Sunday, March 30, 2008

Can Montreal Win The East?

Most pre-season predictions didn't think too highly of the Montreal Canadiens this season ( I picked them for 7th in the East Conference which was the highest predicted finish among many predictions). Yet, with only three games left they sit atop the East Conference with 98 points. Can they really win the East Conference? Are they really the best team in the east?

For much of the season, they relied on goaltender Cristobal Huet, who is a good goalie. They traded him to Washington on the trade deadline, which prompted me to call them the biggest shortterm loser on deadline day. That hasn't stopped them, Carey Price has played well since taking over as the number one goalie, but he has a lot of questions surrounding him. How good is he really? Is he a future superstar? Is he a young player who is put in a position where he is over his head? Can he be a reliable playoff goalie?

Their defence is unspectacular. Andrei Markov is a good defender and is an outside contender for a Norris nomination. Mark Streit does well offensively, but isn't exactly a defensive superstar. Roman Hamrlik and Mike Komisarek provide good depth. This is a solid group of defenders but they are clearly not the best in the NHL.

Their forward unit lacks any of the elite scorers in the NHL. The only player scoring anywhere near point per game rate is Alexei Kovalev who is having a very good season. Their other solid scorers are Saku Koivu, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Chris Higgins. These are good players but are not likely to be considered NHL stars.

The biggest weapon of the Montreal Canadiens this season has been their league-leading power play. It's amazing how well the power play does in Montreal given their lack of superstar scorers and given last year's point man Sheldon Souray having signed in Edmonton. It is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Looking at the players who make up the Montreal power play, I would have had a hard time predicting their success before any games were played.

Using my necessary but not sufficient conditions to identify an elite team, Montreal falls flat. They might have a top goalie in Carey Price, but frankly he hasn't proven it yet. It is certainly possible that Price is in the early stages of a Hall of Fame career, but it is far more likely that he is a good goalie who will have a solid but unremarkable career. It is also quite likely that if he ever reaches the elite level in his career, he hasn't done so yet. They don't have any players on their roster who look like future Hall of Famers. The most plausible choice might again be Price, but it is far too early to seriously imagine him having a Hall of Fame track career. Their other star players in Andrei Markov and Alexei Kovalev may be good players, but they are not having the kinds of careers that tend to make them Hall of Famers.

Nevertheless, Montreal leads the East Conference. Their lead is only one point over the Pittsburgh Penguins (and the Penguins have a game in hand). Anyone leading a conference at this late stage in the season could easily win it. The Montreal Canadiens stand a very good chance of winning the East Conference in the regular season.

Come playoff time, what are their chances? Part of their chances may be tied up in injuries. Currently, Saku Koivu, Mark Streit and Mike Komisarek are all hurt. Early reports have Koivu out as long as four weeks. If that is the case, a playoff run might be very tough for Montreal. Even with a healthy lineup, I don't imagine Montreal winning the East Conference come playoff time. While the most likely Stanley Cup winning teams are west teams, there are eastern teams such as Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Ottawa who look better built for a playoff run. One weakness for Montreal will be the playoff officiating. It is quite likely that the frequency of penalties will decline in the playoffs because referees are more willing to "let them play" instead of risk "deciding the game". For a team that has had much of its success on the power play, this is bad news. Depending on opponents, I imagine Montreal goes one or two rounds in the playoffs before bowing out.

The Montreal Canadiens have had a good season and surprised many pundits. They lead the East Conference and stand a good chance of being the regular season east champion. I think they have overachieved to reach this point. I think they will be very unlikely to follow up this success with a big playoff run.

Of current Eastern Conference playoff teams, Montreal is second to Ottawa for regular strength goals scored. Scoring in a less-penalized playoff shouldn't be much of a problem.
I have to disagree with you about the Habs' defense. I'll agree that Markov is the best of the bunch, but I disaree with your evaluation of the rest of them. Mark Streit isn't a defensive superstar, that much is true, but... he hasn't even played defense all season long. He's an all-around guy, who can play in almost any situation, and while he's not a specialist in any way, he's pretty decent at everything - he has more points than Tanguay, Antropov, Koivu, Rolston, Brunette, etc.

Roman Hamrlik is another very strong defender. While a far cry from a superstar, Hamrlik is more than a depth defenseman. What I'm about to say has limited value, but while he was injured in February, his first-place team had 1 regulation win in 5 games. Hamrlik is a very strong all-around defenseman who is rarely caught off position, and can support the attack when needed.

