30 Thoughts: Canadiens more than a one-man team

Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman discuss all the big news in the NHL, including a Carey Price injury update, GM meetings, and more information on the Flint Firebirds.

Wrote a couple of weeks ago about how I’m re-examining my feelings on analytics. Which ones really matter, which ones don’t. Even more importantly, trying to go beyond the numbers. Statistics can lie.

Someone sent a link last year to a formula that rated Jake Gardiner above Duncan Keith. I almost campaigned Ontario high schools to eliminate math.

Anyway, this topic comes up because I’m trying to get more of a handle on the Montreal Canadiens. A lot of us figured they’d drop without Carey Price. Instead, they’ve got eight of a possible 10 points, with no regulation defeats. Mike Condon is showing why the organization chose him as the understudy over Dustin Tokarski.

But what’s happening in front of him is very interesting.

In a rare moment of (unintentional) honesty, one NHL analytic expert admitted last summer his team considers offensive zone time an important statistic. By their tracking, Chicago and Los Angeles were among the best at it. Boston and Buffalo make a point of showing this number on their TV broadcasts.

Recently, Sportsnet entered into an agreement with Sportlogiq, a sports analytics/player tracking company based in Montreal. We are sent detailed notes before games, and that’s one of the things they monitor. By their data, the Canadiens rank second in offensive-zone possession time, behind the Blackhawks and ahead of the Kings. (We are talking even-strength.) St. Louis is fourth, Philadelphia fifth. The Flyers aren’t in the same class, but that’s four good teams.

What really surprised me about this is what opposing coaches were saying about Montreal. It was mentioned in a previous blog, but a few of them noted how the Canadiens are more willing than most to simply throw the puck out of their zone if there is no play to make. Their players will tell you Michel Therrien prefers chasing it or regrouping to keeping it under duress. In today’s NHL, that goes against conventional wisdom.

It also doesn’t seem to mesh with Montreal’s offensive-zone possession time. If you’re throwing the puck down the ice, shouldn’t you have fewer opportunities to play with it?

First, are the coaches correct? Survey says: Yes. Sportlogiq’s data shows that no team dumps the puck out of its zone more than the Canadiens.

Here, for example, are the leaders in percentage of defensive-zone exits that are dump-outs: 1) Montreal 26.9% 2) San Jose 24.9% 3) Florida 24.2% 4) Nashville 24.1% 5) Minnesota 23.1%

That information is updated through Wednesday night. The individual numbers aren’t, but as of last weekend, Nathan Beaulieu and P.K. Subban were high among players who did it the most. Then you look at the film. Therrien uses all four lines, and his team is fast. It’s not hard to find examples of dump-outs that turn into Montreal scoring chances. They’re really dangerous.

Last Thursday against the Islanders: Marek Zidlicky panics under pressure from Max Pacioretty:

Nine days ago, hosting Ottawa: Andrei Markov sends it around the boards, for a tip to centre. Paul Byron turns it into a good chance.

In Calgary, a Devante Smith-Pelly goal is created when Kris Russell can’t handle the puck with Byron coming at him.

Hosting Detroit, the Canadiens go ahead 3-1 when Mike Green mishandles the puck and it all goes wrong:

It’s really something to watch. The Canadiens do one thing you have to do (control the puck in the offensive zone) and one thing people frown on (throw it out of your zone). But they turn that supposed negative into a positive, because it plays to their strengths. And it gives a clearer idea of why they are more than a one-man team.

30 THOUGHTS

1. It’s very likely Patrick Marleau’s future takes time to play out. Never mind the salary he’s due next year, interested teams are going to have trouble fitting him in at this point this year. Sharks GM Doug Wilson isn’t in a hurry. If waiting improves his offers, that’s what he’ll do. And, we’ll see if the reported list (Anaheim, Los Angeles, Rangers) grows or changes as time moves on. Don’t forget Wilson and Marleau’s new agent, Pat Brisson, worked together to find Brad Stuart a new home in Colorado when the defenceman wanted to be traded two summers ago. So there is precedence for this.

