Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Cavalry's Coming

You can bet nobody is as happy as Tomas Plekanec at the Canadiens' signing of Jeff Halpern yesterday. Halpern is something the Canadiens haven't had in quite a while: a real, true-blue defensive specialist. In the last several years, the guys the Habs have used to fill that role in the bottom six have been former goal scorers on the downside, or aging vets lacking at least one of the tools needed to be an ideal shut-down player.

Halpern fills a perfect niche for the Canadiens. He's 34, so not too old. He's a PK specialist, and a right-handed centre with a bit of size. Best of all, he wins faceoffs. In the last five NHL seasons, he's consistently above 51% on the draw, which would make him the Habs' best centreman in that department. That should make a big difference to the Canadiens' game. Puck possession starts with the faceoff, and the Habs lost 50.3% of theirs last season. Plekanec, in particular, didn't have a great year in the faceoff circle, finishing with only a 49% win rate. That's a tough stat, because he took the majority of the team's draws...1615 of them, which placed him third in the league behind Sidney Crosby and Paul Stastny. A guy who takes that many faceoffs needs to have a better percentage on the draw if the team is to be successful in the puck possession game. Plekanec is capable of better; he was at 51% in 2008-09, but it's not his specialty. Having a guy like Halpern, with a better chance of winning big draws, gives the puck to the Canadiens more often. And, as they say, you can't score if you don't have the puck, it's also true you score more often if you *do* have the puck. That's good for the offensively-talented guys like Plekanec who benefit when they have more scoring chances.

The addition of Halpern also gives Plekanec a break on the defensive side of the game. Last season, Plekanec played an average of 2:44 a game on the PK, versus his 2:38 on the PP. Part of that is because the Canadiens as a team were shorthanded and on the power play an even 148 times. Ideally, though, Plekanec should get more time on the PP and at even strength so he can really focus on scoring goals. Killing penalties is hard work and a guy who does it several times a night will feel it later in the year. It's no coincidence that Plekanec's rate of production began to drop after the Olympic break. He had 21 points in 17 games in December when he was fresh. In March and April, he had just 10 points in 19 games. He also took 14 minutes of penalties in the 19 games post-Olympics, as compared with just 10 PIM in 26 games over October and November. Tired players take more hooking and holding calls than fresh ones. With Halpern in the lineup, Plekanec should spend less time on the PK this season, which will help him keep his legs for the stretch run.

Halpern, by winning faceoffs in the defensive zone, should also help cut down on the number of dumb penalties the Habs take in the first place. If they're in possession of the puck and moving it out of their zone efficiently off the draw, there's less running around and taking desperate tripping, hooking or interference penalties.

Halpern's signing, especially at the reported $600-thousand is a great deal for the Habs. He's got a good reputation for hard work and leadership in the dressing room, which fits with the attitude the team developed in the playoffs. His pay is very cap-friendly and leaves that extra bit of money for the possible acquisition of some deadline playoff help if needed. He can also use his right-handed shot on the PP, like Glen Metropolit did last year, to pot a few goals now and then.

The only possible drawback is the message it sends to the kids in the organization that the big team is set already. It doesn't leave an easy opening for a guy like White, Pacioretty, Desharnais or Maxwell to grab a roster spot. On the other hand, if one of those guys has such a great camp that it's impossible to cut him, Halpern outranks Mathieu Darche on the depth chart. The kids don't have to beat Halpern. They have to beat out Darche, which is still possible for them to do.

There are a lot of reasons for fans to be pleased with the Halpern signing. If he stays healthy, he's going to fix a couple of cracks in last year's lineup. Sometimes, the small things are the things that really make a difference in the big picture. The players know that, and we can assume that's why Tomas Plekanec should be smiling today.

16 comments:

Morenz7 said...

JT:
I fear another possible drawback is Halpern's blown-out knee, which explains the salary discount. ESPN.com's Scott Burnside says JH has never been the same since the injury at the 08 world championship, and that's an opinion I respect. It's not so much that Halpern might go down mid-season—that could happen to anyone, and he's only on a one-year deal. It's the possibility that he can't deliver the version of himself you describe above. He certainly had trouble doing so in LA. There are other ways this money could be used, and we did already have a surfeit of bottom-six forwards.

Then again, Robert Lang demonstrated last year that these things can be overcome. Perhaps Gauthier got some reassurance about the injury from Halpern and his agent. I certainly view the guy as a good soldier, and remember many nights when he made life miserable for the Habs. If he comes through, the deal will look great.

Anonymous said...

Halpern is a huge upgrade over White, Pacioretty, Desharnais or Maxwell. Habs are looking like a well balanced team and if they can remain healthy will give the Bruins a battle for the division title. Good job Gauthier.

MathMan said...

Morenz7: Not to belabor my own opinion of Burnside, but there's zero risk involved in this signing even with the knee. Even if he can't be the Jeff Halpern of old, he can certainly be at least a serviceable NHL 4th-liner, and at almost minimum salary that's a fine signing. There's some potential for upside, but the absolute worst-case scenario is that they pay him league minimum to sit in the press box, and I think that that's highly unlikely.

pfhabs said...

@anon:

-slowed because of significant knee injury and very little offense but he's "a huge upgrade" over younger guys that can skate and have some offensive pop and except for Desharnais they are as big but more robust...how do you come to this conclusion ?

moeman said...

