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There seems to be a continual debate in hockey circles about whether and which teams are actual "contenders" for the Stanley Cup. I think the question of how good does a team actually have to be in the current competitive climate for a championship to be realistic, leads to the question: how good has the typical Cup winner been in recent times?
To find a quick answer, I've looked at the vital statistics of the recent winners during their regular seasons to see how well these squads were doing against their peers during their successful seasons.
ES Goal +/-
Non ES Goal +/-
The winners had a fair range of observable talent, but they average out a team that was ahead of their opponents by half a goal per game in the regular season, three quarters of that on ES. Their shot differential skill averages to just above 54%, which is where the best Fenwick close teams tend to be most seasons. Noticeable trend on special teams, either good or average and regular season goaltending that is typically much better than average (except for the Blackhawks).
The striking similarity is that these are all teams that managed to be 55%+ on ES goal differential, a difference that, with the average number of ES goal events for and against for a NHL team being ~320 in 82 games (about 4 per game), works out to about +30 on the year, similar to the +32.4 average observed. The exception is L.A., but they were shooting blanks that season and had a shot-control skill of close to 54% and above average save%, putting that magic 55% well in their grasp.
There does not seem to be much of a pattern on how the 55% is achieved. Detroit flat-out dominated their way to it as the best shot control team in the post lock-out era. Chicago got there by being their only peers in shot control, somewhat undermined by goaltending. Pittsburgh and Boston accomplished this by PDO dominance; Pittsburgh largely on the backs of the huge offensive advantage Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could have on a team's on ice shooting, Boston by their other-worldly save%. It should also be noted that the ordinary Fenwick teams all were on the rise and their regular season results may not truly reflect their real Fenwick talent during the playoffs. Pittsburgh became possession-dominant after a coaching change, and were 54% the next year. Boston was developing and had yet to exploit Tyler Seguin, being 53% Fenwick the next year. L.A. had both a coaching and personnel change that put them well above 55% in shot control.
So, we have a basic idea of what a current Cup winner is. It seems a championship squad is now one that can manage to expect to go +11/-9 out of 20 goals scored 5-on-5 against average opposition which turns into ~+30. Modern puck possession skill for elite teams tends to be in the ballpark of 53-54% (which works out to ~+18-25 goals on shot control ability), so to get over the hump, a team with a normal elite squad likely either has some level of save% skill (more likely) or shooting% skill (less likely). But there are also occasionally super-elite shot-control teams like Chicago and Detroit (only teams in this five-year period to be +55% Fenwick close are Chicago once, Detroit twice and San Jose in the same year Detroit won) that can get to that level without extraordinary goaltending skill.
This formula is borne out by this year's playoffs as well. Chicago is a 56% Fenwick close team, Boston is about 54% but has a notable talent for save%.
So, for my initial guess of what we can call a team with sufficient talent to win a championship in this league. This isn't to say that that level of talent will actually get a team a championship, plenty of teams have been about that good and haven't won (looking at you Vancouver and San Jose). But if you are wondering if a championship is a reasonable possibility for a team, it seems asking if they have the rational expectation to outscore their opponents by 30 goals 5-on-5 over 82 games seems like a pretty good start. If you can get to that level, then you probably can talk about what you can do to push your team over the top, if you're not, then maybe you need to build for a while longer. We can also separate out the Cup winners into two categories: teams with absolutely dominant squads entering the season, and very good teams that caught a major break and got better. But even the most dominant squads possible aren't guaranteed to win. Detroit was obviously the best puck possession squad in the league from '05 - '09, yet only won one out of four (with another Finals appearance). I think the Cup is a crap shoot, but also only a certain quality of team is allowed to sit at the betting table.
What does this mean for the Habs?
This year Montreal was in the ballpark of a 54% shot-control team. This is very good, good enough to be among the league's elite. But only among them, there were multiple teams equal or better at controlling shots. So it would be reasonable to say that the Canadiens were on the fringe of contention this season, but not really there. Realistically, I'd say their best shot at a real run at the main prize would be if they could maintain the current shot-control level while getting their save% back up into the upper quartile like it was in '09 - '10 and '10 - '11. Which probably means Carey Price re-ups his game and the defense gets better at helping him out, and managing that while keeping the puck control talent at least constant or improving. This wouldn't result in a Detroit powerhouse that has a good chance at winning it all, but would make the team good enough that winning is within the realm of possibility. In other words, a contender.
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