I know, I know, harsh title. The Montreal Canadiens are in first place in the NHL, you can't argue the record... etc. The thing is, you don't have to argue the record. The record is less indicative of the strength of a team than many other, better statistics.
Imagine if the Habs were this self-aware pic.twitter.com/niOaI62kS4— Andrew Berkshire (@AndrewBerkshire) March 7, 2015
It's funny, because just proposing that the Habs haven't been playing as well as their record indicates brings on a wave of criticism, but the people who are paid to pay closer attention have noticed in Anaheim, and I don't doubt that many in the Habs' front office think similarly.
The Canadiens are in the midst of a rough stretch, 1-3-1 in their last five with just six goals scored, but it goes beyond that.
The crazy thing about this graph, is that it doesn't even look as dire as it should, because you can't see the context of the teams the Habs are playing. Both of the jumps in play on the graph, in both the late 20s and 50s, came during extremely soft spots in Montreal's schedule, including multiple games against Buffalo, where they dominated but managed to lose.
Yet, even while playing roughly equivalent to Columbus, Edmonton, and Arizona, the Canadiens do sit first in the NHL. How?
The same reason they were able to bring the Tampa Bay Lightning to overtime on Tuesday night, Carey Price. The Canadiens sit 23rd in the NHL in shot attempt differential now, but for the last 30 games, Carey Price has stopped 95.1% of opposing shots. A mark that is possibly an NHL record.
Carey Price has been so good, that over those 30 games, had he simply played to his season average, a superb 93.7% save percentage, the Canadiens would have given up 13 extra goals. Over those 30 games, the Canadiens won 16 one-goal games. Even if we expect normal, random distribution, that would turn at least 7 wins into ties. It's highly possible the Canadiens could have lost all 7 of those tied games, which would being them all the way down to the final wildcard spot, below Boston.
Now imagine if Price only put up a paltry .925 over that time, the margin for error with this team is razor thin, because they're so badly outplayed game in and out. Over Price's last three starts, he's 1-2 while stopping 96.9% of the shots he's faced. In a playoff series, that's halfway to elimination, with your goaltender breaking records. The fact is, as great as Carey Price is, he can't stop 95% of the shots he faces forever, no one can.
The Habs play dumb hockey
The fact of the matter is that the way the Canadiens play just isn't smart. Everything about Montreal's tactics is about reducing perceived risk, but as we've found in deeper hockey research, perceived risk isn't real risk.
Perceived risk would tell you that trying to skate the puck our of your own zone is risky and unadvisable, because if you make a mistake, you're now out of position. Perceived risk would tell you that trying to pass to the middle breaking out of your zone is risky and unadvisable, because you're putting the puck in a dangerous area if you mess up the pass. Perceived risk would tell you that chipping the puck up the boards is a safe play, because even if you screw up, the puck is in a safe place and you still have body position on your opponent.
These are the assumptions that Michel Therrien's system is built on, and it screws up everything. It's easy to see why someone would make these assumptions, because if everything is a coin flip, they're right. However the success rates for the so-called risky plays are through the roof, while the success rates for the safe play are terrible. When you take that into account, you're increasing the amount of defensive zone time by such a large amount, that you're actually playing more risky when 'playing safe'.
You also have to take into account cost/benefit. We know the cost side favours the risky play on aggregate, and unsurprisingly, so does the benefit. The best case scenario when you chip the puck up the boards is to clear the zone to a winger, but that's extremely rare. More often, the best case scenario is simply clearing the zone, but your opponent gets the puck, only to attack again.
Skating or passing the puck out with short passes creates instant neutral zone possession, allowing your team to begin the attack. This is, by far, the biggest weakness of the Montreal Canadiens, and has been for two seasons now, without any real attempt to address it tactically.
The crazy part is, Marc Bergevin has worked his tail off to address this, and the Canadiens now dress six puck-moving defensemen, four of whom are excellent skaters, while Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar are wily old vets. This defensive core should have no problem whatsoever playing an active puck transition game, but they are overwhelmed due to poor tactics.
We can do this same exercise for zone entries on the offensive side, but it breaks down the same way, so it's not really necessary.
Eight times this season, or 12% of the time, the Canadiens have failed to even notch 20 shots on goal. 21 times, or a whopping 31% of the time, the Canadiens have failed to hit 25 shots in a game. These aren't the kinds of things you hear about Stanley Cup contenders.
"Ya, but the Canadiens can afford to score less because they're a defensive team."
Well, they're not. Only five teams in the NHL allow more shot attempts against than the Canadiens do. Only eight teams in the NHL allow more shots against than the Canadiens do. Only nine teams in the NHL allow more scoring chances against than the Canadiens. If your entire system is built around minimizing risk, and you're still bottom 10 in the league in every defensive category, you're not a defensive team. The Detroit Red Wings are a defensive team, the Habs aren't.