Can Michel Therrien make the Canadiens a playoff team?

"My passs may be sofff like disss guy says, but give me one more chance" - Richard Wolowicz

A definitive look at Michel Therrien's coaching career, and what we can expect from him in the coming seasons.

For definitions of the terms used in this article, please refer to our glossary.

Earlier in the summer I wrote about why I thought the hiring of Michel Therrien was a step backwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Two days later I elaborated on why Therrien's record as an NHL coach was unimpressive to me, and is a bad omen for any chance of a successful Canadiens squad.

Today I want to take things several steps further, and take a dispassionate look at Therrien's career to divine what we can expect to see from him as the newest coach of the Habs.

In order to get accurate numbers, I'm only going to look at the 3 seasons where Michel Therrien was the coach of the team for the entire season. I may mention the other seasons as support, but the crux of everything will be based only on those seasons to avoid any confusion about what contributions other coaches made.

Let's start with the positives, shall we? Therrien's coaching record in the 3 seasons he was a head coach is impressive. He made the playoffs all three times, including a season where he had this gloriously bad Canadiens roster. His record during those seasons is as follows:

Season Team Wins Losses OTL/Tie Points Point% Goal Diff GD Rank
2001-02 MTL 36 31 15 87 53.0 -2 19
2006-07 PIT 47 24 11 105 64.0 +31 9
2007-08 PIT 47 27 8 102 62.2 +31 4
Totals - 130 82 34 294 59.8 +59 10.7 (AVG)

Considering the strength of the team he has in Montreal in 2001-02, it's safe to say that during this period Therrien was leading his teams to top 10 finishes in the league. He won 4 playoff rounds in those 3 seasons, which also isn't bad. The problem, as I've discussed before, is that the game has changed a lot since Therrien last coached.

Penalties are not called nearly as often in the current NHL as they were when Therrien was at his best, in fact they're called less often than pre-lockout.

Minors_medium

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This is one of those things that's kind of shocking. There was a big jump in minor penalty calls out of the lockout, but that jump quickly declined the next season, and by 2007-08 the number of penalties being called was under the lowest year of the pre-lockout "dead puck" era. This means that whole promise about cracking down on obstruction during the last CBA literally lasted one year. Even worse, that decline has continued to the point where about 3000 fewer calls were made the last 2 years than the average pre-lockout season during the 30 team league era. So much for the two ref system helping out.

What this means is that special teams have never been less important, and even strength play has never been more important. This brings us to the topic of the second post I wrote on Therrien this summer, possession. For the purposes of clarity, we're going to be using Fenwick as our possession proxy here. Due to the declining role of special teams, it's become harder and harder for teams to be successful with poor possession. Chris Boyle created this graphic last year to illustrate this:

Fenwick_info_medium

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It's important to note that the Pittsburgh team that won the cup with a negative Fenwick, had that negative Fenwick % exclusively under Michel Therrien. When Dan Bylsma took over, the Penguins became a possession beast within a couple of weeks, and were easily the best possession team in the east come playoffs.

It may also be of interest to note that Therrien was the only coach to get a negative possession team to the cup finals in this time period, however the chances of it happening again are slim to none.

Updating the percentages for the past 4 years and removing the Bylsma asterisk; teams above .500 Fenwick have an 81.3% chance of making the playoffs, teams below .500 Fenwick have a 18.8% chance of making the playoffs, teams below .500 Fenwick have an 15.6% chance of winning one playoff round, teams below .500 Fenwick have a 12.5% chance of winning two playoff rounds, teams below .500 Fenwick have a 12.5% chance of winning 3 playoff rounds, teams below .500 Fenwick have a 0% chance at winning the cup.

The problem we have with Therrien is that Fenwick wasn't recorded in two of his 3 full seasons as an NHL coach. Because of this, I've done some speculative work to see how a team's shot totals correlate to their Fenwick % from 2007-2012. It isn't an exact match for the Fenwick during those years, but it should be workable. From there we can see if Therrien has shown any capability to be a positive possession coach.

The numbers that are speculative are marked with an asterisk.

Season Team Shot% Fenwick Tied% Fenwick Close%
2001-02 MTL 44.6 44.6* 44.6*
2006-07 PIT 48.3 48.3* 48.3*
2007-08 PIT 47.4 45.8 46.51
Average - 46.8 46.2* 46.5*

As it turns out, the correlation was very strong. The average team's Fenwick Tied varied by -0.03 off of their shot %, and the average team's Fenwick Close varied by -0.02. Neither average was strong enough to change the shot% in either year for Therrien, although chances are they were different by a bit. In the year where we have all the data, Therrien's Penguins were significantly worse at Fenwick possession than they were at getting shots, but I'm not ready to assume that this applies to his entire career.

Of the 80 teams that have been outshot from 2007-2012, 12 of them actually had a positive Fenwick while the score was tied, 11 did while the score was close. Of those teams, just 4 of them had a shot% below that of Michel Therrien's 2006-07 Penguins. This means that if we absolutely stretch the math to it's utmost degree, there is a 5% chance that those 06-07 Penguins were a positive Fenwick team in one scenario or the other. This is not a good sign.

Another bad sign for Therrien that I've mentioned before is that his teams allow a lot of shots. 31.3 shots against per 60 minutes of play in his 3 full seasons. This isn't as big of a problem as it would be for some teams as the Canadiens have Carey Price in net, but it's still something that makes a team less likely to make the playoffs.