2. In Wednesday’s blog, I discounted the Kings and Rangers as possibilities but did not do it for Anaheim. Wilson and Ducks GM Bob Murray are tight, but the biggest impediment here is the Ducks being a budget team, not a cap team. Assuming they even want to make this move, it’s going to be difficult. For example, one of the first rumours out there was Marleau for Pat Maroon. (Draft picks were supposedly involved, too.) Don’t count on it. It doesn’t make sense as Maroon is locked into a good-value contract at $2M per year until 2018.

3. You have to assume the Sharks will try to get a first-round pick. Theirs went to Boston in the Martin Jones trade. San Jose wanted some missed-playoff protection on that one, but Bruins GM Don Sweeney declined.

4. Here’s a question about decreasing goal totals: what if the problem is not goalies? Thanks to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, you can make an argument the real issue is where the shots come from (or who is taking them). At five-on-five so far in 2015-16, the league-wide save percentage is .928. Eight seasons ago, it was .920. If you break it down even further, goalies are at .913 when a forward is shooting and a ridiculous .966 against defencemen. The way the game is played now, we are seeing more shots from defenders every year (just under 28 per cent of all taken to this point). Maybe the question is, does the NHL have to go back to the old, smaller offensive-zone so teams must cover the points? Will that loosen up the forwards?

5. The second part of the equation is, which forwards are doing the shooting? The speed and pace of the game means ice-time is being distributed more evenly than ever. The best forwards aren’t on the ice as much as fifteen years ago, which leads to fewer chances to impact the outcome. The NHL’s most prolific shooter, Alexander Ovechkin, averaged 448 shots during his first four seasons. He hasn’t been higher than 395 since. Everyone who makes the NHL is talented. But, some are more talented than others.

6. There is another possible solution: calling more penalties. (Or as one executive regularly texts, “just call the &$%#@* rulebook.”) This is more of a battle than you’d think. There are some GMs who hated the loosened standards from 2005-06, and don’t want to go back. I remember Steve Yzerman calling it “unrealistic.” He’s definitely someone who prefers the players, not the referees, decide games. Team power-plays have dropped from six to three per game in the last 10 years. But, more man advantages do lead to more goals.

7. Let’s do some GM meetings wrap-up. First, goaltender interference. There are four plays the group was shown for feedback purposes.

Two were called off:

Patrice Bergeron in Bruins vs. Canadiens:

Jay Beagle in Capitals vs. Panthers:

Two counted:

Shane Doan‘s 900th career point in Boston on Oct. 17:

Matt Calvert in Washington on Oct. 30:

As you can imagine, lots of differing opinions. Sounds like the message is, try not erase goals because of incidental contact.

8. At the Competition Committee meeting last June, Flyers owner Ed Snider told the players, “If you don’t shrink the goalie equipment, we’re going to increase the size of the nets.” That mantra was repeated a few more times this week, but I don’t think it’s what anyone really wants. According to a source, the NHL recently dressed one goalie in a regular skater’s sweater to see how it looked with the equipment underneath. Form-fitting jerseys are possible. Coyotes GM Don Maloney compared it to a soccer keeper’s look. The league is responsible for assigning sweaters, so, in theory, it could say, “Here’s what you are going to wear, your equipment better fit underneath.”

9. Ideally, though, the idea is for the league and players to do this together. There is a ton of skepticism — we’ve heard all this before — but a few sources on both sides say there is a willingness and desire for more scoring. The targets are the pants and sweaters/upper-body padding. Ryan Miller is extremely unhappy he’s being pinpointed, but, unfortunately, he’s the example everyone’s using. The irony here is Miller worked to help decrease pad sizes a couple of years ago. As for gloves, there is real concern about injuries if those are cut down. One goalie pointed out that Carey Price got even better when the pads were shrunk, “but that’s OK, it should be up to talent, anyway.”

10. The compensation issue will go the Board of Governors next month in Pebble Beach. A few teams believe Commissioner Gary Bettman wants it gone. No compensation, no matter the situation. But one GM said “some very powerful voices” still want it — just not for people who were fired. Will be interesting.

