2011-12 Season Preview Part 3: Defensemen on Even Strength

Even strength play has ever been the bug-bear of the more recent editions of the Montreal Canadiens. Since the lockout, Montreal's performance at 5 on 5 has tended to range from mediocre to terrible and only somewhat redeemed by superior goaltending. The skaters in front of said goaltender has tended towards getting heavily outplayed. As a result of poor ES play Montreal had been out-shot every season from 05-06 to 09-10.

Year

5 on 5 F/A

Ranking

Out shot

2005-06

1.01

14

Yes

2006-07

0.75

28

Yes

2007-08

1.06

13

Yes

2008-09

0.96

17

Yes

2009-10

0.90

19

Yes

2010-11

1.01

16

No

In that sense last season was a major departure from the previous experience. For the first time in a long time Montreal out-shot their opponents, but more importantly they dominated shots, and therefore puck possession at even strength. In shot differential at even strength with the score tied, considered by many as the most reliable puck possession stat and best indicator of sustainably good even strength play, Montreal ranked 4th in the league, behind only Chicago and Vancouver. While some of this may be due to spray and pray tactics by Gomez's line, the fact remains that the majority of players for Montreal were in the black for Corsi, which suggests that they were at least a better than average even strength team last season, albeit one that had abnormally poor shot conversion (behind only New Jersey at even strength). Much of that improvement can be attributed to a better defensive group, especially the graduation of P.K. Subban who proved to be a puck possession monster on even strength.

Thus there is a great deal of optimism in certain quarters that Montreal is on the cusp of a breakthrough in 5 on 5 play, bolstered by the strong even strength abilities of newly incorporated players like Pacioretty and Subban, the resurgence of quality even strength players like Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta and the addition of Erik Cole, a player with a strong track record of ES point production.

Going into 2011-12, Montreal's defense at even strength is something of a question mark. If things go les Habitant's way they could end up with one of the strongest bluelines in the Eastern Conference. However, if the have bad luck with players returning from injury (Markov, Josh Gorges) adapting to old age (Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill), maintaining their rookie season (Subban, Weber) and adjusting to the NHL (Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz) they could sink the team with poor play on the blueline. The loss of Hamrlik and Wisniewski is more than replaced by the return of Markov and Gorges to the lineup, assuming both are healthy. Which leads to the crux of the matter. Markov, if healthy, is a dominant defender that by his presence can make or break this unit. If his surgery was successful there is little reason to fear (most athletes having his type of operation make a full recovery, even if it was the second surgery) but there are still risks and everyone in Habs-land will sigh with relief to see him in the lineup for an extended period of time once more.

 

These reviews include the point production rate stats per 60 minutes. Defensemen rarely score on even strength and the rate states tend to be worse than all but the worst forwards.  Above 0.8 points per 60 minutes tends to be quite good, with 1.00 being amongst the best in the league.

Players will be profiled from a number of advanced stats which are seen as some of the best indicators of even strength play. They include:

relCorsi QoC is considered the best single quality of competition statistic currently out there. Comparison from team to team tends to be problematic as opponent strength and line usage strategies will vary. In ballpark terms, above +.300 means a player is being matched against top-six players and +.600 means the player being used in very important shutdown minutes.

relCorsi is Corsi (shoots directed on net +/-) in comparison to a players teammates. It is an excellent proxy for how well a player has carried the play in comparison to their circumstances. It shouldn't be taken as a straight up measurement of how good a player is because quality of opposition, teammates and zone starts greatly effect it, but in proxy it is very good of an indicator of who is carrying the play. Its main failure after accounting for quality of competition and zone start is it tends to fail for extremely good (e.g. San Jose) and bad (New York Islanders) corsi teams.

Zone Start % is the percentage of non-neutral zone face-offs taken in the offensive zone. It demonstrates which players are being used in more offensive or defensive situations and correspondingly the ease or difficulty for a player to produce and prevent shots and goals.

Chance% is the ratio of scoring chances for to total on ice chances. As it removes low percentage shots from the equation, it's an even better indicator of how the team fared with the player on the ice. However it is not completely tracked and the only data available for Montreal goes back 2 years (thanks to Oliver at http://enattendantlesnordiques.blogspot.com/), with many teams not tracked at all.

