Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Division of Labour

The NHL's Northeast division this year is like a starlet jumping out of a birthday cake. The cake doesn't seem to have a lot of substance until you find out what was really hiding in there. Then you just sit back in appreciation and watch the dance. This time last year, nobody would have expected to see four out of the five teams in the Northeast sitting very comfortably in playoff positions. Buffalo missed out last year, and nobody needs to be reminded of where the leafs and Habs finished. Boston finished second in the conference by leading the Northeast, but had fewer points than half the Atlantic division. Ottawa just squeaked into the post-season in eighth place.

This season, so far, it's an entirely different picture, with last year's lowly Habs leading the conference and the Bruins, Senators and leafs all within three points of them. Toronto, the lowest-ranked of the bunch when you take Boston's five games in hand into consideration, is still five points above the last playoff spot. The Northeast, then, is where the Habs' biggest rivals for post-season position reside.

The problem is, the Habs have not been beating those teams, which, after last night's loss to Ottawa, is becoming a little worrisome. So far, the Canadiens have played eight of a scheduled 18 games against NE opponents. That's 42% of their 19 total games to date. Those games have resulted in a 2-4-0-2 record. Of their total 27 points, games against the NE division have only accounted for six, or 22%. Of 16 possible points available for wins in those eight games, the Habs have given up twelve and clawed back 2 loser points in shootouts.  That's a big pile of points that could make or break a team in April.

On the other hand, the Canadiens have a sparkling 10-0-1 record against the rest of the conference, good for 21 points, or 78% of the 27 they've earned. In terms of goal differential, the Habs are -6 against the NE, scoring 16 goals and giving up 22. Against the rest of the conference, they're +22, with 36GF and 14GA.

The big question is, why is the difference between the Habs' results against their own division versus conference rivals so very glaring? There are several possible reasons. First, all four division opponents play a similar style of aggressive forecheck with speed and lots of body contact. The Canadiens have had problems with that kind of game for years. Theoretically, with new coaches, a new system and different players, the same old problem shouldn't be a factor, but new cultures don't graft themselves onto a team overnight.

Second, there are still questions about the Habs' size relative to the other teams in the division. Broadcaster and blogger James Mirtle compiles the average heights, weights and ages of NHL teams every year, and for this season, the Habs do show up low on the lists for both height and weight. At a shade over 197 lbs for average weight, the Canadiens are 28th in the league. And at just about 6-feet tall on average, they rank last. In comparison, the Bruins are 26th for weight and 21st for height, the Sabres are 19th for weight and 13th for height, the leafs are 11th for weight and 8th for height and the Senators are 5th for weight and 3rd for height. The average difference between the Canadiens and Senators is ten pounds and two inches. Between Habs and leafs it's eight pounds and just over an inch and a half. Those may seem like negligible numbers when factors like speed, skill, leadership, injuries, systems and scheduling play their parts in wins and losses as well. However, in this era of NHL parity, getting consistently drilled by guys taller and heavier than you will wear you down over the course of the game and the season.

The problem is underlined when you compare the size of the defence corps of the NE teams specifically. The Canadiens D, including every blueliner who's played a game this year, averages a shade under six feet tall, and about 206 pounds. Compare that to Buffalo's almost 6'3", 212-pound average. Boston is about the same. The Senators D average 6'2" and 204 pounds (although that incorporates Erik Karlsson's puny 175...they have 3 defencemen over 220 pounds while the Habs have none). And the leafs defence are about 6'3" and 207 pounds. What that means is bigger forwards on the other teams come up against a comparatively small Habs defence corps, which starts to struggle when pressured with a tough forecheck. On the other end, smaller Canadiens' players like Gionta, Gallagher, Desharnais and even Plekanec have to face D-men that can physically overpower them. The wonder isn't that the Canadiens lose to teams in their own division, but that they're able to incorporate their sound systems and skill to beat most other teams.

Perhaps, too, there's an element of pschological drama involved in NE division games. The leafs, Bruins and Senators often seem to be more "up" for those contests than the Canadiens do, especially at the Bell Centre. And, of course, eight games are a rather small sample size, no matter how concerning the results. Factors like playing a great road game against Ottawa, but hitting three posts behind a hot Ben Bishop, can skew the numbers and create an impression of the situation being more dire than it is.

