Price struggles thanks to coaching schemes

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty
January 30, 2014, 7:57 AM

On Jan. 7, Carey Price was named to the Canadian Olympic team. At the time of the announcement, he was 20-11-4 with a .927 save percentage and the odds on favourite to be the starter in Sochi. I had recently endorsed him for the starting job based on his impressive work since the beginning of the 2011-12 season. But since Jan. 7, Price has been a statistical disaster registering an .886 save percentage while winning only three of eight starts.

At times over that span he has appeared spectacular, but the eye test has always been unreliable. Could the blame possibly lie elsewhere? Like, say, with the coaching system?

A goaltender’s performance relies on the amount of shots they face with the ability to set. When forced into transition or dealing with a change in puck-direction, save percentage drops.

With that in mind, I studied 15,000 shots and separated them based on individual-game performances—save percentages above and below the league average. I then calculated the different game situations and charted the shots. The results are similar to my previous findings.

A performance below league average also coincides with a tougher workload—more transition shots, deflections and chances from the home plate area. This does not excuse poor performance, but in some instances a poor save percentage is the direct result of team performance, not poor netminding. Goaltenders suffer from wild fluctuations during any given season. Why varies depending on situation. It can be attributed to poor performance, randomness or shoddy defensive coverage. James Reimer is currently in a 10-game slump where he has put up an .870 save percentage after the most dominant run of his short career. Is it bad play or lack of support on a Leafs team that surrenders a ton of shots?

The King of consistency, Henrik Lundqvist recently went through the worst stretch of his career. A seven-game span where he produced an .857 save percentage.

I looked to see if Lundqvist’s December struggles were performance based, or if the Rangers coverage had contributed to his plummeting save percentage. I found that the defensive scheme they employed was very similar to the previous 80 games I tracked for Lundqvist. Considering that in conjunction with his comments about equipment adjustments, I am comfortable labeling his performance a statistical anomaly based either on randomness or technical struggles. He has begun to normalize in the new year, returning to his typical elite level with a .932 save percentage.

So Lundqvist’s statistical-dip looks to have been a merely a slump, but the same can not be said for Price. The Canadiens have been in a possession free fall since December. Andrew Berkshire at eyesontheprize.com identified Michel Therrien as the main culprit. Questionable player usage and the negative effects of the Canadiens’ change from puck-possession to dump-and-chase have resulted in the largest recorded season-over-season decline in puck-possession history. The trend eerily mimics Therrien’s misuse of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in 2009, which ended with him being fired. The Pens under Dan Bylsma have been an elite possession team since.

The Canadiens haven’t been a strong defensive team since the departure of Jacques Martin, but early in the season they provided Price with enough support to produce elite numbers. I expected his statistics to normalize when his sky-high clean save-percentage dropped, but because of the 60-game sample of strong possession, I thought the Habs may be able to maintain the defensive improvements. I was wrong. That support has disappeared in January and the Habs have cratered.

After the Olympic announcement, Price played a fantastic game against the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. His statistical nosedive began against the Devils. The Canadiens began bleeding high-quality chances and exposing Price to transition shots, deflections and numerous slot opportunities. He played one of the best games of his career against the Senators and only managed to register a .909 save percentage. Double the transition opportunities and more shots from the home plate area have caused Price’s save percentage to plummet by almost .010 points to where he currently sits at .921.

I don’t expect the Canadiens will continue giving up scoring opportunities at the Douglas Murray rate of 1 per shift, but GM Marc Bergevin looks like he will remain patient with Therrien’s dump-and-chase philosophy. Therrien’s system works as a possession anchor, and that could be bad news for Price’s future save percentage.

The good news for those only concerned with Price’s performance for Team Canada: Douglas Murray is Swedish and Drew Doughty is not.

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