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Canadiens vs Flames recap: Montreal can't buck the trend of mediocrity

You know how sometimes you miss garbage day, and there's been an empty package of meat in there since last garbage day, and you open the lid only to have your nasal passage assaulted? That was the Habs against the Flames.

Carey Price looking around for his team, as they're nowhere to be found.
Carey Price looking around for his team, as they're nowhere to be found.
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Last night was the 164th game Michel Therrien has coached for the Montreal Canadiens in his current stint including the playoffs. Coincidentally, 164 games is exactly two regular seasons worth of play, and as bad as the Habs were against the Calgary Flames, as tempting it will be to just ignore that game and move on to the next one as P.K. Subban said after the game, we can't do it, and the Canadiens shouldn't either.

The Montreal Canadiens aren't going to have many games where they control just over 29% of the play while the score is close, especially against teams as weak as Calgary, but at a certain point, poor play isn't just an aberration, it's a trend.

The trend that the Canadiens are on isn't just related to this season, but the last as well. Somewhere along the line, Michel Therrien completely lost his way in coaching the Habs, and he hasn't been able to recapture what he had. For simplicity's sake, I built a graph to show everyone what I'm talking about, graphing the cumulative shot attempt (Corsi) differential of the Habs while the game is close (within one goal in the first two periods, tied in the third), against the 15 game rolling average percentage of shot attempts that were in the Habs' favour over Michel Therrien's tenure, and it tells a striking story.

possession under therrien

The orange line is plotted on the y-axis to the left, while the blue line is plotted on the y-axis to the right, while the horizontal gridlines align with the right side y-axis, and the vertical gridlines show five game intervals.

The Canadiens have been outshot by 396 shot attempts while the score is close in their last 101 games, or a 46.5% Corsi for percentage.

What's evident in the graph is a tale of two Therriens, the first 63 games he coached were phenomenal, building up a shot attempt differential of +221 while the score was close, but it took just 44 games to erase it completely, and after losing to the Flames on Sunday, the Habs are a lowly -175 in Therrien's tenure, and -396 since game 63.

If you look at the graph, you can probably guess when about Douglas Murray returned from injury early last season, with the trifecta of Murray, Bouillon, and Parros providing a serious possession anchor for the Canadiens all season long, but those guys are all gone. P.A. Parenteau has been very impressive in regards to possession, Tom Gilbert is putting up solid numbers in remarkably tough minutes, Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi are both performing well in limited minutes. The new additions are doing well, so what's the problem?

No more built in excuses

With the three point boat anchor of last season tossed into the free agency abyss, the Canadiens have no roster reason to be this poor when it comes to controlling shot attempts. Their defense is mobile and talented, their forwards are deep, talented, and surprisingly gritty. Even if you ignore Jiri Sekac and Michael Bournival sitting in the press box for seemingly no reason, this isn't a team that should be outplayed by the Flames of the world, let alone twice in one week.

Yes, Alexei Emelin has been downright terrible this season, but his deficiencies have been mostly masked by the brilliance of P.K. Subban. While that is holding the Canadiens back, undeniably, there is no single player or even group of players that are causing the Canadiens to be mediocre in the possession game.

When you look around a team and no players seem to be at fault, and the players themselves are actually really good, everyone's eyes eventually start looking behind the bench. We've looked at Therrien's career before, late in January of 2014, with the help of Benjamin Wendorf's research into the pre-Corsi days, to see how he had faired over his career, and the results were shocking.

This graph, as posted then, shows the incredibly positive lockout shortened season as nothing more than a blip in the career of a below average coach, who just happens to be trending right back down to where he's expected to be.

To be perfectly honest, I hope that Therrien can recapture what he had in his first 63 games as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens this time around, because the criteria needed to be coach of the Habs isn't going away, and getting someone new doesn't guarantee anything. But there has to be an awakening somewhere along the line. This roster is way too good to be having games like this, let alone three straight.

Montreal is good enough to skate by while playing this way. They'll have hot streaks where Carey Price stops everything, or Pacioretty scores 12 goals in 11 games, and they'll make the playoffs, but they won't be a contender. Last year's playoff success means absolutely nothing this year, and unless the Canadiens want to continue to spin their wheels, they need to play to their potential, and that means more than "playing the right way" and "competing", it means better tactics from the coaching staff, and better player deployment. Something has to give.