 The good news here is only 34% of the Habs' remaining 29 games are against the Northeast division, 66% are versus conference opponents. If they keep up something close to their current pace, even with weakness against their own division, they will end up in the playoffs. The concern is what will happen once they get there. If the playoffs started today, the Canadiens would face the Tampa Bay Lightning, but with three division rivals in the mix, the chances of avoiding them all on a deep run are slim. That's why the Canadiens have to learn how to beat the teams in their own backyard. Maybe it means being more disciplined and improving special teams. Maybe it's a matter of adjusting lines to get some of those bigger forwards like Eller, Cole, Bourque and Pacioretty matched against the biggest, toughest D-men.

Over to you, Michel Therrien. Hope you've got a good one ready to jump out of that cake or the springtime party won't last long.


moeman said...

Always look forward to your insightful posts J.T.

Jay in PA said...

This is a fine analysis. I looked up Mirtle's page to see where teams like Detroit (never known as an overly physical team) and Chicago sat in the rankings, and found that, indeed, they well-outranked us--as does pretty much the entire league in every category but age. I thought of recalculating the stats to see if anything changed when you took out outliers--surely Zdeno Chara is skewing the Boston numbers just a bit--but I don't have the time and I don't think things would change that much.

I guess the question for me is, if height and weight were such determining factors, and since the Habs sit at the bottom of both ranks, shouldn't they be handily beaten by a lot more teams? Opposing coaches must be well aware of our divisional record and can make sense of the commonalities between the other teams and their style of play and attempt to adopt those elements into their game plans.

As for the playoffs, that is a genuine concern. We can win when it comes to tight-checking games, as we showed against the Pens and Caps in that glorious playoff run a couple of years ago (especially given otherworldly goaltending). We just can't do it for long, as the Flyers showed in the conference finals. MT's new system offers a lot of promise, but it hasn't shown a good way yet to crack the determined efforts of bigger teams to take away time and space.

The good news is that MT's no idiot, and he has shown himself to be both aware of the need to change, and willing to make the necessary changes. We still have enough games left against division rivals for him to locate and test a game plan that will give us a chance to win. Hopefully, he'll come up with something good enough to give us a deep run. The Habs don't look like a Stanley Cup team right now, but they didn't even look like a playoff team before the season began. Good coaching can do wonders, and so far, MT is looking like a good coach.

J.T. said...

@Jay: I never thought I'd say it, but I'm liking what Therrien has done so far. As for why the Canadiens are struggling against bigger division rivals more than they are against other teams, I wondered about that myself. Part of it may be the number of times they play each other. The leafs and Habs will know each other a lot better than, say, the Panthers and the Habs. Also, if a team plays 38% of all its games against just four opponents, the coaching staff likely focuses a lot of attention on preparing for those four teams.

As I mentioned, size is only one factor here. Skill, speed, discipline, special teams, injuries, systems and the schedule all play a part as well. Sometimes a team is just big and doesn't have the speed or mobility on the back end to stop guys like Gallagher. Or perhaps the Canadiens are able to shut down a bigger opponent because they don't have a lot of firepower in the lineup, or they have a rotten PP. There are lots of factors, but the NE teams seem to all be loaded with not just big guys, but good skating guys with decent skill as well.

At least, that's what I think. :)

Jay in PA said...

I think your last point says it all, LA, because the NE teams aren't just beating the Habs, they're beating everyone else, too. Notably, though, the cream of that crop, the Bruins, rank in the bottom third of the league in both height and weight in Mirtle's analysis--and that's despite Chara and Lucic. The Senators' and leafs' records, while strong, aren't as strong, even though just a few points separate them. The picture is somewhat complex, no matter which way you look at it.

You have an excellent insight that the added exposure to divisional rivals gives coaches a wealth of added information to use in game-planning against each other. The good news is that it's an equal-opportunity benefit, and that it should work for us as well.

