Thursday, November 13, 2014


Have you heard the one about the Habs PP?

The Habs power play is so bad, they're going to change the goal song to "Hallelujah" if they ever score.

The Habs power play is so awful, P.K.Subban is getting an audition for The Walking Dead.

When the Habs practice their PP, the orange cones on the ice usually kill it off.

The Habs power play sucks so hard NASA has added it as a known black hole.

You know a hockey team has issues when the jokes start to flow, and the laughs at the Canadiens' pathetic power play are flooding in like high tide. Sixteen games into this season, it ranks 28th in the league, with a whopping 7.1% success rate. Compare that to Pittsburgh's league-leading 35.6%, and you can see things in Montreal have passed "needs tweaking" and gone straight to "needs a complete overhaul."

Part of the problem, of course, is the never-changing personnel. Almost without exception, every PP starts with Andrei Markov, P.K.Subban, David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and whatever winger is currently on their line. Right now, that's P.A.Parenteau. Pacioretty and Desharnais get 2:25 of ice time per game with the man advantage. That's a grand total of 37:45 so far this year, which is 53% of the total 71:11 the Habs have spent on the power play. In theory, that's a good idea. Last year those guys were first and third in team scoring. Unfortunately, however, you have to shoot to score. And neither Pacioretty nor Desharnais shoots the puck on the PP.

Pacioretty leads the Canadiens with 57 shots on goal. Desharnais is third on the team with 47. Yet, on the power play, they've taken a combined five shots...three for Pacioretty and two for Desharnais. That's in nearly 40 minutes each. Pacioretty puts up 19% fewer points on the PP, when you average points per minutes of play, than he does at even strength. In fact, he's got more points shorthanded. If, as the myth goes, opponents key on Markov and Subban, limiting their point shots, then the forwards should be firing every chance they get. Instead, we see them passing the puck around until it gets intercepted and cleared.

The other problem is net presence. Aside from Brendan Gallagher, who now gets less PP time...and none on the first wave because he's not playing on the Desharnais line anymore...nobody on the ice goes to the net. On many nights, the puck is on the stick of a guy behind the net, with both wingers standing along the boards. Power play goals are often scored on a big point shot. If chances from the point are limited, teams score by shooting a ton and crowding the crease. If they don't do those things, they're not going to do very well.

Right now, the Habs are winning despite their lack of PP success. That won't last. Of the top fifteen highest-scoring teams, all but two (Kings and Rangers) score between 20 and 40 percent of their goals on the power play. The Canadiens are at 8.3%. If the opponent has a working PP, they have an instant advantage in any game against Montreal. While the Canadiens are strong on the PK, eighth in the league, they're also 28th in the league for penalties taken. Sooner or later, a good PP will score, given enough chances. If the Habs can't reply, they're going to start losing games.

The lack of scoring with the man advantage doesn't just hurt the team on the scoreboard. It also causes bigger problems. If you've got a popgun PP, opponents will take liberties, knowing they can intimidate without concern about paying the price while they're shorthanded. Milan Lucic isn't one to hold back when he wants to hurt someone at the best of times. Knowing nothing will happen to him if he does can only make his behaviour worse. That kind of thing puts the Habs at a psychological disadvantage because Brandon Prust can't fight everyone, and the rest of the Canadiens end up thinking about the other team's tactics instead of just playing.

Michel Therrien has had nearly a year of watching this powerless PP and has yet to address the problems. His insistence on always using the same lines that play at even strength doesn't work with the man advantage. Alex Galchenyuk, for example, is arguably the most creative player on the team. This season, he's also willing to crash the net. Those are two skills not overly visible in Pacioretty that could conceivably help create goals. Yet, Galchenyuk gets less than two minutes a night on the PP. Dale Weise gets none, but he'd go to the net and stay there bothering the goalie if he did. He'd at least offer the opposing defencemen something to do other than block Desharnais' passes. The point is, changing personnel can't actually hurt this PP and is, at this stage, the sensible thing to do.

It would also be worth experimenting with a formation other than the 1-3-1 that hasn't been working for a year now. One thing's certain: the time for hoping the situation will miraculously correct itself is over. A coach's job is to make sure a team is functioning to the best of its ability. The Canadiens have skill, and the PP should be a good chance for them to use it to advantage. That they're not means Therrien isn't doing his job.

