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2014-15 Montreal Canadiens post-mortem

With the Canadiens eliminated in the second round, it's time to take a look at what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to change.

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The 2014-15 Montreal Canadiens may have been the most unlikely 110 point team in NHL history. They scored just 201 goals (not counting shootouts or empty nets) over 82 games, 22nd overall in the league. The scoring struggles, especially on the powerplay, was a source of consternation for fans and media throughout the season. Meanwhile the Canadiens allowed just 176 goals, the least in the league, leading most people to believe that they were a great defensive team.

The facts said otherwise though. In terms of scoring chances, the Canadiens allowed the 10th most in the entire league at even strength per minute played, the 11th most shots against, the 12th most unblocked shot attempts against, and the sixth most shot attempts against. Those aren't the marks of a great defensive team, they're in the bottom half of the league in every category.

What the Canadiens were, was a team that was woefully outshot and out-chanced all season long, with several elite players that were able to cover for that, chief among them being Carey Price, who will win the Hart Trophy in late June as the NHL's most valuable player. P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty also had undeniably great seasons, as did Tomas Plekanec. But for the most part, the Canadiens struggled at both ends of the ice, and were saved by their goaltender.

The notion that the Canadiens kept most shots to the outside is undone when you look at the scoring chances they allow. Keeping shots to the outside doesn't see you allowing the 10th most scoring chances against in the NHL. Even worse is that the quality of chances the Canadiens allowed was higher than average. For all three seasons under Michel Therrien, the Canadiens have done a poor job stopping cross-ice passes in their own zone down low, which was the biggest reason they were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

Scoring woes

There's going to be a lot written about where the blame lies for the Canadiens' lack of scoring in the 2014-15 season. Not as much improvement as expected from Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and Lars Eller, alongside bad seasons from David Desharnais and P.A. Parenteau loom large, but it's easy to say "these guys underperformed", and much more difficult to find out why.

The most obvious answer is that the Canadiens didn't shoot enough. The Canadiens ranked 25th overall in scoring chances at even strength per minute played, 24th in shots on goal, 23rd in unblocked shot attempts, and 19th in shot attempts. Again, they were solidly a bottom-10 team in the league when it comes to creating offense. And of the offense that they did create a large percentage of it was wasted on shots that were blocked.

Again though, this is just a partial answer, and it leads to more 'why' questions. Why the Canadiens allow so many shots and take so few is all related, and at least part of the problem is the personnel of the team. However I don't believe that's the biggest reason, or even a big reason. The bigger problem is that the way the Canadiens play puts them at a disadvantage every time they step out onto the ice, regardless of who is in the lineup.

"The System"

Outside of the greatness of Price, nothing in Montreal is talked about as much as the system Michel Therrien has the Canadiens playing. When fans talk about the system, what they're really talking about are certain functions of the system that are extremely inefficient. The Canadiens' system isn't just "chip and chase" and hope for the best, but the fact is, the Canadiens play a risk-averse system, or at least what Therrien believes is risk-averse.

Logically, dumping the puck in, or dumping the puck out, decreases the chances of a highly dangerous turnover. Realistically, it's turning over the puck systematically. The fact is, the Canadiens execute Michel Therrien's system extremely well. If they didn't, they wouldn't have racked up 110 points and advanced to the second round. Talking to Olivier Bouchard recently though, really drives home how inefficient the Habs' system is, and it starts in their own zone.

The Canadiens' zone exit strategy is almost a form of panic. Therrien stretches that the priority should be to clear the zone at all costs, usually up the wall, because there's less danger there. The Habs are good at it, but the average success rate of clears up the wall is much lower than passing or skating the puck out, even if you're using a less dangerous area. And even when the puck is cleared, there is essentially a 50% chance of a turnover that comes right back into your zone, where you start everything over again.

When you compare that to breaking out with the puck on your stick, not only is the success rate higher, the turnover rate lower, but your chances of entering the opponent's zone are a whopping 66%. These kinds of inefficiencies add up over time, and result in the Canadiens relying far too heavily on goaltending to bail them out.

Even when the Canadiens do break into the offensive zone with the puck, their attacking strategy leaves a lot to be desired. More often than not, they will cut wide and take a sharp angle shot from the boards, hoping for a rebound into the slot.

Teams adjusting to this strategy is, in my opinion anyway, one of the reasons the Canadiens were able to put up solid possession numbers in the playoffs. The Lightning in particular realized that they could crowd the middle of the ice, and Montreal was more than willing to try to shoot through a mess of bodies while outnumbered close to the net, and fail to get high quality scoring chances. The coaching staff switched things up a bit by the time Game Four rolled around, but by that time they were down 3-0 in the series, and one great game by the Lightning was all it took to put them down.

Risk-averse coaching

Therrien's risk-averse attitude also extends to the roster, where he sees physical players who keep it simple as more reliable than skilled players, up to a point of course. No one is going to suggest that Jiri Sekac would have blown the doors off for the Habs down the stretch and into the playoffs, but we know from analytics and from newer microstats that he would be a better bet to help the team than his replacement was.

No one would suggest that Parenteau had a good season, however I doubt you'd find many smart people suggesting that Dale Weise should get more ice time. Similarly, Alexei Emelin should in no way be given more ice time than Nathan Beaulieu, who is his better in every way but body checking. But these are the decisions of a coach that thinks the way Therrien does.

Therrien isn't unintelligent, he's not going to scratch Max Pacioretty for Brandon Prust, but the bottom 60% or so of the roster is filled with bad decisions based on flawed logic, something most good coaches in the NHL have outgrown, or been forced to outgrow by modern-thinking general managers.

It's undeniable that Therrien is great at certain aspects of coaching. He has instilled a team atmosphere that most organizations would be jealous of, his players (mostly) like him, and play hard for him. Those things are very important, just not quite as important as what he's bad at, when it comes to taking things to the next level.

I have no doubt that Therrien could continue coaching the Canadiens to be as good as they have been the last three seasons, and you could argue that he deserves a chance to make the necessary changes to make the Canadiens more than an also-ran, but nothing in his entire career suggests this is something he can do, or is willing to do. He's stubborn, and that has helped him get where he is, and held him back all at once.