 

Subban

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

5

20

0.19

0.87

77

16.05

0.381

48.50

10.30

57.00

Last 4 Seasons

5

20

0.19

0.87

77

16.05

0.381

48.50

10.30

 

The crown jewel of a strong set of 6 AHL graduates this season, Subban demonstrated convincingly that he was everything the hype said and more. In an unusually fast progression, Subban went from doing well on third pairing minutes to start, which grew into an almost absurd level of dominance a few months in. Then the defenses decimation by the loss of both Markov and Gorges forced a promotion to form a top-4 pairing with the steady but limited Hal Gill in a shutdown role. Subban handled this heavy responsibility with surprising aplomb. After an adjustment period, Subban and Gill began to play very tough opponents even despite an unfavorable zone start and by the end of the season began to significantly out shot and out chance them at even strength, which he continued to do into the playoffs. From a good third pairing defenseman to start the season, Subban had risen to the point of being effectively a number one defenseman.

On aggregate, Subban faced mid-level opponents last season and outplayed them handily with the kind of corsi and relCorsi one sees in either elite or heavily sheltered defenders (of which he was both at some point). His possession and difficulty of competition stats compare quite closely with the similarly aged top Buffalo defender, Tyler Myers, to whom he is a good comparable. His even strength offense is strong, especially in goal-scoring from a defenseman. Going forward Subban looks to play big minutes under tough circumstances while pushing the puck in the right direction on even strength. It appears he may play more difficult minutes with Gill than returning ace Andrei Markov who could be more profitably employed against second level opponents in more offensively favourable circumstances. The combined ability of these two elite defenseman is the main hope that Montreal will be able to be a strong even strength team going forward.

 

Markov

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Last Season

2

17

0.15

1.24

45

17.15

0.428

52.00

5.80

Last 4 Seasons

12

66

0.21

1.08

212

15.99

0.585

45.67

1.22

 

Markov was sorely missed in his year long absence. While the power play is his greatest strength, he is also an adept player at even strength. He produces excellent even strength offense for a defenseman and tends to push the play in the right direction despite usually baby-sitting a much lesser defenseman (Komisarek and Ryan O'Byrne being examples). His defense isn't superlative, while typically playing some of the most difficult minutes on the team, it hasn't always been to the extreme of a true heavy minute shutdown defenseman (on year with Mike Komisarek in his best season prime being an exception). Markov's possession stats are also not quite as impressive as one would want from a top level defenseman at even strength, although he does tend to have a very good team on ice shooting rate and his such a talented playmaker that I'd believe that he was having a notable effect on shot quality.

If the surgery is successful, players with Markov's type of injury usually make a complete recovery, so there is reason to believe he can return to be the player he was. His cerebral play and puck skills should carry him as he ages while more physical skill dependant players falter. This season he looks to form a solid top four pairing, likely with Gorges help, although Yemelin or Spacek are possibilities. There is also the chance the Habs will want to form a single dominant pairing by combining Markov and Subban's talents together. As of now I'd project him to maintaining his level of play and being a major cog on Montreal's blueline going forward.

 

Gorges

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

0

6

0.00

0.51

36

16.36

0.717

50.10

-12.90

49.00

Last 4 Seasons

5

39

0.06

0.51

261

15.50

0.385

47.67

-3.82

 

Despite a difference in stature and skill set, Gorges is fairly comparable to Gill. Both typically get sent out in difficult defensive situations and are expected to make the best of them. Gorges relies more on smarts, mobility and determination than Gill's reliance on size but the effect is similar, a tough situations defender with limited offense that can be counted on to make the best of a bad situation. However, Gorges is much more versatile in his skill set and can adapt to being the defensive element on a two-way pairing like he has with Markov or cover for a partner's passing and mobility deficiencies like he has with Gill when the two have been combined.

Gorges' strong ability to limit goals against is reflected by his extrodinarily strong goals against stat

Gorges looks to be the third man on the teams defense on even strength, likely playing with Markov to form one of the tough minutes pairings. This is somewhat higher on the depth chart than is ideal for Gorges but unless Spacek can resurge or Yemelin has a very good transition to North America he's probably the best Montreal has for that role. Not that Gorges isn't capable of being a top 4 defenseman but his limited offensive and puck skills makes it somewhat doubtful that he can lead a good second pairing if one of Markov or Subban is injuried long term.

 

Gill

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

2

8

0.10

0.31

75

15.53

0.790

45.90

-8.10

53.00

Last 4 Seasons

9

51

0.14

0.63

286

14.98

0.572

47.20

-5.10

 

Gill's purpose in hockey seems to be that of a sacrificial lamb. He is sent out in the defensive zone against good players with the expectation that he'll get killed but his presence will mitigate the damage and give more offensively capable players more opportunity to employ their skills. Gill continued this role in Montreal until the end of the year when something unexpected happened. Gill was playing tough minutes but still outchancing his opponents. Gill was only on the periphery of this development as it was the direct result of the quick maturation of his young partner, P.K. Subban.  Nonetheless, Gill was a contributor within his limited skill set, with his superb ability to defend the slot area allied to Subban's excellent defensive range and puck control and movement abilities. This formed an effective shut down unit that was a merry hell to forecheck against.