11. As the expansion process slows down, the conspiracy theories start up. There have been plenty of rumours that the NHL is waiting for one of the other (non-submitted) bids to get back into the process. There are some pretty strong denials in response, that this is a “closed process” and no one will be allowed to re-enter. Meanwhile, we thought a vote might come at the Board meeting in September. Didn’t happen. Then we assumed December. Not happening. Next target? All-Star Weekend in NashVegas. One of these days we will be right. The GMs did try to get clarity on expansion draft rules. They were told it was too early. But they were also told they will have “plenty of time” to prepare.

12. Not sure how extensively this was discussed at the meetings, but during the NHLPA’s current tour, the players are being polled about expanding the number of tests for recreational drugs. As mentioned in a previous blog, there are 2,400 tests for performance-enhancing drugs and 800 for recreational. The idea is to make it 2,400 for both. The key here is the NHL is stressing treatment — not punishment — for initial offences. Word is the players are receptive. We’ll see where it goes.

13. There have been rumours the Olympic Organizing Committee for PyeongChang, South Korea will offer the NHL and NHLPA the chance to play the hockey games in Seoul at the 2018 Games. It would be slightly easier travel. But when the two recently met with the International Ice Hockey Federation, that topic did not come up.

14. Team Canada World Cup GM Doug Armstrong is open about some of the new blood on the radar, undoubtedly wanting the likes of Brendan Gallagher, Taylor Hall, Jake Muzzin, Mark Stone and Tyler Toffoli to know they are being watched. Throw Kyle Turris into that group, too. Centre is the toughest position to break through, but he’s at least making them watch. And I have to think Brent Seabrook will be there on the North American ice surface, too.

15. Pretty good story about Mike Condon’s NHL arrival. He was a free agent as his NCAA career ended in 2013 at Princeton. The Tigers’ goalie coach was Greg Gardner, who played his college hockey at Niagara and knew agent Michael Wulkan. (He is now at Mercyhurst.) Condon has admitted to being completely unprepared for the next level, but Gardner believed in his talent. So, he reached out to Wulkan and asked if there was a job somewhere out there.

“The only place would could find was Ontario” of the ECHL, Wulkan said last week. He went 3-1 in four games, but Los Angeles — affiliated with the Reign — wanted Jean-Francois Berube to play in the playoffs, so Condon was out. “The only place we could find another spot was Houston,” Wulkan said.

Condon went 3-0 in five regular-season games, and readied to back up Darcy Kuemper in the postseason. Then, Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom hurt himself the warmup of Game 1 of the NHL playoffs. Kuemper joined the big club and Condon became the AHL starter. Houston lost round one in a deciding Game 5, but he impressed. Montreal swooped in and signed him ahead of the Wild. Winnipeg was lurking, too.

16. Condon’s senior thesis at Princeton: Post-Cold War Arms Transfers. Light reading.

17. You could tell Dustin Byfuglien appreciated the Jets arguing for no supplemental discipline after last week’s hit on Brendan Gallagher. He walks a very fine line (the Jason Pominville play was egregious), but his size and the fact we don’t see many such collisions anymore make everything he does look… jarring. “There is a heightened sensitivity now to anything that hits the head,” GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “We support that, and Dustin has to recognize that. But he does a much better job of trying to prevent injuries than he gets credit for.”

18. One of Mike Babcock’s former players texted after Nicklas Backstrom scored with milliseconds remaining to tie last Saturday’s game in Washington. “He is going to lose it over that goal,” the player wrote. Why? The coach is “persistent” about the weakside forward covering the back post when his team is down six-on-five. In Detroit, he would remind them during timeouts and made sure to practice it during the year. It is possible that since he’s still new to Toronto, that hasn’t been hammered home yet. But, you can bet it will be now.

19. Toronto’s Antoine Bibeau, on what he learned at his first NHL practice: “I knew everyone could shoot. I didn’t realize how fast they released it.”

20. Eric Fehr’s making a big impact in Pittsburgh, with three points in his first five games. What’s he seen so far?

“We believed it when everybody said how good we were,” he said. “Once we got over that, everything got better.” In many ways, that statement mirrors Fehr’s own career.

