The supposed logjam at center, and the legend of Robert Lang

Too many centermen? Robert Lang is unimpressed. - Len Redkoles

Do the Habs really have too many centermen? Exploring the career of Robert Lang may give us a few ideas.

To most Habs fans, Robert Lang was a Mayfly Man, putting up 39 points in 50 games during the 2008-09 season before tearing his Achille's tendon and never suiting up for the bleu-blanc-rouge again. It would be easy to stop there and dismiss the Czech's 2008-09 performance as a one-shot deal during an otherwise unremarkable season. However, not only should Lang be remembered as the most prolific 35-and-over centerman to skate for the Habs since the incomparable Jean Beliveau, but a closer examination of his career progression may also tell us a few things about how to make sense of the Canadiens' current situation down the middle.

***

Robert Lang: born on December 19, 1970 in Teplice, Czechoslovakia. Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the seventh round, 133rd overall, in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft.

Broadly speaking, minor hockey rules generally put kids born late in the calendar year at the disadvantage. As a late birth, Lang most likely grew up competing against bigger, stronger boys in his native Czechoslovakia, which may have negatively affected his draft stock. It's worth noting that by the time he hung up his skates, he was ranked 19th overall in NHL history for points by a player born in December, with 703 in 989 games. Petr Nedved (717 points in 982 games) is the only Czech to do better.

While Nedved broke into the league full-time at 19 and established his NHL bona fides with a 71-point season at age 21, Lang struggles to carve out a niche for himself on a Kings team dominated by the presence of Wayne Gretzky. Arriving in North America at age 22, the right-hander puts up frankly underwhelming scoring stats with the King (58 points in 147 NHL games over four seasons) before packing his bags and returning to the relative comforts of the Czech Extraliga.

Things change drastically a year into Lang's exile, however. Mario Lemieux had just retired for the first time and the Pittsburgh Penguins were looking for a free agent centerman with size and skill to play with Jaromir Jagr. Perhaps on a tip from fellow Czech Jagr, the Pens offer a contract to Lang in September 1997. He takes the no-brainer of a deal and is more or less immediately claimed by the last-place Boston Bruins in the waiver draft. I am not sure what exactly happened at this point, because he played all of three games for Boston before being reclaimed by the Penguins. In any case, Lang's career finally takes off in earnest in Steeltown, as he tops off at 80 points in 82 games in 2001-02. With the Penguins in financial trouble, Lang follows his buddy Jaromir to Washington with good success before landing in Detroit and playing behind Pavel Datsyuk.

Without the benefit of tools such as possession, Quality of Competition and WoWY metrics, it is hard to quantify Lang's real contribution to the Kings, the Penguins, the Capitals and the Wings. Perhaps he was a legitimate top-line pivot on several strong offensive teams, or perhaps he rebranded himself from journeyman to go-to guy thanks to his Hall of Fame friend and parlayed that goodwill into a prime powerplay time and a big-money contract. There was no way anyone could have known for sure, at least not until Lang signed a two-year, 8 million dollar deal with the Chicago Blackhawks in the first year of the Behind the Net era.

Here is what happened afterwards:

2007-08 (age 37, CHI)

  • Corsi relative: +11.3, best among regular CHI centers
  • Quality of competition: 3rd among 5 regular centers (Lower QoC than Dave Bolland and Kevyn Adams, higher QoC than Yanic Perrault and Jonathan Toews)
  • Zone starts: 3rd toughest (same order as above)
  • Points: 21-33-54 in 76 games

Despite being arguably the best Blackhawks center in 2008, Lang is shipped to Montreal in the off season in exchange for a meager second round pick. Dale Tallon and the Chicago braintrust were most likely already making space for younger, cheaper options with more upside. Players like Jonathan Toews, or Dave Bolland. Things worked out in the end for them, as the Hawks went from out-of-the-playoffs in 2008 to winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.

2008-09 (age 38, MTL)

  • Corsi relative: +2.1%, 2nd best among MTL centers (Plekanec at +4.9%. Koivu was the only other guy to be above 0)
  • Quality of competition: toughest among all centers (Plekanec and Koivu follow, and it's not particularly close)
  • Zone starts: toughest on the team (Similar to Koivu. Much tougher than Plekanec)
  • Points: 18-21-39 in 50 games.

