-risk reclamation project. All in all fairly wasteful and it all neglects real team needs, but nothing in there is franchise-crippling.

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#6 Normand Harvey
August 18 2012, 11:39PM
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Ugh. 'Reactionary'. It's not the word you're looking for. Please extirpate that monstrous malapropism from your dictionary. Do it for the children.

http://relentlessineptitude.blogspot.ca/2012/05/hey-sportscaster-5.html

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#7 Normand Harvey
August 18 2012, 11:51PM
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@MathMan

The fact that David Desharnais had softer minutes isn't supported by this chart.

http://www.habseyesontheprize.com/2012/8/17/3249838/sometimes-someone-in-the-stat-community-comes-out-with-something-that

His minutes are as difficult as Tomas Plekanec's based on the average minutes on the ice per game logged by his opponents. His linemates and Tomas' data are essentially equal.

This is refreshing evidence to look at, since, the 'soft minutes insulated by big wingers' trope is one that gets repeated so often that it's now taken as gospel. It helps validate the view prevalent today in the NHL that size trumps all. It does currently, but only because of the refereeing ineptitude.

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#8 Terry Kenny
August 19 2012, 08:42AM
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Just a few thoughts

Markov if he's back healthy Habs defence is very strong .... you'll be writing home about Yemelin soon

No mention of Lars Eller kid keeps getting better had 16 goals last year reasonable to expect 20+ this season

Injuries killed the Habs last season all this team has to do is saty healthy and the palyoffs shouldn't be an issue

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#9 MathMan
August 20 2012, 10:38AM
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@Normand Harvey

Desharnais's minutes were not as difficult as Tomas Plekanec based on:

- offensive vs. defensive zonestarts, which is not on the chart - strength of linemates, which also is not on the chart - strength of forward opposition, where Plekanec has a significant edge on that chart

Desharnais is a fine player and he is absolutely fantastic value for his money, but he is not as good as Plekanec. He got offensive minutes that were softer than Plekanec's; he killed them, which is no small feat, but they were not the toughest minutes on the team. And he had better (not "bigger", *better*) linemates to do it with most of the year, not to mention more stable. By the end of the season Plekanec was centering Bourque and rookie Louis Leblanc.

It has nothing to do with size, it's where is game is at. He's an offensively-oriented player with limited two-way ability. We also need to not take as gospel the notion that DD has become the Habs' best center just because he had the most points.

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#10 Stephan Cooper
August 20 2012, 08:21PM
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@Normand Harvey

The problem with that chart is that its missing two significant points, Gionta and Cammalleri, that would be around Plekanec.

There you would see a definate separation from the Desharnais line and Montreal's top match up line.

Take a look at absolute values for the chart rather than the shape and you'll see Desharnais comparables were guys like Hall and Eberle, top offensive forwards that tended to avoid hard forward matchups. In terms of forward quality, Desharnais faced the same time on ice opposition as Eller. Other Q o C stats show Eller somewhat higher.

So Eller and Desharnais both faced 2nd/3rd level forwards, Eller tending to take the stronger posession players, Desharnais facing the quality defensemen.

Also Desharnais WOWY are much weaker than Cole's and Pacioretty's, both who are quality players in all even strength situations. Good chance he's being carried somewhat by two first line wingers, like Henrique in New Jersey.

For qualtiy 5 on 5 play next season, Montreal has two nexus of talent at forward. Pacioretty-Cole as top offensive players that are decent on defense and Plekanec-Gionta, two players with good top-six offense and high level defense. Then comes the supporting cast.

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#11 Paul Laliberte
August 23 2012, 08:37AM
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@MathMan

The last comment is the right one. The team significantly underplayed last year due to a combination of factors: injuries, bad management and poor coaching. Once they get rid of the dead wood (read Gomez and Kaberle for start), and if they can count on Markov for the entire year they are a sure bet for the playoff. The upside is an open question.

BTW: I am quite amazed how in some circles (including this blog) Desharnais still gets no respect. Both Pacioretty and Cole had banner years playing with him (and both players sure made it clear that they wanted to play with him at center), and yet it is as if he got good numbers only on the account he played with them...

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#12 MathMan
August 23 2012, 11:05AM
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@Paul Laliberte

Desharnais is a fine player, and he's a hellacious bargain at his salary point, but but he is getting too much respect elsewhere (notably RDS). It's important not to overvalue him just because he had the most points (or worse, because he's a Quebecer playing in Montreal). Context is important and the Habs devoted a sizable chunk of their line matching strategy to giving him and his linemates the best chance to offensively produce.

He's not even the best overall center on his team, that would be Plekanec; but whereas Plekanec could likely have done DD's job, DD cannot do Plekanec's job nearly as well, and that's why the assignments shook out like they did.

Cole had a banner year playing with Desharnais because of the easier circumstances. Last year he faced the toughs with Eric Staal, and led all Canes forward in quality of Competition metrics; this year his competition metrics were a lot weaker, reflecting his deployment in a more purely offensive role. Of course, it helped that he shot unusually well (14.5% for a career of 12.9%) -- expect a bit of regression for him next year in the goal-scoring department.

Pacioretty had a banner year playing with Desharnais because he's just that good. It was his first full season since graduating from the AHL, but he was scoring goals at the same pace the previous year, playing alongside Scott Gomez who, people assure me, is a total black hole.

It's actually fairly counterproductive to use #72 and #67 exclusively in the offensive exploitation role -- both have two-way capability and would probably be of more use to the team eating tougher minutes, especially in a context where the Habs kept losing top-6 wingers to trade and injury, leaving Plekanec to handle the tough minutes with rookies, glorified fourth-liners, and the shell of Rene Bourque. If the Habs had kept Cammalleri or Kostitsyn and especially if Gionta had been healthy it might have been a different matter.

On another note -- Gomez and Kaberle aren't strictly "dead wood". They're overpaid certainly, and that implies cap inefficiency, but unless the Habs can find more useful players to spend the money on that doesn't matter and Montreal hasn't tried very hard to improve this offseason. In the meantime both are useful NHL players; in fact, linked above is a piece by Cam Charron about the impact and importance of Scott Gomez to the team, and in one of my comments you'll see a link where I look at the season in some detail and note that the Habs' troubles really began precisely when Gomez was injured long-term.

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