2011-12 Season Preview Part 4: Forwards at Even Strength

Our even strength preview started with the defense and continues with the forwards here.

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 CammalleriScott Gomez and Brian Gionta and the addition of Erik Cole, a player with a strong track record of ES point production.

One of the most exciting aspects of the upcoming season is the prospect of Montreal having the forward depth to construct a strong offensive third line. 6 bonafide top six forwards, emerging talents in Max Pacioretty, Lars Eller, and David Desharnais and a good offensive depth player in Mathieu Darche means Montreal will have the option to victimize the opponents weaker players.

These reviews include the point production rate stats per 60 minutes. A top six forward can be expected to produce at around 1.8 points per 60 while players that get above 2.1 tend to be either stars or good forwards having a strong or lucky year.

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.

 

Centers

Plekanec

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

18

37

0.95

1.91

77

13.89

0.895

50.20

0.40

58.00

Last 4 Seasons

65

147

0.87

1.93

320

13.01

0.486

47.16

1.82

 

Tomas Plekanec was the team's linchpin on forward last season. His ability to play the toughest opposition and come out even or even ahead was crucial, allowing lesser players to face off against players they could win against. Plekanec is a consistently good even strength players who has lead the team in ES offense for 3 of the last 4 years.  His reputation is as more of a playmaker than a shooter, but Plekanec's offense on evens is fairly balanced between goals and assists, with his greater assist totals being driven by power play time.

Despite playing the toughest opposition of any forward, Plekanec was the strongest forward in terms of out-chancing the opposition. Despite lesser point totals than one would expect from a first line center, Plekanec is a top line player in the truest sense of the word, able to outplay the opposition's best. While often people make the case that a player is undervalued because his defense isn't being taken into account, in Plekanec's case is the truth. His rare combination of top-level offense and defense makes him an extremely valuable player to the team.

Plekanec is expected to be the Canadiens' leading forward once again this season as the two-way presence that holds the forward group together.

 

Gomez

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

4

20

0.21

0.95

80

14.23

0.484

54.00

7.40

52.00

Last 4 Seasons

32

140

0.38

1.69

316

14.44

0.486

57.30

10.49

 

Scott Gomez had a brutal season last year at even strength. Both his goalscoring and playmaking were half of his typical rate, resulting in grinder-esque offensive rate stats. However, his possession stats were about as good as normal against similar levels of competition and a positive scoring chance differential.  So what happened?

The answer is a slump in scoring chance conversion for both Gomez and his linemates that was almost biblical in its proportions. His on ice shooting percentage went from a solid 8.51% to a putrid 4.73%, a shot conversion rate typically only seen amongst goons and other marginal players. These weren't low quality shots either, although Gomez's lines do tend to prefer volume to quality shooting. Gomez's line got plenty of shots from close to the net but fail to convert. The good news is that shooting percentage hot streaks and slumps tend to be transient. There is no good reason to believe that he won't rebound after some adjustments this coming season.

The bad news is that overall, Gomez did not play well without Gionta even by terms of shots and chances and only really did well when Max Pacioretty was on his line. It may be the case that Gomez has become a player that needs to be carried by good two-way wingers who he has chemistry with. While he has ever indication of being a top 6 level center, it may be that he is the weakest link on the second line.

I expect Gomez will continue to soak up second level competition for Montreal next season, with Gionta and probably Pacioretty or Cole on his wings. Expect a major bounce in production, probably to at least around 35 even strength points per season, which is a little down from his usual 40 before last year.

 

Eller

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

7

17

0.51

1.02

77

10.64

-0.169

51.00

-0.70

52.00












 

Eller did not have as good of transition to the NHL as many would have liked but in the end showed a great deal of promise for a future as a quality two-way centerman. His scoring per minute was not impressive although his possession stats were decent.  Too often Eller was stuck in the wrong position on dysfunctional lines such as Eller-Gomez-Kostitsyn or in other cases stuck with offensive basket cases like Moen and Pyatt. It should be clear by now that Eller is simply a centerman and does not play well on the wings. 

When paired with Kostitsyn and facing appropriate 3rd line competition, Eller was very successful as he was when with decent offensive players in Pouliot and Darche. This is the role Eller will be expect to reprise next year as the pivot of and offensive third line while supported by good wingers line Kostitsyn or Pacioretty and one of Moen, Darche or Desharnais. With Eller's good speed, passing and puck protection skills and potential for greater achievement a much stronger offensive year is expected from the 22 year old Dane.