On the "For Dummies" website, there's a page called "Controlling a Power Play in Hockey For Dummies." It says:

"A good power play is a deadly weapon, and no team can win a championship without one. The basic idea is to move the puck among the five offensive players until one of them has an opening and can shoot. Crisp passes are essential, and so is making use of the man advantage. Get the two-on-one situations. Get the puck to the open man. Get off the shots. And be sure to take what the other team gives. If a defender comes to you, then one of your teammates is open somewhere. Try to find him. And even if you don't have the puck, make something happen. Get in the goalie's way. Look for rebounds. Keep the puck in the zone if a defender tries to shoot it out."

That's written for coaches just starting out, who are instructing kids. Basic hockey, but it's sound advice for a coach and a team that seems to have forgotten simple truths.

One way or another, something's got to give. At this point, if the Habs PP is a joke, it's not very funny.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

System Upgrade

Imagine you run a hockey team and your number-one centre is a decent player who puts up 60 points a year, doesn't take many dumb penalties and wins more faceoffs than he loses. You'd probably be happy enough with that guy. Then, imagine it's free agent time and a big, strong centre who dominates on the draw, skates like the wind and puts up 80 points a year hits the market. You have cap space enough to sign him, but if you do, you then have too many centres on your team. So, you have a decision to make. Do you trade your 60-point man and sign the new guy, or do you let the 80-point guy go to the leafs because you don't have a roster spot available for him? Assuming the more productive player isn't a jerk, most of us would go for the upgrade.

It's the same for any position on a team. If Dustin Tokarski is ready to play, you trade Peter Budaj. If Daniel Briere isn't productive, you move him and bring in P.A.Parenteau instead. If you can somehow acquire Thomas Vanek at the deadline, you go for it. Marc Bergevin's job is to make sure he's got the best person available in every position because a team only gets better by wisely and opportunistically upgrading its personnel.

That mindset should be the same for coaching staff. The old saying that a coach is "hired to be fired" is inevitably true for every guy behind the bench, whether he lasts a year like Tortorella in Vancouver or fifteen like Barry Trotz in Nashville. Sooner or later coaches get fired, and most of the time it's because their teams aren't getting results. Rarely does a team can a coach just because there's a better option available, but perhaps they'd be better off if they did. At least they'd be choosing an upgrade versus dumping an underperformer or scapegoat mid-season and being stuck with whomever is available at that time.

There's a chance Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings will part ways this summer. The rumour mill says the coach wants more money and team management doesn't want to pay it. Of course, there's also the fact that the Wings core is aging and they're no longer perennial contenders. Or Babcock may simply want to rejuvenate his career by taking on a new team whose Cup window is just about to open. One thing is certain: if Babcock becomes available, Marc Bergevin should court him.

Michel Therrien was hired for a second go-round behind the Habs bench because Bergevin was a brand-new GM who needed an experienced coach. He was also one of the few francophone options available. In his time as Canadiens coach, the team has achieved some good results, winning their division in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and making the Eastern Conference final in last year's playoffs. Even so, the Canadiens powerplay is dreadful and its possession stats alarming. If they'd made the Finals last year, they would have been crushed by the Kings. They don't score much, and they allow much too much pressure on Carey Price. The coach's insistence on overusing veterans who don't produce and limiting the minutes of young players who do is not a great winning strategy. Nor is benching some players for making mistakes and forgiving others.

Of course, no coach is perfect and the scrutiny Montreal's coach receives exposes his flaws in a way most of his colleagues don't experience. Therrien isn't a terrible coach. He's also not the best in the league. He makes mistakes, but so does every other coach. The question Bergevin needs to answer is, if there's a better option available, which may happen this summer, will he be willing to replace Therrien, even if his results aren't terrible? If he's the proactive GM the Canadiens need to build the best team possible, he must consider it.

Babcock is a rock star in the coaching ranks. He comes from an organization that knows how to win. He's got a Stanely Cup, two Finals appearances, a World Championship and two Olympic gold medals on his resume. He's consistently coached the Wings to playoff berths and kept them competitive even when dealing with injury and retirements. This is the kind of coach the Montreal Canadiens deserve.

Michel Therrien deserves some respect as a guy who's coached more than 600 NHL games. Yet, if there's a chance to hire someone who's had more success at his position, the Habs would be wrong not to explore that. These are the Montreal Canadiens, not the Columbus Blue Jackets. Habs fans have been waiting for 22 years for a Stanley Cup win, and they're tired of hoping in vain. Part of creating a winner is making sure every position is filled with the best possible person. That includes the coach.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

The hockey gods are a cruel society. They'll steer a game-winning goal into a post or turn a ref's head in time to see retaliation, but not the original infraction. They can frustrate a guy who's trying and elevate another who isn't. And, they can make an average team's record look impressive with fluky tying goals late in games, good goaltending and shootout luck. Then, just when a team starts believing its own hype, the hockey gods laugh and drop the glamour that concealed some painful truths.

