Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The French Curse

When you watch 82 games (plus playoffs in a good year) of hockey played by a single team, patterns begin to emerge over time. When you watch those games as intensely as many Habs fans do, patterns begin to feel like iron-clad truths. So, if you're a dedicated Canadiens fan, you know forechecking kills your team, the first round is a draft wasteland and Quebec-born opponents tend to own the team for which they grew up rooting.

Or do they?

In a casual discussion between a couple of fans earlier this season, someone made the comment "Great, Columbus is starting Garon. French goalie. The Habs are doomed." The other person asked how we know that's true, or whether it's even true at all. Just because it feels that way, doesn't make it a fact, he argued.

True enough. Looking at the statistics in the five years since the lockout, however, there are some interesting numbers to back up the theory that Quebec-born players...or at least certain ones...really do seem to own the Habs.

In 2005-06, the Canadiens faced a Quebecois goalie 18 times. They lost 11 of those games, for a meagre .389 winning percentage. The trend continued for each of the other post-lockout seasons. In 2006-07, they lost 10 of 18 against homegrown goalies, in 2007-08 it was 7 of 14. In 2008-09, they lost 58.8% of those games, or 10 out of 17 attempts. And, in 2009-10, they lost 11 of 19. In total, in the five seasons since the lockout, the Habs have a winning percentage of .434 against Quebec-born goaltenders. Compare that to an average winning percentage overall in those five seasons of .571, and a trend begins to emerge.

It's interesting to note that the best year the Habs have had statistically since the lockout was 2008-09. That year, they finished first in the Eastern Conference with a winning percentage of .634. Despite the stellar numbers, they were still only .500 against francophone goaltenders. It's true that Martin Brodeur skews the stats because he beats everyone, but how do you account for Biron coming off the bench to stone the Habs? Or Fleury losing four in a row, but shutting out Montreal?

It's not just the goalies either. Quebec-born skaters tend to do their share of damage against the Canadiens as well. In the five years since the lockout, previous to this season, there's a constant mismatch between the number of Quebeckers in the NHL and the number of goals they score against the Habs. In 2005-06, there were 73 players born in Quebec, who weren't goalies or on the Habs' own roster. Those players accounted for about 7.6% of all the players in the league, yet they scored an impressive 12% of all the goals the Habs gave up that season. When you compare that number to how the same Quebec-born players performed against the rest of the league, it's not even close. Of the 7588 goals scored in the NHL in 2005-06, those same players accounted for only 7.3% percent of them, which is much more in line with their actual representation in the league.

The same thing has happened in every year since the lockout. In 2006-07, Quebec-born players made up only 6.9% of the league's rosters, but they accounted for 11.3% of the goals the Habs gave up. The following year, 5.9% of NHL players scored 7.5% of the goals against the Habs. In 2008-09, it was 4.7% of the league's players scoring 8.1% of the Habs goals, and last year 5.7% of all the players in the NHL scored 8.1% of the goals the Canadiens allowed. In every season, Quebec-born players performed statistically better against the Canadiens than they did against the rest of the NHL.

Sometimes, Quebecois who do nothing against anybody else in the league manage to find their deeply-buried skills in Montreal. In 2006-07, for example, Alain Nasreddine scored one goal in the NHL. Against guess who? Denis Hamel played 47 games that year and scored five goals. two of them were against the Canadiens.

It's certainly an interesting phenomenon, accounted for by any number of factors. There's pride in playing in front of family and friends, or excitement at skating out on Bell Centre ice, listening to the roar they might not hear in Nashville or Long Island. In some cases, players want to exact a measure of revenge for not being drafted or signed by, or perhaps getting traded away from, the team they grew up adoring. Whatever the motivation, statistics bear out the truth we've always suspected: Quebec-born players love to screw the Habs. Even as their numbers dwindle in a league featuring more American players than ever before, Quebecois players manage to maintain their high level of performance against the Canadiens.

Perhaps that's an argument in itself for bringing more Quebec-born players back to Montreal. If you can't beat 'em, trade for 'em, because sometimes, the patterns you perceive are actually the true story. Based on the stats, Antoine Vermette and Patrice Bergeron would be much safer on the Habs side of the ice.

Now, about those former Habs who love to beat up on their old team...


DKerr said...

I used to cringe when Pittsburgh was coming to town because Super Mario was super in front of his parents. I think of the current crop, Martin St Louis has hurt us the most - but he has been doing a good job against many teams. If you ever wanted to feel for Toronto, when Wayne led the Oilers to town and Walter came to the game, it was showtime and the Leafs were the Washington Generala against the Globetrotter Oilers.