Big, strong and immobile with good anticipation and a good stick, Gill is very close to the platonic ideal of a player to defend the front of the net. Unfortunately, he lacks the puck skills or skating to be good at anything else. Essentially, Gill is terrific when playing within his role and terrible outside it.

Going into the new year Gill is expected to reprise his role as Subban's accomplice on the blueline against top forwards and frequently starting in the defensive zone. If broken up, expect Gill to form another defensive unit with Gorges or to move to mentoring another young defenseman like Yemelin or Weber.

 

Spacek

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

1

12

0.13

0.67

59

15.09

0.695

50.50

-5.80

49.00

Last 4 Seasons

9

58

0.12

0.72

273

16.07

0.611

50.88

5.02

 

From being a fairly good top pairing defenseman in his Buffalo days, Spacek has been on the decline.  While he can still be used for tough minutes, the tendancy has become for him to lose that matchup rather than win it.  It is uncertain how much he was leaning on Hamrlik when they were paired together and whether he can still handle top-4 minutes without a top pairing defenseman carrying him. On the other hand, he looked quite good later in the season when he was playing less minutes on his proper left handed side on the third pairing. Certainly he can be expected to anchor a good third pairing for next season.

Although his power play abilities seem to have dried up, Spacek remains a fairly effective offensive defenseman on even strength. A sign I think of the great importance a good first pass has for a defenseman, as Spacek is no longer mobile enough to effectively pinch or carry the puck. Spacek has the upside of being a 2nd pairing level defender, which he may be able to fill when injuries inevitably occur. Whether his aging body is still up to the task is a legitimate question though. If not, Montreal can still get value from him mentoring and sheltering European youngsters Yemelin and Weber into the NHL.

 

Weber

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

1

6

0.11

0.78

41

13.18

-0.618

58.30

10.00

55.00

Last 4 Seasons

1

6

0.11

0.78

41

13.18

-0.618

58.30

10.00

 

Yannick Weber has finally arrived in the NHL. After a couple short call ups in the previous two seasons, Weber finally earned a spot after injuries hit halfway through the season. His AHL stats are very impressive as are his NHL rate stats. Weber's unit dominated puck possession albeit against buttery soft opposition. Still, he has earned the chance to be a regular on the 3rd unit, providing puckmoving, mobility and offensive support against the lesser lights of the NHL.

 

Campoli

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Last Season

3

19

0.15

0.95

77

15.65

-0.450

52.50

3.70

Last 4 Seasons

15

55

0.20

0.84

266

14.93

-0.357

51.54

2.40

 

Chris Campoli is an odd duck.  His power play production has never been good but he's quite strong at racking up points at even strength. He's never been able to play tough minutes in the NHL but has also proven to be reasonably capable at handling 3rd pairing time, with a consistently positive relCorsi.  In comparison to Yannick Weber he seems to come out behind but is more established and therefore less of a risk. He seems more than adequate to be injury depth for the bottom pairing but not good for moving up to a more important role. Weber, Diaz and Yemelin seem to be his direct competition for ice time and predicting who will win the regular job on defense is hard to predict at this point.

 

Usage:

The question of usage strategy is much less complicated for the defense than it is for the forwards. Generally, two tough minutes pairings must be assembled, although one can carry more of the load than the other, while the third pairing can be given very soft minutes. Gill-Subban formed a very effective shutdown pairing to end last season, outplaying tough opponents with a defensive zone start. They can be expected to do so again.

Markov is a capable tough minutes player, but generally doesn't get extreme defensive assignments as his talents lie more towards offense than defense. He can be expected to form the core of the second unit, with Gorges a capable partner, although Yemelin might steal that spot. In case of injuries, Spacek is the best tough minute player and should be able to move up unless his play totally drops off with age. Weber, Yemelin, Diaz and newly acquired Campoli should be capable of handling the soft minutes the third pairing will play without problem. 

The principle risk for Montreal is losing one of Markov or Subban for an extended period of time. Without the two of them to carry the top two pairings a less than ideal ad hoc 2nd pairng must be formed from Gorges, Spacek and Gill. While each of these can play top 4 minutes, none are good enough in my opinion to lead a strong 2nd pairing. Without Hamrlik, a lot rests on Markov returning full time to the Canadiens lineup. If Montreal is in contention at the trade deadline, picking up another good top 4 defender may be wise. However, if Diaz or Emelin acclimatize well to the NHL this season, perhaps the solution is internal.

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