The NHL’s new cap era began following the most recent lockout where half of the 2012-2013 season was lost. Yes, the cap era began following the 2005 lockout, but the hockey now is much different from the hockey from a decade ago. The 2005-2006 season saw over six goals per game; that number is now under 5.5. Three quick things about this:
- Hockey is still a game played by two teams where the winner is decided by who scores more goals. With fewer goals scored overall (, but the final result of the competition unchanged, it puts a premium on goal-scoring. With 1200 NHL regular season games, that’s a bit over 600 fewer goals. That’s a lot.
- Raw goal totals for top-end scorers is going down – 30 players scored 30 goals in 2011-2012, there were 15 this past season – which means the slack has to be picked up somewhere. The bottom of a roster is becoming more and more important with each passing season; just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins how easy it is to have playoff success with a weak bottom-six. There was a great post by Tyler Dellow a couple years ago (who has since been hired by the Edmonton Oilers so the post was taken down) about Pittsburgh’s porous bottom-six forwards. The New Jersey Devils had a strong fourth line in their Cup run a few years ago. Boston’s Merlot line is famous for their role in the Bruins’ run. Los Angeles’s most recent Cup run was marked by a forward group that had 11 forwards play at least 12 minutes a game.
- Contenders have cap-friendly contracts, entry-level or otherwise. Los Angeles had “That 70s Line” with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli coming cheap, Chicago had Teuvo Teravainen and Brandon Saad, Tampa Bay’s “Triplets” line had a combined cap hit under $7.5-million this past season.
Understanding these three things — reduction in goal scoring, growing importance of the bottom-half of the roster, and needing cheap production — is important to understanding Montreal’s dilemma. A dilemma that starts and ends behind the bench.
I’m going to look at Montreal’s last two seasons. More specifically, production, cap hits, and deployment.
One thing Montreal has not had a shortage of over the last half decade is good, young talent coming up. It started with P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty, proceeded to Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller, and Brendan Gallagher, and now includes names like Christian Thomas, Michael Bournival, Jacob de la Rose, and Charles Hudon. There are also players like Mike McCarron and Nikita Scherbak who could figure in in the next year or two. For now, I will focus on guys who have been given a “chance” at the NHL level.
The first chart is goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five, and it was taken from Hockey Analysis. These are all Montreal forwards that have played at least 500 minutes at 5v5 in the two seasons combined (including other teams where the players may have played):
Bournival is being buried by the team, Parenteau was bought out, Smith-Pelly was given, at times, 18 minutes a game in the playoffs, and Torrey Mitchell was recently extended. Sure, ok. Also, LOL Pacioretty.
Parenteau and Mitchell can kind of be thrown out here as they are not among the youth movement. But it is important to note what a player has done, and what the team thinks of them. Montreal is 25th out of 30 teams in goals per 60 minutes at 5v5 over the last two years, and just bought out a top-six scorer.
What is important here is Bournival and Smith-Pelly.
Over the last two years, there have been 443 forwards to play at least 500 minutes at five-on-five, or nearly 15 forwards per team. Out of those 443 forwards, Bournival is 194th in goals per 60 minutes. That means a fringe top-six scoring rate, but cemented in third line scoring rates. What’s also important is that he’s tied in this regard with Brayden Schenn and Jonathan Huberdeau. Bournival is a year younger than Schenn, who gets serious minutes with Claude Giroux. He’s only a year older than Huberdeau, who is considered an important piece for Florida for years to come.
Despite scoring at a fringe top-six rate, and keeping pace with a forward whose three most common line mates are Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds, as well as a forward considered an important young franchise piece, Bournival can’t stay in the Montreal lineup, or even on the team.
This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Anyone who watches Montreal regularly has seen the creativity sucked out of P.K. Subban over the last few years. The team plays scared to death of taking a risk every minute of every game.
Nathan Beaulieu has long been buried, too. It’s been two seasons now where he’s bounced from the big club to the minor league team, in and out of the lineup, given more than 20 minutes a game in nine of his 81 games of the last two years.
