Montreal Canadiens 2013 Half Season Review: Forward Lines

Joel Auerbach

When putting together the half season review, Andrew favours looking at how the players are doing as individuals. But here I try and show how the players worked as lines to bring the Canadiens to the top of the Eastern Conference

The Habs have turned themselves into a very dangerous even strength team in the 2013 season. They get 58.2% of the goals scored, 51.8% of the shots and 51.1% of shot attempts 5 on 5 and the shot totals are strongly biased by how often the team holds the lead, getting 57.0% of shots and 53.8% of shot attempts with the score tied. These are some of the strongest results in the Eastern Conference, to the point that powerhouses like Pittsburgh and Boston are the true rivals in team effectiveness. To control the game to this degree, the Canadiens must be getting a good level of play from their entire squad. To examine how that works we will demonstrate here how the Habs usual forward set up works together to give the team a strong chance of victory every night.

Line Strategy

The Habs forward lines will vary from night to night according to circumstances. But the coaching staff has an established pattern of the kind of units they have settled on using. These are:

XXXXXX-Plekanec-Gionta

Pacioretty-Desharnais-Gallagher

Galchenyuk-Eller-XXXXXX

Moen-White-Armstrong

With the X's denoting a frequently changing player, which has generally been Rene Bourque, Brandon Prust, Erik Cole and Micheal Ryder

There are essentially 4 players with a constant identifiable usage role and are supported by linemates either frequent or rotating. These would be Plekanec, Desharnais and White as Cs and Galchenyuk as a C/W. Their line assignments can be described statistically according to this table:

Player Zone Start corsi rel QoC
Plekanec 46.1% 1.033
Desharnais 60.8% -0.294
Galchenyuk 53.4% 0.101
White 28.7% -0.237

Plekanec's gets used as the go to defensive line, soaking up defensive zone draws and matching up against the oppositions best offensive threats. Desharnais gets used as the primary offensive line, his usage designed to maximize scoring. Galchenyuk gets used like Desharnais but less so as a secondary offensive line. White's unit is the mop up crew, its purpose is to suck up defensive situations so Desharnais and Galchenyuk can focus on scoring.

Puck Possession

Shot attempts differentials (corsi) are an excellent proxy for territorial control and are a much better measurement of line effectiveness over a ~20 game sample than goals. Here we can see how each line is doing at controlling the puck and the contribution of individual players attempts on net towards their lines results. These numbers are not a players global performance but what they did while playing on the particular forward line they are placed in here.

Plekanec's X Plekanec Gionta
Shot Attempts/60 9.42 16.48 15.42
Team SA For/60 56.16 56.16 56.16
Team SA Against/60 49.65 49.65 49.65
SA Ratio 53.1% 53.1% 53.1%

Habs average 54.5 SA per 60 overall. Habs defensemen take an average of 14.46 of shot attempts themselves, which conforms to the general NHL trend of defensemen taking about a quarter of team shots 5 on 5 (while scoring about 10% of goals), in this case its 26.5%. We can use this knowledge to make a fairly good approximation of average SA's for the rotating forwards of a duo like Plekanec-Gionta.

By the shot attempts data we can see that X-Plekanec-Gionta has been effective in the hard minute role allotted them. They are handily winning on puck possession despite unfavourable circumstances, which likely means they are doing a good job of suppressing the other team's offense. On the production front, the tendency is for Plekanec and Gionta to take the bulk of the shots, with them about equal in attempts, while the 3rd man lags. Visually, this corresponds to the tendency of this line to enter and attack the offensive zone on the right hand side and for the two of them to have the bulk of the puck control. The 3rd forward (Bourque, Prust and now Ryder) generally is looking for empty space on the left side to get into a good shooting lane. Regular usage of a non-concussed Bourque or Micheal Ryder may result in more shooting from the left wing for this line which could boost offense going forward. Bourque was shooting at a good clip prior to the Leafs game which caused his concussion and Ryder is being feed a lot more than Prust was in this role. This may decrease Plekanec and Gionta's shot totals though, as they transition to do more playmaking and less shooting.

Desharnais's Pacioretty Desharnais Gallagher
Shot Attempts/60 25.08 9.48 18.96
Team SA For/60 70.92 70.92 70.92
Team SA Against/60 46.56 46.56 46.56
SA Ratio 60.4% 60.4% 60.4%

Max Pacioretty-DavidDesharnais has been the team's main offensive unit since last season when Pacioretty is available. To start this season they were joined by Erik Cole, but his job on RW has since been replaced by rookie sniper Brendan Gallagher. The effect has been electric, as this line has dominated play in the offensive role they have been assigned. Both Pacioretty and Gallagher's shot attempts rates are near the top of the league, which fuels a huge SA ratio of 60.4%. Desharnais, as always, generally passes up shooting attempts unless they are of high quality and prefers to pass, which results in a very low personal attempt rate.

Desharnais WOWY show he's dependant on Pacioretty to drive the play. His shot metric ratios fall to ~50%, which may reflect different usage but also indicate how important the big winger is. No fluke he's the team's top point getter, he's the team's most potent offensive threat.

The team's line usage is designed to allow this one to win big and they have not disappointed there, giving a situation where Pacioretty and Gallagher can be elite 5 on 5 goalscorers in.