This is what we know today: the Canadiens have big problems and the fragile success they have experienced early in this season has glossed over the worst of them. Among the issues are the complete lack of spark on the power play, the softness of a D-corps that routinely backs in on its goalie, the slow starts and poor discipline. Add to those issues a coaching staff that appears to believe shuffling lines while refusing to call down reserves from the press box will fix things without fundamental style changes, and a picture of how much this team has to change begins to emerge.

The powerplay is a serious issue. It hasn't clicked since last Christmas, yet nothing changes. When a team doesn't score very much, the man advantage needs to be an actual advantage. The other day, speaking with Hockey Canada incoming CEO Tom Renney, I asked "How do you fix a 10% PP?" His answer: "Quick puck movement is important, but most important is net presence. You have to create chaos in the crease." Brendan Gallagher has the heart of a lion, but one short guy in the crease isn't exactly chaos. Yet, with this glaring problem continuing into a new season, the coaching staff continues to send the David Desharnais/Max Pacioretty unbreakable duo out to start every power play. In the face of all evidence saying this doesn't work, it continues. Perhaps Therrien and company need to ask for volunteers. "Who'll make chaos in the crease?'re on the PP." What's certain is somebody has to do it or nothing will change. And, if nothing changes, this team won't be winning too many close games.

The defence is another huge problem, and it starts with P.K.Subban. Subban's putting up a respectable number of points for an offensive-minded blueliner, with his eight in 12 games. Unfortunately, he's also taken the most minor penalties (ten) in the NHL. Although only two of the seven PP goals against the Habs happened with Subban in the box, his lack of discipline is indicative of a team-wide problem. Subban, by letter on the sweater, by long-term expensive contract and by pedigree should be the leader of the team's defence. Instead, Andrei Markov, the old workhorse, continues to shoulder the bulk of the load as Subban's play is often spotty, with bursts of energy interspersed with black holes of mediocrity. The Canadiens need better from Subban, and they need a better approach to defence as a whole. Right now, the D give up their own blue line too easily and they're too vulnerable to odd-man breaks and stretch passes. Despite the change in personnel from last year to this, the same defensive problems exist. That's on the coaches, particularly the coach responsible for defensive structure.

The one advantage the Habs have when they're playing well is a team speed that pressures the opponent and forces penalties and mistakes. We've yet to see that out of the gate this year. The team began the season with entirely different lines and defence pairs than it used last playoffs, so one would imagine they'd need time to make connections with each other. That doesn't explain the lack of jump they've shown to start every single game so far. If the players can't find the energy they need within themselves, the coaches need to do a better job at preparing them. Shuffling lines and keeping a struggling Rene Bourque and slow Brandon Prust and Travis Moen in the lineup over young, hungry players like Jiri Sekac and Michael Bournival seems counterintuitive for a team that needs speed and energy. That's on the coaching staff too.

It's not a promising thing when you realize that five of the Habs eight wins came in OT or shootout. It's not good to know the team has a -4 goals for/against differential, or that it's last in the league for penalties taken versus powerplays granted. The team has been on the PK 30 minutes more than it's been on the PP; half a game more they've played shorthanded than with a man advantage. When a team takes that many penalties, it breaks any rhythm or momentum it tries to build up and it means players who don't kill penalties cool on the bench. The lack of discipline comes from lazy, slow play that forces the players into bad decisions. When the Habs are skating in mud, it also means the other team has little reason to foul them. Stats can mislead, but in this case, the numbers are a true reflection of what we've seen on the ice so far this year.

The hockey gods are capricious. They allow players to believe in a fragile illusion of success. Even as the music of victors blares in the dressing room and the player-of-the-game boxer robe is handed out, players know deep down when they didn't deserve to win. When the smoke and mirrors disappear, as they have in the last four games, the reality of what needs to be fixed is glaring.

The Habs, on paper at least, are a better team than the one we've seen for most of this young season. They're lucky to have collected the points they have, and they have a lot of work to do if they're to fulfill the potential to which they have yet to live up. That work starts with leadership, both on ice and behind the bench. Neither group is doing a good job this year, and without improvement at that level, the hockey gods will make this a long, cold winter.