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The struggles of the Montreal Canadiens aren't going away without change

With a fundamental misunderstanding of what made his team successful, Marc Bergevin threw Michel Therrien a nasty curveball in the summer, and Therrien dropped his bat instead of swinging.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

We've noted it endlessly since the summer, but Marc Bergevin failed to make his team they best they can be with his offseason acquisitions. Going back to the Francis Bouillon signing, Bergevin has made blunder after blunder, continually making the Montreal Canadiens a weaker hockey club.

While Douglas Murray was held out of the lineup with an injury for the first month of the season, the Habs played the same system that saw them have success last season, and even though they started the season a little bit unlucky, they had the second highest goal differential in the Eastern Conference, and a 52.3% Fenwick while the score was close, solidly in the NHL's top 10 teams. That was slightly below last year's performance, but considering that Max Pacioretty was injured on his first shift of the season, and subsequently injured again and missed 9 games, that's fairly impressive.

However after the Canadiens dropped a 4-3 decision against the Minnesota Wild on November 1st, a game in which they thoroughly dominated but were undone by a series of coaching mistakes (namely continuing to ice George Parros, who was on for 3 goals against in 4:48), Michel Therrien made the decision to change the Habs' system from a speed oriented transition game with a strong two-man forecheck and a preference for carrying the puck over the blueline, to a dump and chase, grind it out game, playing far more conservatively in the neutral zone.

Since that decision was made, the Montreal Canadiens have been outplayed at even strength 19 times in 33 games. Last season Montreal was outplayed at even strength just 17 times in 53 games, including the first month of this season, 22 times in 67 games. The statistical crash since November is absolutely shocking.

Statistic Up to Nov. 1st Since Nov. 1st Difference
Corsi close% 51.9 45.7
Fenwick close % 52.3 47.3
Shots for close% 51.2 48.1
Goals per game 3.07 2.27

For those who aren't familiar with possession metrics, I'll give you comparables for what the Habs were, and what they've been over the last 33 games:

Pre November: Equivalent to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks.

Since November: Equivalent to the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers.

If that doesn't make you pay attention to these statistics as a Habs fan, I don't know what will.

There's a lot of talk about how the Habs aren't scoring goals anymore, and that's true, but this is a self inflicted problem. You may think that 0.8 goals per game less doesn't sound like a lot, but that's 66 fewer goals over an 82 game season. The 1st place Boston Bruins in 2011-12 only scored 57 more goals than the last place Montreal Canadiens that same year.

And the problem isn't luck either, because the Canadiens' shooting percentage has actually increased since November 1st, they just aren't shooting.

Shot generation while the score is close
Statistic Up to Nov. 1 Since Nov. 1 Difference
Corsi for/60 63.4 51.8
Fenwick for/60 44.2 38.2
Shots for/60 31.4 27.0

That is about an average of 15% drop in shot production overall, which is absolutely massive in the modern NHL game. So what's going on here? What's causing them to be so much worse than the team we watched for the first 67 games under Therrien? Is it just personnel? The huge drop did begin right as Douglas Murray returned to the lineup after all...

Personnel problems

There really is no longer any room for debate about how bad Bergevin's summer was. He acquired three players in the offseason, none of which serves any need the Canadiens had. Every day I still see Douglas Murray defenders, saying that when used properly as a sixth defenseman he can eat minutes and be effective, but this is just nonsense. All platitudes about clearing the net and being big and physical mean nothing if his impact on the team is to be outscored 18-4 while he's been on the ice.

Murray has been reasonably effective on the penalty kill, far more effective than his previous track record would have hinted at, but while you can afford to carry a forward whose sole impact is on special teams, you can't do that with defensemen. You only have six guys to play for 60 minutes, and if you're not going to play P.K. Subban for over 25 minutes, you can't have a defenseman who can only handle 4 minutes of PK time and no even strength time, and Douglas Murray can not play defense at even strength anymore.

Of all NHL players to play 25 or more games this year, Murray ranks 549th of 556 in Corsi% with 39.4% of the shot attempts while he's on the ice being taken by the Habs. The players below him are such superstars as John Scott, Colton Orr, and Brian McGratton. And there is no defenseman even worth spitting distance from him, with the closest being Carl Gunnarsson, who is a whole 2% better playing tough minutes on a worse team. This is while Michel Therrien has meticulously sheltered Murray with butter soft competition (the weakest on the team), and a higher percentage of his shifts beginning in the offensive zone than any other player who's played a single game for Montreal this season. He is an unmitigated disaster, but he's not the whole problem.

There is a tendency for many non-stats oriented people to think that the Corsiatti lay all the problems Montreal has suffered at the feet of Murray, but there's far more than just one player dragging the team's even strength game into the gutter.