Well thought out and even better written. Can't add a thing except that the Franco-Montréal media ain't happy he's not Québecois.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Halpern does indeed look like a good signing when you learn a little more about him. If his faceoff abilities continue to hold steady and his knee isn’t a problem, he’ll be a great addition on the PK and and also keeping the opposition off the board.

V said...

Thanks JT. This move reminds me of the deft little move by PG on the Moore pickup.

The other person who should be relived with this move is Eller as it takes some pressure off of him for a year - could even give him more time in the AHL if he needed it.

Despite the attention he will get given what we gave up for him, I see Eller as a mid-term project. Won't be surprised if he gives us a lot this year and won't be disapointed if he doesn't as long as he moves forward.

Brad said...

Halpern is a defensive specialist who will take the load off pleks so thats why he is a upgrade over those young guys and he is a right handed shot.

saskhab said...

This move is also significant in the sense that hopefully it means we don't have to acquire a Jeff Halpern/Dominic Moore at the trade deadline for a 2nd round pick. Don't know why Gainey never went bargain hunting for cheap depth before training camps start.

Myron Selby said...

This all sounds good in theory until you start thinking about it a bit.

You say:

"And, as they say, you can't score if you don't have the puck, it's also true you score more often if you *do* have the puck. That's good for the offensively-talented guys like Plekanec who benefit when they have more scoring chances."

The problem with this is that if Halpern is taking the draw it means that Plekanec is on the bench so he doesn't benefit from Halpern winning the draw. Since Halpern will be playing on their shutdown (non-scoring) line, the only way this will benefit their offensive guys is if he wins the draw and then changes on the fly. Not much of a benefit on the offensive side.

Let's analyze the numbers for Plekanec. You say he won 51% of his draws in 08/09 but 49% last year when he took 49% when he was involved in 1615 draws. I'm assuming you mean regular season record here. So if we break that down it means that Plekanec won 791 draws and lost 824. If he'd maintained his 51% average those numbers would have been reversed.

So in an 82 game season he would have won 33 more draws. If you do the math on that, it means that he would have won 1 more draw every 2 & 1/2 games. Every little edge helps, but really how much difference does 1 draw every 2 & 1/2 games really make?

You say they draw more penalties when they lose the draw. If you figure they take an extra penalty every 10th time they lose a draw over when they win it (which seems way high to me) they would have drawn an extra 3 penalties per season based on Plekanec losing those extra 33 draws.

I'm not saying Halpern won't help. I just don't think your draws won/lost argument holds up.

Milos Coko said...

@Selby

The faceoffs argument completely holds up. The role of the 4th line is to tire out the other team's top line. You win the faceoff, you get the puck deep, you forecheck. All very tiring stuff for both sides. Pleks doesn't have to do it anymore.

Gabe said...

Personally I watched as our Habs lose a draw at the face off circle to the opposition and it would end up in Habs net. Killing penalties is always crucial to win the draw, at time Gomez lost and the opposition circle the puck well enough to put players out of position and left Price alone with a one timer from Ovechkin.

So winning a draw is most important when players are on penalty killing shift or power play shift. If you can get all the 2 minutes playing in the oppositions side of the ice, there's an increase of scoring chances which might better benefit winning the game itself.

This acquisition will surely give our prospects centermen some breathing room if they didn't go on penalty killing role. Gives us fans to evenly judge the players. :P

We'll see how this all plays out for Halpern, might not like the guy during the regular season just like Gill and love him during the playoffs. We'll see.

MC said...

Nice article JT. Halpern is a risky signing in that his knees may not hold up, but it is not a big deal if he has nothing left. Nice move by PG.
@ Selby. I think you are analyzing the stats too closely. Even the best face-off guys in the league are only 60%, but those guys will dominate key face-offs. Watching the play-offs last year, face-offs were an obvious deficiency for the Habs. With the teams in the league so close now, every advantage counts. Plekanec was only 47% in the playoffs which was not good enough.

Anonymous said...

I like the signing as well. But all this talk of draws is tiring. There are important faceoffs, and not so important faceoffs. Likewise the fourth line isn't there to tire out the other team's first line, otherwise they'd be playing 22 minutes a game and not 5-7 minutes.

I know it may seem foolish but I think the job in any sport is to play better, harder, and more thoughtfully than your opponent - always. A coach's job is to know when your always won't hold up.

Halpern is a good signing. Strength down center is very important in hockey. The Montreal Canadiens have more centers now than any other position.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen a 60% faceoff guy... not saying there haven't been any (and haven't checked), but a guy in the low 50s is likely among the league leaders.

As for the faceoff argument, it's not Halpern's 51% replacing Pleck's 49% that you have to consider. It's Halpern's percentage versus the third or fourth line centre (so a Laps or Metro). Not sure what their win percentage was, but I know Halpern's would have led the Habs last year.

We want Plecks to win them on the PP and in the offensive zone, Halpern to win on the PK and in the defensive zone.

MC said...

WRT face-offs, Brind'Amour was 58% last year and 61% the year before, which is amazing considering half the time he is the away team and has to put his stick down first. The year they won the cup, he was a beast in the faceoff circle, helping Carolina win in 2006. Halpern is not in Brind'Amour's league, but he is above average, and small advantages matter in the playoffs. Check out the link on Brind'Amour.

http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=498817