 

Betts

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Last Season

4

9

0.48

1.07

75

6.73

-0.483

26.90

-18.80

Last 4 Seasons

14

36

0.36

0.92

294

8.16

0.123

40.57

-14.90

Blair Betts isn't much of a producer on even strength.  He plays limited minutes, doesn't score much and tends to lose the possession game against not very good levels of opponents. His saving grace is that he does this with a heavy emphasis on playing in the defensive end. This was especially the case last season where Betts started the vast majority of his shifts in the defensive zone. Unlike on the penalty kill, where Betts is elite, he is unlikely to accomplish much on 5 on 5 except to take some defensive assignments in his own end to free up offensive opportunities for better centers. He and Moen could form a pretty good pure defense 4th line which could allow players like Eller and Desharnais more offensive opportunities.

 

Desharnais

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

4

14

0.58

1.74

43

9.64

-0.526

46.90

4.30

55.00

 

Desharnais had an impressive start to his NHL career last season, with the caveat that he did so under fairly favorable circumstances. Desharnais rate stats are those of a top-six level forward and he did well on possession despite an unfavorable zone start but his buttery soft completion levels makes this accomplishment at little suspect. Desharnais was heavily sheltered, only taken out against bottom line players on even strength. However, potential is definitely there for him to be an offensive catalyst on even strength and he could become a very useful player next season if he can adapt to at least 3rd line competition levels.

Desharnais will either be used as part of an offensive third line (likely as a winger unless injuries). If he cannot crack that level yet, as the leader of the fourth unit, responsible for torching the oppositions grinders and goons in limited minutes.


Wingers

Cammalleri

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

12

26

0.64

1.40

67

14.10

0.638

52.20

-6.90

55.00

Last 4 Seasons

63

137

0.89

1.96

276

14.21

0.213

53.58

3.32

 

Gomez wasn't the only one with a disappointing offensive year 5 on 5. Cammalleri's scoring levels were way off his typical pace and significantly below what is expected of a top six forward. In his defense however, he was facing the toughest competition levels of his past 4 years while doing so. Cammalleri may be miscast as part of a shutdown line, with his best successes on offensive oriented lines that faced weaker competition. However, this is the cost of being paired with Montreal's best forward in Plekanec. Nonetheless, Cammalleri was also somewhat unfortunate, with both a lower than usual personal and team shooting percentage. He can probably be expected to rebound to better production next season, although how much will depend on whether he is counted on to be an important defensive presence or not.

 

Gionta

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

20

33

0.99

1.61

82

14.09

0.723

50.10

13.70

57.00

Last 4 Seasons

65

139

0.86

1.85

306

13.90

0.678

53.05

9.22

 

Easily the best 2-way winger on the team, Gionta routinely gets tough assignments on even-strength and comes out ahead, albeit with some minor zone start help. Both of Gionta's seasons in Montreal have been missed opportunities to put up some really impressive offensive numbers. In the first he was pacing for well over 30 goals if he hadn't lost 21 games to injury (although he did end up with a spectacular 37 in 84 games including playoffs). This year he was one of the most prolific shooters in the NHL while strongly outshooting his opponents on even strength but a personal and team shot conversion rate far below his career averages resulted in him missing out on a 30 goal season and an unimpressive 47 points.

Gionta is a prolific shooter that can create shots from everywhere from the periphery to the front of the net. His speed, guts and awareness makes him an effective scorer despite his limited size. He isn't the best puck handler which tends to limit his playmaking ability though. He is also a very effective defensive winger, using speed, anticipation and good stick work to break up plays and retrieve pucks.

Since arriving in Montreal, Gionta's point production has been relatively constant while his goal totals have jumped considerably, a phenomena I term the "Gomez effect." Generally, Gionta's assist totals have suffered from playing with the inept shooting Gomez and a frequently sub-standard left winger, excepting when Cammalleri and Pacioretty joined the G's on the second line.

It's unfortunate that Gionta appears to be necessary for Gomez to function offensively, because as an excellent two-way forward he'd make a right wing for Plekanec on the tough minutes line. Perhaps if Cole, who shares Gionta's speed, shooting and net crashing tendencies, can find some chemistry on Gomez's right wing, that combination can be formed this season.

