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)|
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?
Resolute, via Wikimedia commons
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
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.
Presented without much comment:
|EV SV%||NHL Average||Win%|
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.
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.