In my experience, the nature of the game changes come playoff time. It may be overreaching, but from the looks of things, the Habs' divisional rivals have been playing playoff-style hockey against us all season long and probably won't change their game much when the time comes. My hope is that Therrien and his staff are able to leverage what they are learning about these other teams and come up with some real surprises when the Habs make what should be a more dramatic shift to playoff-style hockey within their own game. Yep, that's my hope.

J.T. said...

@Jay: It's certainly a complicated picture, but I think relative size plays some part. The Bs are, on average, close to the Habs, but I think you can't discount having 6'9" Chara on the ice for thirty minutes a night. His presence can certainly make up for a smaller defenceman. The Habs have nobody like that, or even remotely close to that.

rj tremblay said...

terrific post and great insights in general on this blog. thanks a ton for hosting.

naturally, most hab fans are highly concerned about losses within the division. they sting more, are fraught with emotion (Bruins!!!!!, Leafs!!, Sens!) and can carry the weight of the dreaded 4 point swing...

however this year, i would argue that of the 6 divisional losses, only the January losses and the Leaf 6-nil beat down were games where the CH played poorly and were 'pushed around.'

in fact, some of those losses were games where Les Boys excelled and out-played the opposition. others were games that were well in hand and subsequently placed back into jeopardy by lack of finish, poor personnel choice or weak discipline by the Habs.

the 2-1 loss to the beaners was probably the best game of the year for the CH up to that point. or certainly the first two periods were. in fact, the Beaners and especially Lucic took some dumb penalties with their clueless hitting that had the CH exploited, would have won the game. the Habs out skated and out possessed Boston for the majority of the game, they just didn't score when they needed to.

a good team with the upper hand on an opponent doesn't throw hits when it actually controls the puck, the team on their heels, in reactive mode throws the (often ineffective) hits and gets the bigger 'takeaway' stats - just two of the stats that often muddy the acurate interpretation and scoring of a game. great teams control the puck for the majority of their games and win a shed load by doing it.

incidentally, the Habs are now deep enough in scoring and puck-controlling talent to do this to their opposition on a nightly basis.

the next divisional loss was the uber painful OT loss to the currently weak Sabres. in this game the Habs also carried the balance of play straight to a physically larger opponent. Buffalo won the tilt because the CH took some incredibly stoopid roughing and other bad penalties in critical moments and also largely hung their rusty back-up goalie out to dry. that sure Canadiens win was fancy wrapped and literally presented to the opposition.

in the final analysis, our misplaced truculence, lack of systematic discipline and bad D-pairings in the clutch were the culprits in that particular match. a win that became a loss, to a divisional rival. and self inflicted at that. ouch.

the last interdivisional loss was in a shoot out on Monday to the AHL-laden and injury decimated Sens.

the Habs laid an absolute hockey clinic on the Sens in this game to the point where the term 'domination' doesn't even do justice to what transpired. faster, more organized, more disciplined and owning puck possession to a staggering degree, the only thing that saved Ottawa was 5 goal posts and 2 butt-end goalie stick stops by a 6' 7" back-up.

rest assured, if the Canadiens (at their current size) play the rest of their NE division games like they did versus the Sens, they will absolutely win the large majority of those match-ups on their way to a high seeded birth in the playoffs. the Sens did 'out hit' the Habs in this particular game, however.

and last night the Leafs out sized and out hit the CH en route to a 5-2 loss in the ACC. a game where the Leafs chose to give players like Colton Orr and Mark Frasor much the same TOI (or more) as players like Grabo, JVR, Kadri and Bozak. Gee, thanks Randy!

the Habs have an NHL caliber 4th line for the first time in years, (sand and size enough, i'd venture) we have a goalie, depth on D and 3 other gifted lines that can control the puck for long stretches and score goals.

i'd argue we're just fine within the NE division as it stands currently. and i'd urge M.B. to hold off on acquiring Frasor and Orr for the tme being.

go Habs!

Steve said...

I hope playing 4 lines and six defense mitages the wear and tear.

geezer said...

I have been reading your blog since you started it 3-4 years ago, and every piece nay, every word you have written, is "da truth". I have been a fan of sports writing for over 60 years - Scott Young, Trent Frayne, Dink Carroll, Red Fisher, John Robertson, etc. and what I see from you is quality that is on a par with the so called legends. Please keep up the good work.

Oh, and GO HABS!!