"SO ARE THERE ANY GOOD SIGNS, YOU NEGATIVE ASSHOLE?"

Actually, yes.

Michel Therrien was 37 years old when he took over the Canadiens for the first time. He turned 49 on December 4th, but he's by no means a dinosaur. There's a significant chance that Therrien can learn and grow, adapting to the necessities of the new NHL game. Remember, he's made the playoffs in each of his 3 full seasons (Now is the time where you remind me that this year won't be a full season).

There are also hints that Therrien knows how to deploy his players into well suited roles. Frequent commenter MathMan created a player usage chart for Therrien's 07-08 Penguins in June that gives us a look at this.

0708penguinsusagechart_medium

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The bubble represents each player's relative Corsi. Blue is positive, red is negative, and the size of the bubble represents a bigger number. A big red bubble is bad, while a big blue bubble is great. The further to the right a player is along the x-axis, the more often they started shifts in the offensive zone, the further to the left, the more often they started in the defensive zone. The higher up the chart a player is, the tougher their quality of opponents.

Therrien seemed to be very effective at getting the matchups he wanted for his forward lines, with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby given much easier minutes than Jordan Staal. It's also impressive that he recognized that the 19 year old Staal was ready for a tough minutes role. He also correctly identified that the young Kris Letang needed some easier minutes to develop. The only glaring mistake in player usage seems to be Adam Hall, but it's more than likely that he was being used in the same way Jacques Martin used Travis Moen, he's there to limit the amount by which he gets outplayed while wasting the minutes of the opposing team's best players, allowing Crosby and Malkin to reap the rewards.

The only troubling thing about the chart is that the percentage of offensive zone starts look a little bit like randypuck. This is to be expected however, since we already know they were a poor possession team.

"IS THERE ANY CHANCE HE'S JUST COACHED BAD TEAMS AND THE HABS ARE BETTER?"

That's a tough one. We all know that the Canadiens aren't as bad as their record last year. They were probably a better team than the Florida Panthers and definitely better than the Washington Capitals while Dale Hunter was in charge. They didn't deserve to make the playoffs, but they definitely could have if the breaks went the other way a little bit. But the 2007-08 Penguins didn't make the Stanley Cup finals because they sucked, and they had probably the two best players in the NHL as their top 2 centers.

Just for argument's sake, let's see how the Canadiens' predicted goalscoring would stack up against the Penguins from 07-08. We'll make the unfair assumptions that it's an 82 game season and that all the Canadiens are healthy for it.

Goals 07-08 Pittsburgh Penguins 12-13 Montreal Canadiens Goals
47 Evgeni Malkin Max Pacioretty 37
28 Peter Sykora Brian Gionta 30
27 Ryan Malone Erik Cole 26
24 Sidney Crosby Tomas Plekanec 25
12 Sergei Gonchar Rene Bourque 24
12 Ryan Whitney David Desharnais 16
12 Jordan Staal Lars Eller 15
12 Maxime Talbot P.K. Subban 13
10 Tyler Kennedy Andrei Markov 12
9 Colby Armstrong Louis Leblanc 11
9 Erik Christensen Scott Gomez 9
6 Kris Letang Travis Moen 8
6 Jarkko Ruutu Colby Armstrong 7
5 Jeff Taffe Brandon Prust 6
4 Georges Laraque Yannick Weber 6
3 Gary Roberts Aaron Palushaj 5
3 Marian Hossa Tomas Kaberle 5
2 Pascal Dupuis Alexei Emelin 4
2 Mark Recchi Raphael Diaz 4
2 Adam Hall Ryan White 2
1 Darryl Sydor Francis Bouillon 2
1 Brooks Orpik Petteri Nokelainen 2
1 Hal Gill Josh Gorges 1
1 Chris Minard Frederic St-Denis 1
1 Connor James Blake Geoffrion 1
240 Total Total 272

So if everything possible broke right for the Canadiens, they could outscore the 07-08 Penguins. Is this at all likely? No. Every team has injuries, every team has snake-bitten players. Outside of their top 6 scorers, Habs players managed an average of just 48 games last year. It was a particularly injury ravaged year, but even if we bring that up to 55 and don't include the top 6 scorers, the goal total goes down to 234. The likeliness that the Habs will outscore that Pens team is almost nil.

"WHAT ABOUT GOALS ALLOWED? PRICE IS WAY BETTER THAN FLEURY!"

I agree completely, he is. However 07-08 was the best year of Marc-Andre Fleury's career, close to the best years Price has put up. I believe Price is fully capable of putting up a significantly better season, but would I wager on it? No. Even with the rise of save percentages around the NHL, a .921 year is excellent for a starting goalie. Not that people won't do it anyway, but to expect Price to fill the goal differential gap that a poor possession club would provide by doing it on his own is unfair. Then again he just got that shiny new contract so maybe he owes us one.

A lot of things for the Canadiens next year are up in the air. The proposed ~60 game season that begins on December 1st may work in their favour, with Bourque possibly healed up close to the beginning of the year. Price would also be able to play a crazy high number of those games. After looking at all the mounting evidence, I really think the most we can hope for from Therrien is a break even possession club, and for that to happen we absolutely need a reinvigorated and healthy Markov, and no major injuries. It will be the all-to-familiar battle for 8th, and that's if everything goes well.

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