He’s been very, very good in the minutes given to him. The chart below (from War On Ice) shows on-ice scoring chance differential on the x-axis, and the competition’s corsi percentage on the y-axis. Basically, the further up and to the left, the better the scoring chance differential and tougher competition. The bottom-right shows players who get filled in scoring chance-wise while playing easier competition. The darker the blue, the better the possession rates on the ice. Finally, the size of the circle relates to ice time per game. To sum:
We are looking for players in the top-left quadrant, with a dark blue circle (or just blue at all). The bigger the circle, the more ice time per game; the smaller the circle, the less ice time per game.
Alexei Emelin. Good gracious.
You’ll notice Beaulieu being behind just Subban/Markov in competition, driving chances with good relative possession numbers, but having the least amount of ice time per game.
The chart contained below has the same parameters as the one above – we’re still looking for top-left and dark blue – but includes defencemen from Colorado and Arizona from the last two years, both teams that have struggled possession-wise like Montreal has. Note the players at the end of the arrows:
Tyson Barrie is one of the best young d-men in the game, Keith Yandle was supposed to turn the Rangers into a Cup contender, yet Beaulieu was given nearly six fewer minutes per game at even strength during the playoffs than Emelin was.
Bournival and Beaulieu aren’t the only ones to suffer under this coaching regime. Jiri Sekac was traded because of the coach’s refusal to play him, Lars Eller is in no-man’s land when it comes to knowing where he stands with the staff, and Christian Thomas put up elite results with regards to scoring chances in 18 games with Montreal. Unfortunately, Thomas played less than 8 minutes a game (five times) as often as he played more than 10 minutes, and he never played for Montreal after February.
Therrien plays it safe, this is very much evident in how the Habs play hockey (please, pleeeeeease stop flipping the puck into the neutral zone). Not only does this bear out in the style they play, but the players used as well. Prust and Malhotra take (or took) precedence over Bournival and Thomas. Emelin gets much more consideration than Beaulieu. And if Habs players really fall out of favour, they’ll be traded for a player that will make the team worse.
The problem is the Habs think they’re “close” to a Cup. And they would be with a coach that knows how to manage the bottom-half of his roster, and can coach the post-cap era game. A top-four d-man mix with Subban/Markov and Beaulieu/Petry would look very good. Unfortunately, the second pairing is going to be Emelin/Petry. A bottom-six that features Bournival, Thomas, McCarron, and de la Rose would be a threat. A bottom-six that features Malhotra, Prust, Flynn, Bourque, Moen, or [name over-priced veteran here] is not.
It should be obvious to fans and management alike that relying on Carey Price to be a .940 save percentage goalie for 65 regular season games and a full playoff run is completely absurd. A team shouldn’t be in trouble just because the opposition scored one goal, and yet, that’s how they’ve played since Therrien came into the fold. They have young players who have shown the ability to score and drive positive results, and yet they remain buried on the NHL depth chart, or in the AHL. This is beyond infuriating, especially when a bottom-six that features Scherbak, de la Rose, Thomas, Bournival, and McCarron (with Torrey Mitchell in there) can be built for about $6-million next year. With Beaulieu, that’s a $7-million cap hit for seven useful players. Just Prust and Emelin alone are a combined $6.6-million cap hit next year.
Montreal has a chance to renew itself here. Malhotra is gone, Flynn doesn’t look to figure in, and Prust has one year left. If there’s an opportunity to trade Emelin for anything that doesn’t involve taking back another bad contract, they should do that too. I don’t care how hard he can hit and subsequently take himself out of the play.
The kids are ready to play for Montreal, and time is ticking; Pacioretty and Price figure for just an $11-million cap hit total for each of the next three years. That gives the team three years to build around their elite, cap-friendly pieces, and really push for a Cup. There needs to be a new mentality behind the bench both in how players are used and evaluated. This isn’t a “let’s wait and see how things go” time for the franchise. This is a “we have the pieces to build and win now” time for the franchise. With this style and deployment, though, there’s nothing but heartache ahead for Habs fans.
*Big thanks to War on Ice and Hockey Analysis for their resources.