Habs Top 25 Under 25: #1 Carey Price

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The number one entry on this list is not a surprise. In a repeat of last season, the EOTP contributors once again selected Carey Price as the top player under 25 in the Montreal Canadiens system. One second place vote denied Price a unanimous ranking by the panel and a slight improvement on 2010. 

In 2011 we witnessed the resurrection  of Jesus Price, a re-birth that seemed less than obvious when we selected Price as the number one player under 25 a year ago. Even though evidence existed to convince us that history was on Price's side, you can never judge a players character or desire to meet his physical potential. Trying to interpret body language is a fools game and with the intense pressure that manifested itself in pre-season booing, fans were left with trusting his elite physical tool-set and hoping for mental maturation. Not all fans chose to offer that trust, Price rewarded those who did with a Vezina worthy campaign in 2011, as well as taking the first step in exorcising his playoff demons.

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Dissecting Price's history offered up plenty of instances of his franchise altering potential, his on ice accomplishments, his statistics in historical context and the glowing accolades from media and scouts alike. His most glaring weakness was something that was out of his control. Experience.

His physical toolbox was full, but his mental toolbox was (and still remains) a work in progress.

Unfortunately the curve of his maturation and the curve of fan expectation began to diverge in early 2009. Price's 2008 meltdown was met with sympathy and a nod to the future. When he melted down again in 2009 it was met with disappointment that he wasn't going to step in and dominate at 21, but the general fan attitude recognized the future remained bright. In 2010 his struggles were met with fear and impatience by the fan base, a dangerous mix that almost removed him from the Canadiens future. Entering the 2011 season, the curve of fan expectation resembled a Bell Curve, but his maturation had stealthily outpaced the precipitous drop in fan confidence. With the trade of Halak, fan expectation was low.

It was at this point that my personal expectation rose.

Price needs to begin to morph into the dominant game changing franchise goaltender this season. That means making saves that nobody believed he could make. It means that he needs to carry the team on his back for periods when they struggle and take a leadership role on this team. No slumping shoulders on bad goals, no firing pucks into a group of players out of frustration and he needs to take responsibility for all of his actions. It is a ton of pressure, but Price needs to make his move this season.

Price delivered all of this and more. Visually he provided the SportsCenter highlights starting from game one.

and in game two against Sidney Crosby.

With these nightly highlight reel recoveries added to his bloated statistical line, the pariah once again became the saviour. The media descended upon the redemption story and Jesus Price had been successfully resurrected. I could see the maturation in his reads, the explosiveness in his lateral movement and the consistency in the way he sealed the ice in close. My visual indicators had been satisfied, with his flawless technique my work ethic questions had been answered, but would the statistical indicators verify this?

I decided to chart Price's shots from the last two seasons using distance and location. A shot from 10 feet or less has a much greater probability of resulting in a goal (29% of all goals being scored within that distance in the 2010 and 2011 seasons). When that distance is increased to 20 feet the number increases to 58% of all goals. I am making the basic assumption that even strength shots closer to the net are more dangerous, something that is a pretty basic premise, but is statistically proven (numbers below are based on data from nhl.com for the 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons) .

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(All spatial shot data is based on an incomplete study of 52,000 shots logged at NHL.com and will fluctuate as my sample size increases)

Charting shots is still at it's basic level because of the limited information available (the only NHL provided data that is available can be stripped for type of shot, rebound, distance and the game status (PP, EV, SH)). Using an expected result when more information can alter the context of that result can lead to data that lacks the proper context. All shots from 10 feet are NOT equal. If Price has the opportunity to cut the angle without fear of a backside option his probability of success rises. If there is a backside option Price can't be as aggressive, if the backside option IS used then the probability of failure increases because of the pass. If Price succeeds on the backside recovery, but a rebound lands in the slot at 10ft with an open net, this also increases his chances of failure. (The two videos above show the difference between a shot in which Price has to scramble for a backside recovery, a much different result than a shot that was telegraphed from the same distance). It is more efficient than basic save percentage data, so although I admit the data is still flawed, it creates a more vivid picture and it is better than scanning basic numbers to gather a conclusion.

I do suffer from a default prejudice that assumes that a major statistical jump is likely a result of improved defensive zone coverage. There were plenty of surface level factors (the loss of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges) that would lead us to believe that this was not the case, but with the Canadiens registering a massive improvement in possession numbers, I thought that Price may have been a beneficiary.

Statistically and visually Price's 2011 showed a massive improvement over 2010. An improvement that would not imply that he was a beneficiary of a strong defensive system, rendering my default prejudice wrong. 