Galchenyuk's Galchenyuk Eller X
Shot Attempts/60 15.63 10.68 15.09
Team SA For/60 55.86 55.86 55.86
Team SA Against/60 47.64 47.64 47.64
SA Ratio 54.0% 54.0% 54.0%

The secondary scoring unit gets Plekanec's line like puck possession results in softer minutes. Lars Eller has been a pretty high volume shooter away from Galchenyuk, but with him his shot rate declines to below average. But both Galchenyuk and who ever wings with the duo tends to shoot at a pretty high rate. So far the pair have ridden a very high on ice shooting percentage to a big goal differential which is unlikely to be maintained. However neither forward is shooting that well together, both below league average, which seems to indicate that they have been extro-ordinary at getting their rotating linemate and their defensemen to score when on ice together. Which goes with what one can see with the eyes, the pair of them are pretty magic at controlling the puck and setting up plays together but seem to feed their linemates more than each other. This has feed the remarkable +11 Brandon Prust has enjoyed (built with Eller and Gallagher with Galchenyuk).

Galchenyuk is +7 5 on 5 through 26 games. He might not be able to that regularly in this role right now but he should still be a solid plus when combined with the two-way might of Lars Eller.

White's Moen White Armstrong
Shot Attempts/60 9.39 7.80 7.20
Team SA For/60 42.12 42.12 42.12
Team SA Against/60 49.92 49.92 49.92
SA Ratio 45.8% 45.8% 45.8%

The one regular unit that is getting beat by puck possession. Fortunately that is by design, these players aren't talented enough to be expected to be positive on shot measurement in the hard minutes and heavy defensive zone draw minutes they play. Their usage results in limited personal shot rates, but having seen these guys play in the offensive zone, would you really want to do anything to maximize their offense.

As 4th lines go, this one is pretty useful. They aren't wining their matchup, but they soak up some minutes that are designed to be lost which allows offensive players to play more offense.

Expected Scoring

Players have different talents and tendencies for attempting to score so their shot attempts don't entirely measure potential goal scoring. To counterbalance this, we shall use the recent career average of converting shot attempts into goals to attempt to get a general idea of what kind of goal scoring rates we might expect for these players given their results. These will not be prefect projections of scoring talent but should give us ballpark estimates of what we can expect.

5 year averages are used for established veterans, 2 years younger players (Eller, Pacioretty, Desharnais, White) and league average (5% scoring on shot attempts for forwards) assumed for the rookies with no track record of scoring tendencies and for the variable linemates.

Shot Attempt Shooting %

LW C RW
X Plekanec Gionta
5 5.17 4.59
Pacioretty Desharnais Gallagher
5.97 8.14 5
Galchenyuk Eller X
5.00 4.96 5
Moen White Armstrong
5.16 3.22 8.15

From this we can estimate expected goal scoring rates for the players in this role.

Expected Goal Scoring per 60

LW C RW
X Plekanec Gionta
0.471 0.872 0.708
Pacioretty Desharnais Gallagher
1.497 0.771 0.948
Galchenyuk Eller X
0.782 0.530 0.755
Moen White Armstrong
0.484 0.251 0.587

To provide context, this is what these rates will translate too in 82 games of regular (13 minutes) ES play per game.

Goals per 60 Minutes 0.50 0.70 1.00 1.20 1.50
Goals per 82 Games 8.9 12.4 17.8 21.4 26.7

Average forward 5 on 5 goal scoring is typically between .5 and .75 per hour. .7 to 1.0 per hour are your above average goal scorers. Above 1.00 is the province of a team's top goal scorers and players having a hot season. 1.50 is where the Malkin's and Stamkos's live, top end elite production. With their increased minutes the top ES goal scorers tend to top off around 30 ES goals per 82 games these days unless they are having a truly great season. 20 ES goals will tend to get you in the top 45 of scorers, 15 in the top 120 and most top niners will manage 10. You can consult NHL.com for what kind of player scores what at ES in a season of play.

This first glance shows the value of how the 2nd line has been playing. Pacioretty's expected goals are about what the best goal scorers in the league average and Gallagher is easily top line goal scoring winger worthy. Even Desharnais should be expected to produce at a good clip. This demonstrates that this line's recent run of scoring success is based on how they are playing rather than a run of luck. I doubt this line continues to be ~60% in shot control going forward, they are talented but probably not that talented and would expect them to cool off towards something above 55% and be one of the league's better 5 on 5 scoring lines rather being in the game's elite. But it looks like the team can count on them to be good producers.

After that, the Habs have a bunch of decent depth scoring to round out the top six, led by Plekanec who is well above average in expected goals from a centerman. Gionta looks like his 30 goal days are over in this role, but can comfortably get above a 20 goal rate with some PP time. Eller and Galchenyuk look like they should be expected to produce at a better than 30 ES points per 82 games with regular minutes, which is top six territory. Their ES rates have been elite so far this year (above 2.5 points per 60) which is unsustainable, but they are good depth scorers. Finding a good goal scorer to play with the chances they generate should be a priority if the team gets healthy.

The 4th line can't be expected to produce much offense, but they aren't so that is fine.

Conclusions:

-Habs are positive in goal scoring and puck possession because they can put together 3 lines which control the balance of play.

- SA attempts vary little between line to line. Each unit appears to be getting assignments appropriate to their defensive talents.

- Desharnais's line is being set up to have a massive positive differential and they are delivering.

This work depended on information from stats.hockey.analysis.com and behindthenet.ca

-Plekanec's line shouldn't be expected to be that impressive in player card stats like scoring and +/-, but are providing huge defensive value.

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