It seems that no matter how many times we explain it, fans of the Canadiens don't understand how bad the team has been this season. It's tough to explain that the 20-12-3 record is a bit of a mirage, but it's something that has to be addressed. I noted after the loss against the Flyers how poorly the Canadiens have been playing since their loss to Minnesota on November 1st, but seeing a number and understanding what it means are two different things.
Last season Chris Boyle's graphical breakdown of why possession matters, specifically Fenwick (learn what Fenwick is here) while the score is close, went viral. What we learned from Chris' breakdown is that from the 2007-08 season to the 2011-12 season, teams with a Fenwick close percentage of 50% or greater had a 78.4% chance of making the playoffs. Teams below 50% had a 28.9% chance of making the playoffs. The split is gargantuan.
The shortened season last year provided a greater chance for poor even strength teams to make the playoffs, bringing the percentage of sub-50% Fenwick close teams to make the playoffs up to 29.2%, or 26 of 89 teams. With a longer season, and the continuing trend of fewer and fewer penalties being called, expect that number to drop once more.
Possession isn't the only impact on winning though, especially in the short term. Teams can maintain extremely high levels of shooting and saving percentage over short bursts, which the Leafs and Ducks did last season to make the playoffs. The measure of the sustainability of those percentages is called PDO. Eric T of Broad Street Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub wrote a piece on the Leafs in particular, showing that what they've done has happened several times before, and never lasts. There are teams that have above average shooters or goaltenders, or even both, but with the way parity is in the NHL today, the gap is very minimal.
Over long samples, the way talented teams differentiate themselves is through shot differentials. The NHL has been this way for a long time, and the effect will only get more pronounced unless something drastically changes.
Therrien abandoned his "No excuses" motto after the game, saying that the team was exhausted after a lot of games in a short period. but that rings hollow when you look at how long this team has struggled. The truth is that since November 1st, the Canadiens have not had a 10 game stretch with a Fenwick close higher than 50%. Their possession numbers over the previous 21 games have peaked at just 49.8%, which you can see on the following graph provided by Extra Skater.
You may be wondering then, if the Canadiens are so bad, how did they go 9-0-1 for a 10 game stretch? The answer lies in PDO, also graphed by Extra Skater.
You see that big long stretch way above the normal of 100? That means that the Canadiens got abnormally lucky in terms of goaltending, and shooting. A higher percentage of their shots went in, and a lower percentage of the opponent's shots beat Peter Budaj or Carey Price.
The actual performance of the team during the winning streak and after it has remained almost unchanged, with slight variability game to game, but the luck ran out, and now the losses are piling up.
Shooting percentage and save percentage fluctuates randomly throughout the season. Teams have very little control of it, which is why good teams guard against such fluctuations by outplaying the opponent at even strength.
Last season the Canadiens were able to do this for essentially the entire season, with just a few blips along the way.
With just two small stretches below 50% that didn't last long at all, the second of which was a temporary adjustment to the loss of Alexei Emelin, the Canadiens were contenders the whole year long, peaking in late March with Chicago-level dominance, then again at the end of the regular season.
But the Canadiens struggled mightily at the end of the season, how does that make sense? Well let's take a look at their PDO again.
And therein lies the answer. Riding high for a long stretch of the season, the Canadiens got their regression nearly all at once, coinciding with the loss of Emelin, which created the narrative of Emelin's extreme importance to the team. The goaltending fell apart, the scoring fell apart, and the fans didn't understand why.
Over an 82 game season, last year's Habs likely recover from that regression and overcome bad luck with good play, but this year's Habs do not have that luxury. They are almost the same team, but nearly every player is playing worse. The skilled, puck possession team is gone in favour of a dump and chase, grind it out team, similar to the one we watched Randy Cunneyworth "coach" to the bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2011-12.
If this were a small stretch, it would probably be easy to write off, but it's not a small stretch. This drop in effectiveness is going on 29 games, and there doesn't seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. As I've been harping on in the last few recaps, every player on the roster aside from Andrei Markov and Raphael Diaz are worse this year than they were last year, and that's just not possible without a coaching problem.
Therrien has more leash at this point than he deserves, but he wouldn't be the first coach fired with a winning record, even in Montreal. Unfortunately for the Habs, he and Marc Bergevin seem to see eye to eye on how this team should play.
The scary thing about the last few games, is that the goaltending has still been very solid. If Carey Price and Peter Budaj experience a drop in performance, this level of play will see the Canadiens in a lottery pick position. Considering what Bergevin was handed when he took over this team, that's an embarrassment.
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