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The results are shocking when viewed in contrast to his dismal 2010 campaign. It is pretty elementary to understand the distance argument, but location is also a massive factor in breaking down where the majority of his workload originated. Using common sense and the indicators I provided above, it is easy to understand where the goal scoring area is. I know most experts refer to the home plate area when referencing scoring chances, but the center of that area is where the goaltender is the most vulnerable.

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The first challenge for the goaltender lies in the amount of net the shooter sees. I have indicated in red the visual areas which the shooter has access in this zone. He has three to five options to shoot at depending on the goaltenders depth. That alone would increase his probability of success, but not only does he have multiple shooting options, he also has multiple passing and rebound options. Price has to be patient enough to maintain proper depth, but he also has to be wary of backside recoveries to both sides. If he overplays or anticipates poorly, the shooter can expose him with an accurate shot or pass. This is why this zone results in the lowest save percentage for every NHL goaltender. Technically it was evident that Carey Price's reads and his lateral movement improved, looking at this data in relation to 2010 emphasizes it even more. Price faced over three more shots per game in this dangerous zone and improved by over .57 points last season. He significantly outperformed the league average in this zone, improving on it by .33.

The second most challenging zone for a goaltender is where the remainder of the home plate area resides.

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A goaltender doesn't expose as much net and is also able to cut off a third of the shooters options. Any movement towards the boards by the shooter wipes out the angle and allows Price to load up his power leg for a strong cross crease push should a passing lane open. Removing 33% of the options increases the success by over 10% as the league average save percentage jumps from .844 to .951. Price was below average in 2010 even though he had more volume from this zone. Although his performance is slightly above average, when paired with his work in the slot it put him among the elite in the NHL in 2011.

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At this angle most of the goals will be the result of poor defensive zone coverage or goaltender error. An average goaltender is expected to stop close to 97% of all shots released from this area because of the net coverage and lack of passing lanes. Price is a hybrid goaltender, with his size and ability he can use multiple techniques to cover this angle. He can option into the VH which is pictured above or he can play the shooter straight up and take advantage of his size to make a decision whether to butterfly or use standup. He is extremely effective in this area and even though the sample size is relatively small, he has only allowed 4 goals in 223 shots over the last two seasons.

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I included this zone for the graphic purpose alone. The sample size is so limited that it is hard to take the information it provides seriously. There is zero shooting angle for a direct goal and almost all the goals scored are directed off a defenseman or a result of goaltender error. One goal and the data is skewed. If the success rate was a goal for every 10 shots then shooters would be shooting from here in greater numbers. It is never a bad idea to put the puck at the net, but any goal that results is essentially luck. With such a small sample size the save percentage numbers go crazy.

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This data only takes into account shots that are scored on direct shots from this area. If a defense provides a goaltender with a clear vision path there is little chance for success. Remove the powerplay data and the rate of success drops even more. Shots from this distance are effective with screens, tips and rebounds, but their direct success is limited. Price had a larger volume of shots in 2010 and was very successful in both years registering  above average results in both seasons.

Price has been an interesting case study. It would be easy to blast an impatient fan base, but plenty of their unrest was provided by the media's quest for a story. The mainstream media has morphed into a hyperbolic entity which is interested in narrative creation and instant analysis. The frenzy that was created during the Halak/Price storyline lacked perspective, context and patience. It was hard to remain a fan of both because there was an underlying pressure to make a decision. Even analysis like this has it's limitations because it remains difficult to quantify strength of shooter or how the play developed before the shot. The most difficult road lies in removing the unreliable statistical crutch that 99% of fans rely upon. Save percentage lacks the proper context to use as a single evaluator. It is not a true talent indicator and can easily influence what we see.

Carey Price blossoming at 23 is not a shocking development to the regular contributors here and the 2010 EOTP ranking is proof of that. Our ranking was based on what Carey Price was, not what he was in regards to what Halak had accomplished. As a Hab fan you cannot be happier at the way he handled the immense early season pressure. There is no doubt he was the team MVP in 2011 when you consider the weight of expectation multiplied by the pressure of losing the MVP of the post lockout Habs within the first 20 games. Looking at the more difficult workload only justifies this ranking.

PK Subban could one day surpass Price as the best player on the team, he could develop into a Norris trophy defenseman, but that day is not today. Carey Price was a legitimate Vezina contender and still remains the best prospect in the Canadiens system and he is nowhere near finished developing.

One thing is for sure, Jesus Price has returned.

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