The desolation of possession

Even with Murray not on the ice, the Montreal Canadiens have just a 50.3% Fenwick while the score is close this season. Since November first, that number has dropped to just 48.7%. Murray is a black hole, but his individual contribution to the Habs being worse is just a 1.4% overall drop due to limited playing time. So what's going on?

The only player on the Habs roster who is better this season than last season is Andrei Markov. Every other player, bar none, is significantly worse. What's the simplest explanation for that kind of phenomenon? Coaching.

It's always difficult to identify where a problem is coming from, because hockey is an extremely complicated game with tons of moving parts. Unless we can somehow obtain greater information that is currently available to anyone other than the players, coaching staff, and management of the Canadiens, we have to operate logically using Occam's razor, which means the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions involved is the best one to use. So what information do we have?

We know that as bad as Murray is, he's not solely to blame. We also know that last year, the Canadiens were a dominant possession team, with all but four players recording a positive even strength Corsi. Three of the players last year with poor possession stats were the fourth line of Travis Moen, Ryan White, and Colby Armstrong, who were used in extremely tough defensive zone start situations in a sacrificial manner in order to generate more offense with the other three lines. The other negative Corsi player was Rene Bourque, who was used in very tough minutes and isn't a good possession player in the first place.

Fast forward to this season, and all but four players have recorded a negative even strength Corsi. Those players are P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Brendan Gallagher, and Max Pacioretty. It's not a big surprise that those four are leading the pack, but not a single one of them is over 51.9%. Considering how absurdly dominant Pacioretty and Subban have been for three straight seasons in possession metrics, that makes no sense at all.

The only player on the Habs roster who is better this season than last season is Andrei Markov. Every other player, bar none, is significantly worse. What's the simplest explanation for that kind of phenomenon? Coaching.

Therrien's system changes after November 1st have been disastrous, hidden by Carey Price's brilliance leading the Habs to take 19 points of a possible 20 in 10 games, the best player on the Canadiens has seen his impact on the success of the team blown apart.

Therrien has made P.K. Subban a worse player

If you listen to Therrien and Bergevin of late, they're constantly patting each other on the back for making Subban a better, more well rounded player. The fact is though, they've made him significantly worse, specifically they've made him worse defensively. In order to illustrate this, we'll look at Subban's defensive statistics for his whole career leading into this season, his Norris winning season, and this current one.

Subban's even strength defense
Statistic 2010-2013 Norris season 2013-14 Career difference 1-year difference
Corsi against/60 52.34 46.84 58.39
Fenwick against/60 37.22 31.67 43.09
Shots against/60 26.90 22.67 30.82
Goals against/60 1.95 1.61 2.12

Even if you expected Subban to come down a little bit after his Norris winning season, there's no way he should be worse than his career average, especially by such a significant margin.

But the whole team has been worse, so maybe he's just been dragged down with the ship? After all, he still has a +5.6% relative Corsi. Well, the news is actually worse than that. Last season Subban had an extreme impact on his team from a raw possession standpoint. While Subban was on, the Canadiens allowed 7.03 fewer shots through (Fenwick) to the net every 60 minutes than when he was off, and fired 3.77 more shots through on the opposing net. That accounts for a 10.8 positive raw Fenwick above and beyond what his teammates can muster every 60 minutes played. That was the third highest impact any defenseman had on their team last year, and he was the only one doing it in a top four role.

This season, that total advantage has slipped to just 4.5, just 41.5% of the impact that he had last year. That is a cataclysmic drop, taking Subban out of the stratosphere as the most dominant possession defenseman in the game, to similar to guys like Fedor Tyutin and Jonas Brodin last year.

The season isn't lost, but change must come

As you may have noticed, the poor play of the Montreal Canadiens isn't yet reflected in the standings. They are currently five points off their pace from last season, largely due to Price keeping them in games they didn't deserve in November and December, along with a sprinkling of luck.

That luck is going to evaporate, and lately it seems like Carey Price can't put forth those unbelievable starts in every game. He's getting worn down a little bit by the lack of support, even though he would never admit it. If things continue as they are, the seven point gap between the Habs and being outside the Wildcard spot looking in will evaporate quickly. With eight players heading to the Olympics, Montreal will also likely see some star players fighting fatigue down the stretch.

There is a very real possibility that this team could miss the playoffs, but it doesn't have to happen. A smart management group can see when changes have to be made, even when it doesn't look necessary on the surface. Michel Therrien has been in this situation before, getting fired by the Pittsburgh Penguins with a winning record a year after making the Stanley Cup finals. The hard choice was made by the Penguins, and they ended up with a Stanley Cup for their troubles. Now I'm not saying the Habs will win the cup if they fire Therrien, in fact I'm not even saying that they have to fire Therrien. It's possible that he could figure out that his current system isn't working and fix things in time to be competitive, but there is simply zero indication that this is going to happen any time soon.

But things have to change. Therrien must overhaul his system, or Marc Bergevin has to look for someone who can.