 

Cole

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Last Season

22

42

1.08

2.16

82

13.57

0.687

50.00

-2.30

Last 4 Seasons

56

120

0.87

1.95

275

13.42

0.612

51.58

0.96

 

The biggest pick-up of the off-season, Erik Cole was a wise addition. His speed based, two way game should mesh well with the Montreal system and his principle strengths of size, physical play and even strength goal scoring bolster areas were Montreal was relatively weak. The great advantage of adding Cole is that his production is principally during difficult minutes at even strength, meaning that he can add to the offense without taking someone else's easy even strength or power play time. Thus he pushes players down the depth chart to places where they are more likely to succeed than before.

Cole is primarily a goal scorer and a very good one at that on even strength, with quality of competition metrics that indicate that he'd have little difficulty playing tough minutes with Plekanec or easier ones with Gomez. While not playing with Eric Staal is a let-down, the gap between him and Plekanec is less than one would think on first glance and he is likely to be much better supported in other wingers and defensemen in Montreal rather than Carolina and his quality of teammate may actually increase.

 

Kostitsyn

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

15

34

0.78

1.81

81

13.33

0.631

52.00

-4.30

53.00

Last 4 Seasons

55

121

0.83

1.79

292

12.72

0.332

48.56

2.80

 

Kostitsyn's tutelage in the Martin system resulted in a novel role for him last season, tough situations two-way winger. Facing what appeared to be the toughest competition levels of his career playing mostly on Plekanec's right wing, Andrei Kostitsyn acquitted himself fairly well.  His possession totals in comparison to his team has never been this low but that would be expected in light of his circumstances. Unlike Cammalleri, he proved quite capable of maintaining his usual offensive contribution despite the harder circumstances and he remained, as he has for most of his career in Montreal, one of the Habs' best even strength producers.

Kostitsyn's skill set is well rounded, he has an excellent shot, a strong body, good puck skills and is an effective passer. He also is a strong physical player with underrated defensive acumen. His main weakness seems to be a limited hockey sense which prevents him from getting the most out of his gifts. Thus his first line level skills translate only into a 2nd line caliber forward.

If Kostitsyn is moved out of town like some expect it would be a blow to the team's ability to win games unless there was a significant return. Kostitsyn is the model of a good mid-range player with a versatile skill set that can play significant minutes. As it stands, he seems likely to start out with Eller on the third unit, a role that should provide him with the easy ice-time that should allow him to rack up big offensive totals. Hopefully this will be a role he'd embrace for the opportunity it is, as it should be a beneficial situation for both team and player.

 

Pacioretty

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

7

16

0.61

1.72

37

13.20

0.482

56.90

22.40

57.00

Last 4 Seasons

12

35

0.41

1.33

123

12.17

0.417

49.62

10.06

 

Pacioretty had never been particularly effective on even strength before this season but came onto the team in December and put up a sublime half-season. He was the league leader in both Corsi and RelCorsi, indicating just how dominant he was at controlling the play at even strength. He revitalized the second line and made Gomez a scoring threat once more. However, he was still somewhat affected by Gomez's black hole on scoring chance conversion, apparently overcoming the disadvantage by sheer volume of chances. He also should have had strong defensive stats but very weak even strength goaltending resulted in more than his share of goals against.

Pacioretty has the complete package skills wise. He's an excellent skater, remarkably so even on a very strong skating team. Since filling out last summer he has become a physically strong with the toughness to muscle his way to the dirty areas of the ice. He is also has a full offensive skill set with strong shooting and passing skills and is no slouch defensively either.

If he is completely recovered from his injuries and healthy for the next season, Pacioretty is poised for a breakout offensive campaign. He might play anywhere from the first to third line depending on team need, but his strong ability to drive the play, control the puck and produce chances from quality scoring areas should be a major boon for Montreal's offense going forward.

 

Moen

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

5

15

0.35

1.06

79

10.79

0.628

51.90

-15.60

51.00

Last 4 Seasons

20

55

0.25

0.79

319

12.13

1.062

44.71

-13.31

 

Travis Moen is one of the most capable and accomplished defensive players on the Canadiens. It's a pity he is completely devoid of offensive skills. As such Moen is typically deployed in defensive minutes where he is not expected to control the play but to merely limit the opportunities for the opposing good players to score. Moen has unfortunately been often miscast on the second line in an attempt to form a solid defensive line with Gomez and Gionta. This has come at the expense of sharply curtailing the offensive potential of that pair and it's a welcome development that Montreal's much improved winger depth should make such a role obsolete.

