Analytics Mailbag: How responsible is Carey Price for Canadiens’ woes?


Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. (Francois Lacasse/Getty)

It’s that time again, I asked for your questions that I could help solve with some data from SPORTLOGiQ. Just like last time, there are some questions that require longer answers, so if yours wasn’t answered, it might appear in a full article of its own.

For example, I got multiple questions about P.K. Subban for this mailbag, but in order to answer them fully, I think we’ll have to dig deep. You know how mailbags work, so let’s jump right into it.

We got a lot of Montreal Canadiens centric questions this week, which makes sense with them being a team with a lot of questions surrounding them, period.

@bakaind: Is Carey Price losing his edge because he doesn’t have quality shots coming from Max Pacioretty during practice? (I personally don’t think so, but it’s weird that his numbers started dipping when patches was on a slump/got traded…it’s probably age, right?)

It’s an interesting thought that not facing a pure sniper in practice might prevent Price from being at his peak during games, and a tough question to answer with data. From what I hear from Canadiens beat writers there’s no issue with Price’s practice habits, and the Canadiens certainly let him see enough quality shots in games that he shouldn’t be out of practice.

Ahmad, who raised the question, wasn’t the only one to ask about Carey Price though…

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@SMC459: With Price again voted the NHL’s best goalie by the players, what statistics do you have that suggests the blame for the team’s struggles should be taken off his shoulders and perhaps placed elsewhere?

Age is definitely a factor in Price’s numbers falling off in recent seasons. After being one of the most consistent goaltenders in the league through his prime, he’s starting to have at least one stretch each season where he really struggles, and each year that stretch gets longer.

With that said, at 5-vs-5 last season, Price had posted an essentially identical save percentage to Tuukka Rask — while facing more than two extra slot shots per game — and nearly 20 per cent more pre-shot movement. Among starting goaltenders, Price was sixth in save percentage from the inner slot, and 10th in save percentage from the slot overall.

While short-handed, only Andrei Vasilevskiy had a better save percentage from the inner slot, and Price had the top save percentage in the league from the slot overall at 88.5 per cent.

This season is a different story, as Price is 23rd among starters from the inner slot at 5-vs-5, 23rd from the slot overall and he’s actually faced fewer scoring chances than he did last season. Strangely, Price remains one of the league’s top short-handed goalies, but at 5-vs-5 the Canadiens have actively worked to make things easier on him — it hasn’t worked out, though.

Part of the issue for Price might simply be he’s playing too much. Over the last two seasons, he leads all goaltenders with 7,320 minutes played, 400 more minutes than the next most-played goalie in Connor Hellebuyck, and he’s nearly seven years older than Hellebuyck. His numbers aren’t terrible, but even last year they were vastly better. I wouldn’t call him the problem, but he hasn’t been the solution either.

@Jaredisamark: What stat makes it most clear that Auston Matthews is better than Jack Eichel?

Jared, I think you have some trolling motives here…

The truth is they’re very different players who excel in different areas. Matthews creates more offence — currently sitting in the 99th percentile of all forwards at even strength, while Eichel is 95th — but Eichel is vastly superior at moving the puck up the ice, in the 99th percentile to Matthews in the 91st.

Where Matthews pulls away a bit is in defensive involvement, which I know many don’t want to believe, but he’s in the 90th percentile among forwards in defensive touches in the defensive zone, while Eichel is in the 77th.

But you want an unfair comparison to throw at Sabres fans? I can oblige you. While Matthews has been on the ice this season the Maple Leafs have controlled a team-high 58 per cent of inner-slot shots. Meanwhile, when Eichel is on the ice, the Sabres control just 44 per cent of inner slot shots, which puts him ninth on the roster.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

@Mcintdan: What numbers are most important for a defenceman? I mean beyond chances for vs. chances against. For example, who do the Leafs need since their forwards can create lots of offence, but they need cheap shut down guys?

In the modern game, I think the most important job a defenceman has is to move the puck out of the defensive zone and start a team’s transition game. So one of the first things I look at is controlled exits, followed by turnover rate relative to team structure since you don’t want someone who constantly messes up.

In a more general sense, I like to look at which defencemen make the most plays with and for the puck, who is actually impacting the game directly? There are a wealth of metrics to look at when evaluating defencemen, but those are a couple I look to first.

@SwansonLimes: What factors cause the most change in forecasting throughout a season? Projections change every week but what can lead to the biggest or smallest changes from the initial outset?

This is a topic we probably don’t talk about enough, but just like shooting percentage can fluctuate pretty randomly and throw off expected results for long stretches, the same applies to most kinds of plays.

A player can make the right kinds of passes all season long and see their pass success-rate plummet because of their linemates flubbing the passes, or opponents just happening to pick them off at an extraordinary rate. Unsustainable success or failure rates on plays in either direction can lead to over or underestimating teams by a huge margin.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

@RalphSegret: The Max Domi debate. Centre or winger? What do the analytics say?

There’s a reason why the Canadiens themselves have struggled to answer this question. If the question was just what makes Domi better offensively, he would be a centre. The extra skating being a centre requires plays perfectly into his game and allows him to create vastly more offence than when the higher volume of starts and stops that go into being a winger.

However, Domi really struggles defensively at centre — possibly as much or more than Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin have. When he gets the puck on his stick it’s all good, but without it, he tends to fly the zone early or lose his mark positionally. Those are big issues for head coach Claude Julien.

I’m also not so sure he’s been as rough offensively this season as many believe, since posting a career-high shooting percentage last season likely put unrealistic expectations in peoples’ heads.

Domi is still in the top five per cent of all forwards this season in offence generating plays at 5-vs-5, and he has attempted the fifth-most slot passes of all players in the league. The issue for him is related to the previous question, his slot-pass success rate this year is just 25 per cent, compared to 33 per cent last season.

That may not seem like a lot, but the end result has been his primary assist rate dropping by nearly 50 per cent. I’m confident that number is going to rebound, and Domi will capably operate from the wing despite being more offensively suited to centre.

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