My biggest disagreement with you is about Komisarek, however. In my opinion, calling him a depth player is a pretty big stretch considering he's a strong candidate for best stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL. He leads all NHL defenseman in hits (266 to second-place Orpik's 230) and blocked shots (227 to Volchenkov's 200). He's spent his share of minutes in the penalty box (101), but he's not shy about clearing the front of the net, and is an unquestionable team leader. He's the leading candidate as to who will be the Habs' captain 5 years from now. But, even discounting intangibles and basing ourselves strictly on statistics, Komisarek, without being an offensive force (although he did score a pretty sweet goal this year), remains a quality defenseman based strictly on his defensive assets.

A far more meaningful number to quote to remove the effects of the extra regular season power plays is a team's +/-. If we include all goals, Montreal is +33 and leads the East Conference. Removing power play goals scored and allowed, Montreal is +7, which puts them 7th in the east (tied with Boston).
Your analysis of a potential major weakness for Montreal focused on their ability to score goals. THAT is what I addressed.
"It is quite likely that the frequency of penalties will decline in the playoffs because referees are more willing to "let them play" instead of risk "deciding the game"."

That is not necessarily true at all.

I crunched some numbers and game out with some interesting results.

In the 2005-06 regular season, teams averaged 5.84 powerplays a game.
In the 2005-06 playoffs, teams averaged 5.83 powerplays a game.

In the 2006-07 regular season, teams averaged 4.85 powerplays a game.
In the 2006-07 playoffs, teams averaged 5.04 powerplays a game.

Thusfar in the 2007-08 regular season, teams are averaging 4.15 powerplays a game. Based on the past two years, I see no reason why that number will be significantly lower come the playoffs. If that is the case, Montreal's powerplay can still be the force it has been all year.
1) As much as Montreal has played well, the difference between the top and 8th seed is far smaller than in previous years. (Last year it was in excess of 20 points from 1st to 8th)
2) Parity (Mediocrity) is what Bettman wanted, right?
As long as they win the division (Which seems a lock atm), i'll be happy, the second place in a division cannot do better than 4th in the conference, even if they have a better record than the two other division winners, and that is not only stupidly unfair (STUPID BASKETBALL PLAYOFF RULES!) but, should be avoided at all costs...I think Montreal will make it to the 3rd round before losing to the Conference champion but, that would be fine with me, cause all i ask is they do better than last year (which they have); and cause it will prepare them for a Cup run NEXT season when players like Chipchura and Pricey will be ready to take up the torch.
By the way PSH....While I dont always agree with everything you say, including your assessment of Montreal's defensemen (Wheras I think Jeagag is right on), I just wanted to say I'm really enjoying your blog.....Also, I'd like to see more of your analysis of the classic players, such as your blog on Didier Pitre; those are great fun!
I find it interesting to see a couple people tell me I am being too harsh on the Montreal Canadiens defence, which I call a solid group of defenders but clearly not the best in the NHL, when they sit 14th in the league in goals against.
And I find it interesting that your other major knock against the team (that the playoffs will offer fewer power play opportunities, effectively neutralizing the Habs' best weapon and thus limiting their success) was not based on fact.
I'd love to watch film of their power play to see what they are doing to score so many power play goals.

My biggest knock against the team is that for a conference champion they are not that good. They do not have enough good players. Throughout history almost all conference champs are better teams.

But the power play is an issue. Referees are less likely to call power plays in important times of playoff games (or they are more likely to call another penalty on the other team to "even things up" before the two minutes have passed.

Quoting power plays per game only picks up part of the issue. In the playoffs, games can be longer with unlimited overtimes. The Canucks played Dallas for 138:06 last year and it counted as one game. In the 78:06 of overtime there were 3 power plays. Two were shortened because they were called 1:22 apart to even things up. That comes out to 1:49 per team per 60 minutes of power play time. That is a crucial time in the playoff games and there will be far less power plays called then normal.

Even setting that aside, you expect power play success rates to drop come playoff time (in part because the bad teams that you boost your success rates against are gone). Last season, the league had a 17.6% success rate on power plays in the regular season and a 14.5% success rate in the playoffs.

The loss of power play opportunities for Montreal is far from the biggest reason they likely won't have a big playoff run, but it is one contributing factor and it will hit Montreal harder than any other team in the league.
montreal has proven night in and night out that they can win this season. a team is measured by how well its parts fit and play together, not by the individual strengths of each of those parts on their own. to be fighting for top place in a conference makes them a good team. i realise your precious sabremetrics can't measure that, but you'll have to trust me on that one.
I think the 14th place defensive statistic that you quote is a little deceptive, you have to remember that it's been calculated over the course of the entire season, and doesnt take into account that the Canadiens played much better defensively in the second half of the season, especially where short-handed play was concerned. (Their penalty killing was terrible early on)
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