With Koivu, Lang and Plekanec, the Habs' 2008-09 opening-night roster was quite strong at the center position. The interesting thing to note here is the deployment of Tomas Plekanec compared to Lang's. Back then, Plekanec played alongside Andrei Kostisyn, a decent possession player, and Alex Kovalev, who was actually fairly bad in the shot differential game. Generally speaking, that line was deployed against second and third-line competition in the offensive zone, much like the treatment reserved for last year's Pacioretty-Desharnais-Gallagher unit, while Koivu and Lang matched up against the other team's best.

Anyway, despite putting up the best point-per-game for a Montreal centerman aged 35+ since Jean Beliveau in the 1970-71 season AND dominating in the fancystats department while playing shut-down minutes, Lang is not re-signed by the Canadiens. Presumably, the Habs could do better than a slow, soft 38 year-old forward rehabbing a torn Achilles' tendon. Lang goes unsigned until the last week of September, when Phoenix offers him a one-year, $1 million contract (a 75% pay cut).

2009-10 (age 39, PHX)

  • Corsi relative: +9.3%, best among all PHX centers
  • Quality of competition: lowest among all centers.
  • Zone starts: easiest among all centers.
  • Points: 9-20-29 in 64 games (3-9-12 on the powerplay)

Finally getting the sheltered minutes his 39 year-old legs need and deserve, Robert Lang glides his way to a +9.3 CorsiRel season, good for 21st among all NHL centers with at least 40 games played. His immediate neighbors include former teammates Pavel Datsyuk (+9.9) and Jonathan Toews (+8.8). With Dave Tippett behind the bench and Lang on the ice, the Coyotes go from 79 points in 2008-09 to a whopping 107 points in 2009-10, pushing the Red Wings to Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out. That was pretty much it in terms of a victory lap for Mr. Lang, who notched a solitary assist in four postseason games before retiring.

So what is Robert Lang's legacy? The man never made a Stanley Cup final, wasn't a finalist for any individual awards and failed to clear the point-per-game hurdle even in his best NHL season. Still, knowing that players' possession stats usually regress heavily with age, it would have been interesting to know how high Lang's Corsi rating was in his early 30s, or even during his first unsuccessful stint in the NHL. Did he magically became a possession monster sometime in his late 20s, or did he have an elite ability to drive play all along and was undervalued for different reasons? These questions will most likely remain unanswered.

***

After the long segue on Lang, let's get back to the present. Here are a few of my thoughts on the current situation.

1) There's no need to "make space." One torn Achille's tendon (to a key cog, to be fair) essentially turned the 2008-09 Habs from a solid playoff team into one which limped into the post-season as an eighth seed and got swept by the Bruins. No one wants to see that. Beside the 4 pre-determined centers (Desharnais, Plekanec, Eller, Malhotra), having 1 above-replacement level substitute (Galchenyuk) and 1 replacement-level substitute (Prust) is essentially the bare minimum to cover your bases over an 82-game season.

2) Desharnais' contributions to be team are replaceable, but if the trade market undervalues him, then he is the type of asset you should hold onto. Sam Gagner, in my eyes, is a similar player and was shipped from Edmonton to Arizona via Tampa for pennies on the dollar. In the same sheltered role Desharnais has built his career on, I think Gagner will put together a nice season for the Coyotes, and be worth far more to his team than a late draft pick, both in the present and in the near future.

3) Comparing Lang and Plekanec in the year they played on the same team, we see that it was Lang and not Plekanec who drew the heavy minutes. Plekanec developed into the player he is today with time and experience, not because he was always that type of player. Non-scorers rarely turn into scorers, but a defensive center, you can build.

4) In the case of Eller, it remains to be seen whether he can develop into a consistent play driver with some better players on his wings. It's worth noting that he and Lang had very, very similar scoring rates in their first five NHL seasons. There may be some potential yet to be unlocked.

All statistics used can be found at BehindTheNet.ca

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