Wednesday, March 7, 2012

For Want of a Nail

Do you remember the old nursery rhyme, "For Want of a Nail?" If you don't, it goes like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

With Pierre Gauthier's decision to re-sign Andrei Markov and hope the MIA defenceman would be ready to anchor the Canadiens' blue line, Markov essentially became the proverbial nail. In considering where this season first went wrong, there's no question the shaky state of the defence corps has been a major contributing factor.

Markov was supposed to be there. He was supposed to be The General, and quarterback the power play. He should have been teaching P.K.Subban how to be an NHL defenceman and taking the heaviest minutes off the kid. In anticipation of his return, Gauthier allowed Roman Hamrlik, who'd filled the Markov-less gap over the two previous seasons, to walk away. Ditto James Wisniewski, who'd cost a second-round draft pick to come in and stabilize the PP just a few months earlier. That left a D-corps featuring two guys brand-new to North American hockey in Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin, two sophomores in Subban and Yannick Weber, two senior citizens whose combined top speed might possibly have challenged a crawling baby in Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek, the unfortunate Chris Campoli who got hurt in his first game, and Josh Gorges.

That sad lineup of defencemen meant everyone had to step up a spot to fill in for Markov. Gorges has been a warrior, thankfully none the worse for his knee surgery. Unfortunately, Emelin and Diaz were on steep learning curves, Subban regressed...possibly from trying to do too much...and Weber was wildly inconsistent. Gill and Spacek were slow and not particularly good with the puck. As a result, Diaz, Weber, Emelin, Gorges, Campoli and Subban have a total of 18 goals between them all year. The now-departed Gill and Spacek added another one goal. The dreadful lack of scoring from the back end and popgun power play led to the acquisition of Tomas Kaberle, who has contributed two goals while failing to improve the PP or fill a defensive hole, all on a bad contract. In total, the Canadiens defence without Markov has put up 112 points.

The number of points scored from the blueline may seem like a bonus, as the common perception is the forwards supply most of the points. Stats say that's not true. A look at the top ten teams in the league shows an average of 128 points scored by defencemen to date. The bottom ten teams' D-corps put up an average of 99 points. If you take the points scored by defencemen, and look at the percentage of the team's total scoring to which they contribute, the difference is even more noticable. The top ten teams' defence helped out on 65.4% of all the goals they score. On the bottom-ten teams, that number is 59.3%. If you look at the top five teams in the league, the very cream of the crop...legitimate Cup contenders...the numbers are startling. On those teams, the defence contributes to 73.6% of all the goals they score. That means they're moving the puck accurately up to the players who are putting the puck in the net. The Canadiens, at 65%, were better than average, but certainly not good enough to rank with the best.

In fact, scoring is only part of the tale. The best teams' defences not only score points, they also prevent the other team from scoring. While the Canadiens' D aren't the worst on the points front, and should probably be about middle of the pack, standings-wise, based on that fact, their inability to keep the puck out of their own net at even-strength is their undoing. Here, once again, the absence of Markov is keenly felt. The Habs have the best PK in the league, probably because the worst of the defencemen don't play on it, and the best defensive forwards do. However, at even strength, the Habs give up more goals than they score. They score only .91 goals for each one they give up, which puts them at 23rd in the league, a good indication of the defence corps' performance this year.

Then there's the power play. Hovering around last place in the league all year, it currently sits at 28th. When Markov is available, he provides the two-fold threat of a set-up from the left point as well as the back-door sneak up the left wing to pop a goal of his own. In his last full season for the Canadiens (painfully, three years ago), Markov had 24 points at even strength, and a sparkling 39 on the PP. If the Canadiens had 39 more PP goals this year, they'd jump from 28th to first; from a pitiful 14.6% to a dominant 30.5%. Of course, that's just adding Markov's PP contribution to the 36 goals the Habs already have, and that's not realistic. Some of the points put up by others would naturally not have happened if Markov had been on the ice instead. Still, even allowing for, say, 10 fewer PP goals by others, Markov on the PP would still have the Canadiens PP sitting first in the league.

Andrei Markov's ability to score and help others do the same is sorely missed on the current edition of the Canadiens. Without him, they're like the Red Wings without Lidstrom or the Predators without Weber. The team misses the points, but perhaps even more, it misses his steadying influence on the blueline. The young defencemen miss him as a mentor. And everyone pays the price when players who don't have a third of Markov's ability are forced to pick up the slack.

There's no doubt many things have gone wrong with the Canadiens this year. The problems are much more far-reaching than just the defence. One can argue, however, that the problems began for want of a nail. A nail called Andrei Markov.


Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head.

The knock on effect of Markov not playing 25+ minutes a game is huge.

Markov would usually play 25 minutes. He can be paired with almost anybody and make both effective.

If Markov is playing then PK can watch more and learn. Gill and Spacek would play under 15 minutes each and not be put out in tough situations.

It also affects the makeup of the D. PG added Campoli and Kaberle to try and fix a moribund power play. Both players are soft and unable to play a physical style. That leaves the habs with Diaz, Weber, Campoli and Kaberle. Four soft and physically weak Defencemen. Add in Gorges who is not a fighter and Emelin who cant fight and you have a recipe for disaster.

