Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Is All Well in Habs Land? A Statistical Look

Last Wednesday, just after the Perry Pearn firing was announced, shortly before that evening's game against the Philadelphia Flyers, I had this exchange with a friend over Facebook chat:

  • October 26
    • maybe its a sign of things to come

    • let's lose HARD tonight

  • October 26
    Dan Kramer
    • heh

    • either the team needs to start being MUCH better, or team needs to keep losing

  • October 26
    • i agree

  • October 26
    Dan Kramer
    • good news is gauthier also announced markov is doing well

    • so that could help turn things around

    • i mean IF somehow we win all three of the next games

    • that's a huge momentum shift for our season

At the time, it was just me being my eternal Habs optimist self. At best, I thought, if they really picked their play up, perhaps they could walk out of the three game set with 4 points.

As has been the norm with this team for years, they perform against all expectations. What Habs fan hasn't witnessed an "easy game" against the last place Florida Panthers resulting in a 2-0 loss, or a tough match-up with the red hot Washington Capitals ending as a 4-1 win? This week was little different. The Boston Bruins are mired in the basement of the East, but even if admittedly they aren't playing well as a team right now, they remain the defending Stanley Cup champions with a roster that's been only barely tweaked from the one that hoisted the Cup.

Does that mean the Canadiens will walk into Ottawa Friday night and pitch a stinker, getting blown out by a team that is weak on paper but quite surprisingly one of the league's hottest early season success stories? Maybe. It's too early to conclude that a 3-game win streak has righted all wrongs and that all is well in Habs land. But what we do know is where another tough week would have virtually meant folding up and calling it a day on the 2011-12 campaign (or the ushering in of some dramatic changes), we instead find a team right in the thick of things.

For those that have been watching the team's daily rises and falls in the standings, don't. We're still in the early game. In the 6 seasons since the NHL lockout, it has typically required between 92 and 94 points to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference (outlier: 88 in 2009-10), with the average of the six years being 92. With 10 points through 11 games, the Habs are currently on pace for just 74.5 points, but of course, we're still very early. The quickest way for the team to get on pace to meet the mark would require a replication of the current 3-game win streak which would give them 16 points in 14 games after wins versus Ottawa, the New York Rangers, and the Edmonton Oilers. The team's record would then project to a 93.7 point season, which would meet or beat the 8th place East record in all but one of the post-lockout years (94 in 2007-08).

I don't mean to say that if the team doesn't rattle off three more victories over the next 10 days then all hope is lost. But Habs fans should not be placated by just three solid efforts on the heels of a disastrous season opening. Simply put: we're not out of the woods just yet.

Carey Price had a great three game set, enough to even earn him the first star of the week league-wide and lock up the Molson Cup for the month. The fact is that Price has been "good" all season long while at times getting little support from the team's skaters, but he had still be out-goaltended on numerous occasions (e.g. games against Miikka Kiprusoff, Ryan Miller...). Not so vs. the Flyers and Bruins, which has allowed him to raise his numbers on the early season back to respectable levels.

Another change over the last 3 was a major improvement in the face-off circle. If Scott Gomez takes a center spot upon his return and shift David Desharnais's 44.3% success rate to the wing, the team will have:
Tomas Plekanec - 53.1%
Scott Gomez - 53%
Lars Eller - 44%
Petteri Nokelainen - 60%
Not bad at all! By limiting the face-offs taken by Eller and Desharnais, the team's averages could be quite high.

In terms of production, entering the current 5 day break for the team, Plekanec and Max Pacioretty are tied for the team lead with 9 points in 11 games - on pace for 67 point seasons. Pacioretty, Plekanec, and surprising Travis Moen each have 4 goals, which puts them on pace for 29 on the year. Mike Cammalleri's 3 goals in 8 games would average out to just over 30 in 82, despite his inconsistent play over the first month. Considering the team's leaders in points and goals in 2010-11 had 57 and 29 respectively, these numbers appear satisfactory. Further, between the goals against and the output, the Canadiens have a goal differential of -1 thus far, which is actually good for 8th best in the East, better than current 4th place Ottawa's -6 and current 8th place Tampa Bay's -2.

Another interesting statistic has been time on ice. As we've mentioned previously, the club's defense both on paper and on the ice has been a major area of concern. Gone are the veteran horses in Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski, out is Andrei Markov, and in their place are a bunch of green rookies. The team has done a great job in making the transition by splitting time more evenly amongst its blueliners, particularly over the last 3 games (the post-Perry Pearn period). Last year's average time on ice leaders:
James Wisniewski - 22:56
Andrei Markov - 22:54 (only 7 GP)
Roman Hamrlik - 22:16
P.K. Subban - 22:16
Josh Gorges - 21:10 (only 36 GP)
Tomas Plekanec - 20:14

Thus far this season, only 4 players have averaged more than 20 minutes a night:
P.K. Subban - 23:48
Tomas Plekanec - 21:10
Josh Gorges - 20:44
Yannick Weber - 20:12

Interesting that Weber has seen the fourth most ice despite playing the first game and a half as a bottom 6 forward. This is a huge testament to how he has picked his game up in rebounding from a terrible training camp.

So all may not be well just yet with the Habs; there is still plenty of work to be done. But statistically, the team seems to be turning around their slow start, as evidenced by Price's numbers, the face-off stats, offensive output, and a better use of player personnel. And things can only improve once Andrei Markov - who skated for a first time since returning to Montreal yesterday - gets back into the line-up. Look for him to start practicing within 1-2 weeks.

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