I sat here last night after watching that wretched loss to a team the Habs need to beat, in a game they really needed to win, and tried to figure out what's wrong with the Canadiens. Why is this team hovering around .500, and why does it seem to take one step forward, then drop back to the median again?
The goaltending is getting most of the blame, and it's true Carey Price didn't have his best game last night. But a weak game here and there doesn't account for an entire season's pattern. Both Price and Halak are in the top thirty among NHL goalies for both save percentage (Halak is fourth, with a .927 mark, and Price is sixteenth at .915) and goals-against average (Price is twenty-first, with a GAA of 2.69 and Halak is thirteenth at 2.46). There's no question Halak's numbers are better, although the reasons why that's so are up for eternal debate. Looking at the bigger picture though, both goalies are playing well enough to rank pretty highly in vital statistics league-wide. So goaltending is not, or should not be, the issue.
More concerning is the number of shots the goalies face every night. Although neither of the pair ranks among the top ten for games played by goalies, both are in the top thirty for shots against. The Habs allow an average of 31 shots per game on Price and 32 on Halak, which has them 28th overall in the league for shots allowed. In the meantime, they take only 27.7 shots per game themselves, which means they're outshot significantly most of the time. The low shots total means the Habs score only 2.49 goals per game, which ranks them 26th overall. If you do the math, you can see the Canadiens, on average, score a goal for every 11 shots they take. When you see the difference between the Habs, at 26th in the league in goals per game are only .3 of a goal behind the 11th-place Stars, it becomes clear that taking even five more shots a game would dramatically increase the chances of scoring more goals.
Another issue is falling behind early. The Habs have been outscored 45-32 in the first period this season. They've given up the first goal of the game 28 times and scored it themselves only 21 times. It wouldn't be that bad, but unfortunately, the team's winning percentage when trailing after one period is a dismal .250, which puts them twentieth in the league for that stat. So, slow starts are a problem.
There's also concern that the special teams aren't compensating more for weaknesses at even strength, which implies five-on-five play is even weaker than it appears statistically. The power play, despite its dreadful 0-for-6 performance last night is still tied with the mighty Caps for first overall. The penalty kill is eighth in the league, despite being shorthanded more than 23 other teams. The old adage says that special teams are successful if their efficency rates added together equal a hundred or better. The Canadiens PP is working at 24.7 percent and the PK is 84.2 percent, for a total of 108.9. That's pretty darn good. In fact, it's the best total on special teams in the whole NHL. So, if a team doing that well on special teams is still so very average overall, its even-strength play is pretty weak.
If a team is outshot consistently, gets behind early consistently and has great special teams and very weak five-on-five play, what can the problem be? I thought it might be personnel, so I compared the Habs with several other teams to see how they stack up offensively. It turns out, they're pretty similar. Most teams have six or seven players, not including defencemen, with at least twenty points in at least twenty games played. The Habs have six forwards who've put up at least twenty points, which is consistent with the rest of the league. Looking at the lower-scoring lines, most teams have six or seven players with twenty points or less, among them three regular forwards with ten or fewer points. The Habs are right on target with six forwards under twenty points, including three under ten points. In terms of offence from the defence, the Habs again are comparable to most teams. Canadiens defencemen have put up 88 points so far this season. The Wings D has 82, Sabres 91, Flames 82 and Bruins 90, just to name a few. So the Canadiens are comparable to teams ahead of them in the standings when it comes to average production through the lineup. There are no real glaring discrepancies between them and other teams, even though it might feel like the Canadiens' third and fourth lines or the defencemen rarely contribute.
The Habs aren't worse than other teams in terms of offensive contributions from regular players overall. But they have played more one-goal and OT games than every team except Calgary, Minnesota and the Islanders, and they have the most regulation losses in one-goal games in the league, with ten. Ten games in which they weren't able to get to OT and steal the loser points that give some of the teams ahead of them the advantage in the standings. While it appears the Canadiens stack up against the rest of their immediate competition in general production of their offensive players, it seems as though they can't get the desperation goals some of their rivals get.
In my mind, the difference between the Habs and their immediate competition comes down to one of two things. It's either that the team is stocked with the wrong players, or it's got the wrong coach. On the player side, size has been discussed ad nauseum as a reason why the Habs draw so few penalties and why they lose possession of the puck along the boards so often. But outside of Cammalleri and Gionta, the Canadiens aren't all that small, and nobody can fault the performance of those two. Gomez and Plekanec have also been producing, even though they're under six feet tall. While it's true the Habs are 24th in the league in hits, New Jersey, Buffalo and Colorado have less and the lack hasn't hurt those teams. The Canadiens lead the league in blocked shots, so courage isn't at issue here. One player stat that does seem to be hurting the team is giveaways, in which the Habs lead the league by a wide margin over the Oilers.
So, here we have a team that falls behind early in games, leads the league in giveaways, loses more one-goal games in regulation than anyone else and gets outshot most nights. The same team also has fantastic special teams, very strong goaltending and a balance of offence through the lineup comparable to other teams ahead of them in the standings. This makes me think there's something wrong with the coach's even-strength system of play.
A team can't perform on special teams as well as the Habs do if they're fatally flawed in either offence or defence. In fact, the very recognition that they've been missing at least one top-line forward all year, yet still manage to pull out the number of wins they do tells me the talent is there. The goaltending is there most nights. But even though the talent is there, this is a team that can't seem to complete a pass and gives the puck away instead. It's a team that doesn't penetrate the offensive zone for shots well enough, and spends too much time in its own zone. It's a team that can't ramp it up to score a tying goal when they're desperate. This is a systemic issue, and it's one Jacques Martin needs to address.
My big fear, when Gainey announced the Martin hiring, was that he'd make the team play the stifling pre-lockout brand of hockey we saw the Panthers play for years. It seems my fear is coming true. This team should be playing a much more exciting brand of hockey. It has speed, but doesn't use it. It has offensive punch, but isn't in the other team's zone enough to capitalize on it. Martin has to address his system here. Injuries have hurt the team a lot, but this system isn't helping. It's slow, clumsy, predictable and ineffective, and I refuse to believe it's solely because the players aren't capable of performing better.
The team's playoff hopes are in your hands, Jacques. Do something, and do it quick.