No contending team can survive long without muscle on the back end. You need to have a big, physical guy who can bash heads if needed as well as prevent the other team from dancing through your crease area.

The failure to add such a player has directly lead to many goals against and much abuse of Price.

Hansolo said...

True enough, JT. But we should never have been in the position where we were SO dependent on that particular nail? Any system that depends so much on one key component (an individual, in this case) is doomed to fail. Given that we can count on anyone being injured at some point in the season, it was culpably negligent of PG to have put the club in that situation -- to have made no overtures at all to Wisniewski and to have let Hamr and Spacek go without suitable veteran replacements signed. I hope that with Markov and Gionta back next season, and with some vets on D in place of the not-lamented Campoli and Weber, that we'll get some of our mojo back.

Kyle Roussel said...

The importance of the powerplay is declining rapidly in today's nhl. If the Habs had a league-average success % of 17.6% (what it was a week ago), that would only translate to 6 more goals on the year. A 21.8% (which would lead the league) would deliver 18 more goals, based on last week's tally of 243 opportunities. The problem is that most people haven't yet realized that powerplay opportunities are drying up faster than water in a hot pan. Since the lockout ended, teams have had, on average, 203 opportunities taken away. That's a drop of 42% - from 480 opportunities per team in 05-06 to a projected 277 this year. That's 3.38 chances per game. Yikes. It's time for the Habs to focus on where the real rewards are found: even strength.

DT said...

JT, you didn't once mention the word "soft". Sure, Emelin and PK can hit, but the rest of the D don't intimidate anyone. It's so easy for other teams to gain the Canadiens zone.
And what about the bomb from the point during the PP? Markov doesn't have that and no one else on the current roster will fill those shoes. Markov's PP points came during a time when the team had Sourray, Streit and MAB. When will management learn this position needs filling?

J.T. said...

@kyle: Sure opportunities are down, but a goal-challenged team like the Habs has to take advantage of the chances it gets. Of the Canadiens 32 losses to date, 21 have been by one goal. Ten others have involved an empty-net goal against, to make a two-goal loss. Using your 21.8% success rate and extra 18 goals, how many of those close losses might have been in the Habs' favour?

el BaruCH said...

great stuff as always JT! Thanks for keeping an even keel despite the fact that the venerable HMS CdH Canadien is barely staying afloat with old rope and car tires. If I were to pray I would pray that Habs management read your blog, every page of it.

Kyle Roussel said...

Sure, 18 more goals would have helped. But we can't assume that if Markov was around, that the Habs would somehow be leading the league in powerplay production.

But let's assume that they had the top ranked pp, as well as the top ranked pk. They'd still only be a fringe playoff team, and we know what eventually becomes of 5-8th place seeds. Making the playoffs is all well and good, but we've been the underdog for too long.

As for losses 2+ goals, I count 22 losses by 2 or more goals. Aided by empty netters or not, that's devastating. There's far more wrong with this team (that Gauthier is only now trying to address) than just the powerplay.

wb100 said...

Kyle Roussel suggests a team's even-strength performance to be predominant in determining a team's overall performance. If this were true there would be a strong correlation between 5-on-5 F/A and the team's place in the standings. This is only partly the case. The Habs are currently 22nd in F/A at 0.91but 28th in the overall standings. Furthermore, other teams have a comparable F/A percentage and are much higher in the standings (eg. New Jersey has an F/A of 0.92 but are ninth overall). It would seem reasonable to conclude that special teams are, or, at least can be fairly important to a teams overall success.

Anonymous said...

Confusing title - I thought this post was going to be about Yakupov.

However, I was far more confused by how Gauthier and Martin handled the issues on defence and at centre this year.

On defence, confusion reigned. What was the state of Markov's knee. Would Emelin play. Would Martin play the rookies. Do the Habs need 8 dmen on the roster. Should Diaz start the season in the AHL. Would Weber be allowed to make a mistake.

At centre, it was no better. Should DD or Eller play the wing. Who would centre Cole. What was going to happen with Gomez if his play didn't improve. Who was going to be the fourth line centre.

Panicky and confusing were the terms most used to describe the actions Gauthier and Martin took to answer the questions.

And when confusion reigns at the top it's no wonder that it also reigns on the ice.


Kyle Roussel said...

@wb100 we can find inconsistencies up and down the league, but isn't it odd that the 1st place team has the 29th ranked powerplay, and the 29th ranked team has the 1st ranked powerplay?

Where does the powerplay rank in terms of importance when a team is only projected to receive 3.38 poweplays per game? Over 82 games, that's 277 powerplays. A team with a respectable 20% success rate would only get 55 powerplay goals in an entire season from that. Compare that to the first year after the lockout, where 55 powerplay goals for the season would rank a team 29th in the league, while the top teams on the pp were racking up 100+ goals.

More than two-thirds of any given hockey game is being played at even strength. We don`t need to be General Managers to see where the bread gets buttered.

I`m not trying to say that special teams are unimportant, but they aren`t nearly as important as they were just a few short years ago.

Derek said...

I thought this article was going to be about Nail Yakubov.

Anonymous said...

So what happened to the 'New NHL'?