Moen looks to return to the job he's meant for this season, bottom-six minutes as a defensive specialist and the primary penalty killing winger.

Darche

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

10

19

0.92

1.85

59

9.90

-0.003

54.30

6.00

56.00

Last 4 Seasons

22

51

0.65

1.71

161

11.01

0.333

53.53

7.36

 

Darche is an interesting case. He has demonstrated far more offensive acumen than one would expect from a player with his biography. Unfortuantely he's on the downside of the aging curve and not quite good enough of a player to be used in a big minute offensive role against real competition.  His niche appears to be as sort of a 4th line powerforward, producing offense against lesser players with good hands and a willingness to crash the net.  Montreal is in good position to capitalize on his abilities with a pair of young offensive centers not ready for top-six duties that could use a veteran bottom line player that is not offensively inept. He was somewhat favoured by the gods of shot conversion last season, regression there and no powerplay time should cause Darche's scoring stats to falter but he seems capable of a small but useful contribution as offensive depth.

 

White

Goals

Points

Goals per 60 Minutes

Points per 60 Minutes

Games

Minutes per Game

relCorsi QoC

Zone Start %

RelCorsi

Chance%

Last Season

2

5

0.51

1.28

27

8.68

-0.428

44.20

2.40

48.00

Last 4 Seasons

2

7

0.30

1.02

43

9.27

-0.658

45.17

-6.25

 

The most recent call-up and depth forward, Ryan White has shown promise of growing into a decent bottom line player. His performance in his second year was markedly improved over his first and he showed signs of being able to help form a decent 4th line, a role he should continue to grow into. A young player that can keep up with the play and provide physical play and "intangibles" should be a valued member of the team going forward, especially if he can learn to be a good penalty kill forward.

 

Lines:

The Canadiens under Martin employ a line matching system based strongly around a "power vs power" strategy. Simply put this means they look to match the team's best players against the opponents best players.  This is a typically defensively oriented strategy that best suits a team whose best players are strong or at least competent defensive players. It also promotes a distributed offensive attack as the lower tier players who are relatively good offensively get good opportunities to score. As such it's a strategy for a team without the highest levels of offensive talent which should be placed in the best position to score (like the Sedins in Vancouver or Toews and Kane in Chicago) but one that is confidant in the defensive abilities of its best players and the offensive abilities of its depth.

In its purest form, a power versus power strategy completely reverses conventional wisdom about top-6 forwards playing offense while bottom six play defense, in fact it is the top two lines shouldering the main defensive load while the bottom get better offensive opportunities.

When viewed by the lens of this line strategy, many lineup decisions that leave some commentators scratching their heads make perfect sense. For example, Moen played on the second line with Gomez often because none of the depth offensive forwards were defensively capable enough to belong on a line that, at its heart, was meant to be used to shutdown the opposition. Likewise, Desharnais was on the 4th not to be a defensive or grinding forward but to score as much as he could against bad players and Kostitsyn occasionally got sent to the third line to give him more offensive opportunities, not necessarily as punishment or to be defensive forward.

As currently constituted the Montreal Canadiens are built around the "power vs power" concept. The best defensive centers are also the best offensive ones in Plekanec and Gomez and while get used in a shutdown role.  Meanwhile the two bottom line centers (Eller and Desharnais) are offensively oriented and will be expect to provide scoring against their weakest opponents.

Going into next season, Montreal will be looking to construct forward lines around their centers, each who has a defined role according to their talent level

Plekanec: Toughest defensive minutes on top two-way line

Gomez: Second tier opposition with more offensive than defensive focus (will get more frequent offensive zone starts)

Eller: Weak opposition with one or two offensive wingers to provide supplementary offense.

Betts: Low minutes in defensive situations against weaker opponents.

Montreal lacks a consistently elite scoring talent at even strength, with none of the forwards averaging above 2.00 points per 60 minutes 5 on 5. They do however boast a very deep amount of good scoring talent, with a typical season from 6 of their players (Plekanec, Cammalleri, Gionta, Cole, Gomez, Kostitsyn) being at a top 6 level and 3 recent AHL players that seem to contribute at a top six rate (Pacioretty, Desharnais, Darche). This fits with the power versus power line strategy as the lesser players take advantage of their opportunities against lesser opponents to score at a similar level to the players at the top.

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