Anonymous said...

Lapierre, Latendresse, Ribeiro, Thibault, Theodore...

We didnt miss much trading them away.

The habs tend to employ bubble players simply because of their ethnicity. The french media pumps up their abilities and blinds the city to reason. The truth is that Lapierre was a roster player in MTL and brought us nothing in return. Dandenault went unsigned and retired. Boullion was available most of the summer when he was UFA. MAB sits at home waiting for a team to get desperate enough to sign him.

The habs employ 3rd and 4th liners with french names. Latendresse got us Pouliot. Or poop for poop as McGuire put it. Lapierre got us a minor league defenceman and a 5th rounder. Darche is untradeable.

We traded an NHL roster player for a Quebec Junior. OB for a junior prospect? Wow, Colorado looks pretty good after that one.

Olivier Latendresse, Olivier Fortier, Gabriel Dumont...Not serious prospects but toiling away in our system to show that we are sensitive to the francophone player.

Dryden was correct when he said the Habs could be French or win the Stanley Cup but not both.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure about the last line of anonymous comments...for 1 thing.

I am pretty sure that in the near future, read here 2-3 years, Gabriel Dumont will be a Habs.

The king of energy the kis is providing will be perfect for a shut down player, even with his size issue, Dumont will make it in the big league.

He also can score some goals so that will help as well..

Anonymous said...

The biggest french curse is having to have a french coach and GM.

HabsWatch said...

I love articles like this which compare urban legend to reality. Well done! I only disagree with the last paragraph as occasional starts against the Habs with friends and family in the stands is one thing, but the pressure and expectations of playing full season(s) is quite another.

While the caliber of Quebec-born players at every position has declined this past decade, expectations haven't, thanks in large part to the media who pump local kids up so much, it's almost impossible for them to meet the unrealistic expectations of the past, let alone exceed them.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, anonymous at 6:58am, what does our coach's ethnicity have to do with anything? Would you have preferred John McLean? No? Then how about Scott Gordon? No again?

See, I don't understand how a coach's roots have anything to do with anything. It's not like he or the general manager have taken on all these French guys.

Let's count 'em: there are a total of 11 Canadians on our team of which 4 are French. The rest are Danish, American (a whopping 6!), Russian, Swiss and Czech. Of the 4 leaders behind the bench(GM and three coaches),2 are French and 2 are English). So, what's your point?

In fact, I could go so far as saying Dryden was wrong. With only 4 French guys on our team now, you'd think we have a chance to the Stanley Cup. Of course, baring in mind that the season is yet but over, things are not looking that promising.

I enjoy your posts, J.T., always keeps me thinking.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I would prefer Gordon or Mclean as I think both are good coaches who didn't get a fair shake. It's not ethnicity, it's the pool of talent is limited by excluding the majority of candidates because the can't speak a certain language.

Anonymous said...

Dear J.T.

I am since years an avid reader of your posts.
Since I am a hockey fan and not a hockey expert I never would have dared to make a contribution of my own to your excellent and in no way superfluous Habs blog.

Yet today I would like to question the soundness of your statistical argument.
And I do not want to hide that in my modest opinion your statistics does not bear out any truth.

Most people with nucleus of life in X and unconditional supporter of the local team that are forced by destiny to play in Y will try to give their best in their personal derby against X - in particular if they bemoan their fate. This seems horse sense and not worth of any statistical analysis. In fact your implicit hypothesis is more subtle. You pretend that if X stands for the population of Quebec and the local team corresponds to the Montreal Canadians and if moreover the players are French speaking this phenomenon acquires a particular virulence.

There is only one way to test your supposition. You have to extend your statistics to X standing for Quebec / Montreal Canadians / English speaking players, Ontario \ Maple Leafs, to Michigan \ Red Wings, to New England \ Bruins etc. You may then run into bias as it is not at all clear if X may stand for Arizona \ Coyotes.

If at that stage of your investigations your empirical data exhibit important deviations between the different populations you may indeed draw statistical conclusions. However, I strongly doubt that statistically significant variations will appear that justify your hypothesis.

To end with an unscientific hypothesis of mine: The course of the Habs does not speak French and its name is Gary.

Best regards and GO HABS GO

Marcel Robbiani

Anonymous said...

In that case, Anon @ 6:58am, I suppose the talent that ONLY speaks french sees the same limitations. Therefore hiring a coach or GM who is bilingual is probably the fairest solution.

Likewise, surely the Sharks or the Coyotes would not hire a coach who solely speaks French. How could this person possibly communicate to the public?

The reality, Quebec is populated by two cultures. Asking either to sacrifice is simply unfair.