“He scored 50 goals twice in junior,” his former GM, George McPhee, said last week. “He thought he would be a scorer in the NHL, too. Going overseas changed his career. He realized there had to be much more to his game. When he came back, he was so much better.”

After a disappointing, injury-marred season in Winnipeg, Fehr went to Finland. The Capitals brought him back after the lockout and moved him to centre. Fehr became more impactful. “That long reach, the long stick, he kept knocking away pucks, stopping plays, creating turnovers,” McPhee explained. Did the GM think Fehr at centre would work? “No, but he deserves the credit.” Who thought of it? “Adam Oates.” I told McPhee that would go right to Oates’ head. He just laughed.

21. Hurricanes GM Ron Francis on Ryan Murphy, who a couple teams speculated might be wearing out his welcome in Carolina: “He’s taken some big strides. It’s not unusual for young players, who had it pretty easy in Junior, to need a year or two to understand what it takes. We talked about it. He had an excellent off-season. He came back stronger and better prepared.” On Eddie Lack, yet to have a .900 save percentage in any of his appearances: “He put too much pressure on himself. I’m not worried about him.”

22. Francis, asked if he was concerned about Bill Peters missing training camp for the World Cup: “No. This is an exciting thing. To be around the best players and those coaches? It will make him better, and us better.”

23. One GM had an interesting take on Washington. “Would be the Eastern favourite with a more offensive third-line centre.” That role belongs to Jay Beagle, and the Capitals are very loyal to him. Popular teammate who could have left last summer and desired an expanded role to stay. (GM Brian MacLellan would not comment when I asked.) The GM suggested bringing in a more offensive player to split that role with Beagle, but recognized that can be a dicey move in a room.

24. MacLellan does like the personality of his group. I couldn’t find the specific play, but the organization loved what happened when T.J. Oshie came on for Justin Williams as a goal was scored. “Oshie jumped right off, so Williams could get the plus,” the GM said. You would be surprised how much guys like Doug MacLean, Kelly Hrudey and Nick Kypreos notice this during games. If you’re jumping off as your team is vulnerable, you’re going to get the stink-eye. The reverse goes a long way. GMs (and coaches) are natural worriers. But MacLellan does seem comfortable, if not confident, with his group. “You’re always looking, but if Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt continue to play well, I like what we have,” he said last week.

25. Word from more than one scout at the Karjala Cup, the Finnish tournament many teams attended, was Ilya Kovalchuk did not seem right. He’s still under contract in Russia for another season. “Slower than we remember,” one said. Be interesting to see how he looks next year. One Russian who did impress was a 28-year-old left-shot centre named Vadim Shipachev. He’s a free agent. Some NHL team(s) will kick the tires.

26. The other strange one was how little Russia used Nikita Zaitsev, the free-agent-defenceman-to-be. “We were hoping to see more of him,” the above scout mentioned. Another noted the Russians used Boston pick Maxim Chudinov more than Zaitsev. Chudinov’s been loyal to the KHL and Zaitsev is leaving, which could be a big factor. By the way, everyone’s convinced he’s is going to Toronto. If someone wants to take the field, there’s money to be won.

27. Edmonton got the best possible news on Connor McDavid’s surgery. No separated shoulder, no torn labrum. Doctors will tell you they can live with the breaks — it’s the other stuff that’s worse. He’s still out long-term. Can’t believe he skated off on his own. Tough kid.

28. For Flyers fans: people who know junior hockey more than I do (and there is a long line of such people) are on the Travis Konecny trade watch in the OHL.

29. I’m an idiot, reason number 598,622: I misquoted my own stat last week. I said teams who are at least five points out of a playoff spot after games on Nov. 1 have made the postseason just five of 44 times since 2005-06. Yeah, it’s four points or more, not five. So, the contenders are Anaheim, Buffalo, Calgary, Colorado, Columbus and Toronto.

30. Whatever you think of the NHL, you cannot deny one thing: There is nothing it does better than Hockey Fights Cancer.