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Montreal Canadiens mid-season player review: The defencemen

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A statistical review of the performances of Montreal Canadiens defencemen through the first half of the 2015-16 NHL season.

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Going into the 2015-16 season the Canadiens were looking to ice a much more solid blue line, and with good reason. They ranked 18th overall in the league last season in terms of shots allowed per 60 minutes of regular-strength ice time. This year they've climbed to 11th in that department, and have also improved how many regular and high-danger scoring chances they allow.

The main catalyst in the defensive formula? The arrival of Jeff Petry.

With Petry in the fold, and Mike Weaver removed from the equation, the Habs have enjoyed a considerable uptick in defensive prowess. That's not to say they've become an elite defensive squad, however they no longer rely entirely on their goaltender to save the day.

Here's how the most commonly used Habs pairings have fared through 41 games, ranked by their Corsi For percentage.

Pairing TOI CF/60 CA/60 CF% Rel CF% SCF/60 SCA/60 SCF% GF/60 GA/60 GF% OZS%
Pateryn-Gilbert 93.89 56.87 36.42 60.96 7.4 26.84 19.81 57.53 1.92 1.28 60 43.1
Beaulieu-Subban 148.03 65.26 44.99 59.19 6.12 27.16 27.16 50 2.43 1.22 66.67 51.43
Petry-Beaulieu 173.11 65.16 45.06 59.12 5.03 29.46 20.45 59.03 2.08 1.39 60 51.35
Emelin-Gilbert 81.83 60.86 49.19 55.33 2.24 24.20 27.86 46.48 0.73 1.47 33.33 53.7
Subban-Markov 493.42 62.26 54.11 53.5 0.27 27.24 24.56 52.58 3.53 2.80 55.77 53.41
Petry-Emelin 339.14 55.02 47.94 53.44 1.31 25.65 26.36 49.32 1.42 2.12 40 43.31
Beaulieu-Gilbert 253.17 48.35 55.93 46.36 -8.64 21.57 30.34 41.55 2.13 1.66 56.25 55.42

(CF/60 = Corsi For per 60 minutes, CA= Corsi against, CF% = Corsi For %, SCF = scoring chance for, SCA = scoring chance against, ZSO = fraction of offensive vs defensive zone starts relative to the team. All stats 5 vs 5, via war-on-ice.com)

The good

The first thing that jumps out at you is how incredibly well Greg Pateryn and Tom Gilbert performed as a pair, even if we only have a limited sample size in which to judge them. Gilbert is currently on the mend, but once he returns Michel Therrien may want to consider reuniting that third pairing.

As for Montreal's current top pairing, Nathan Beaulieu and P.K. Subban, to put it simply; they've been lights out. Not only do they have a fantastic CF%, but they're quite dominant when it comes to creating scoring chances. They're more defensively responsible as well, which is likely due to the high-end skating ability possessed by both players. If one pinches, or makes an error, the other has the ability to make up for it with their blistering speed. The addition of Beaulieu to the top pair has also allowed Subban to play a more creative game. Alongside Andrei Markov, Subban rarely carried the puck out, whereas beside Beaulieu he's a controlled-zone-exit machine.

They move the puck quickly, they create a ton of chances, and they don't allow many pucks on net. Essentially they're playing like a perfect top pair.

That's not to say that Markov and Subban were playing poorly, but it's clear that Beaulieu is an upgrade at this point.

That leaves the Canadiens with a choice: they can run with Petry / Markov as their second pairing, although they've produced slightly less impressive numbers than when Petry was paired with Alexei Emelin. Of course, they only played together for 70 minutes of even-strength play, so we have to take their results with a grain of salt.

The bad

Every single pairing is performing above 50% CF, and only three pairings produced a SCF% under 50, two of which included Alexei Emelin. It seems as if Emelin's pairings are controlling shots rather well, but they're allowing a plethora of scoring chances against.

That's not to say Emelin has been bad, he's actually playing a lot better than he has in the past, but none of his pairings are among the team's best.

The ugly

The only pairing that legitimately performed poorly was Gilbert with Beaulieu. Even with beneficial offensive zone starts they were constantly a negative. They should never be used together again.

Individual statistics

Player TOI CF/60 CA/60 CF% SCF/60 SCA/60 SCF% GF/60 GA/60 GF% ZSO%
Jeff Petry 626.16 58.93 48.49 54.86 27.88 25.01 52.72 1.82 1.72 51.35 45.21
Greg Pateryn 134.31 49.59 41.55 54.41 23.68 23.23 50.48 1.34 2.23 37.50 37.80
P.K. Subban 694.02 62.68 52.65 54.35 27.75 25.85 51.77 3.29 2.51 56.72 52.77
Mark Barberio 39.72 46.83 40.79 53.45 27.19 22.66 54.55 4.53 1.51 75 43.33
Alexei Emelin 502.84 55.48 48.68 53.26 25.18 26.49 51.83 1.67 2.15 43.75 44.57
Nathan Beaulieu 607.98 56.65 50.82 52.71 24.97 27.34 50.88 2.07 1.68 55.26 52.15
Andrei Markov 647.16 59.89 54.61 52.31 25.96 25.40 50.54 2.87 2.32 55.36 52.42
Tom Gilbert 517.77 50.99 52.73 49.16 22.60 27.23 45.35 1.65 1.85 46.67 53.29
Jarred Tinordi 34.94 53.19 66.92 44.29 22.31 29.17 43.33 1.34 2.23 20 70.59

(CF/60 = Corsi For per 60 minutes, CA= Corsi against, CF% = Corsi For %, SCF = scoring chance for, SCA = scoring chance against, ZSO = fraction of offensive vs defensive zone starts relative to the team. All stats 5 vs 5, via war-on-ice.com)

Petry has arguably established himself as the best defender on the team, leading all regulars in CF% and SCF/60. As we saw in his pairing results, there aren't many aspects in which Petry struggles. Whatever player he's paired with tends to perform better, which bodes well for Montreal's second pairing as the season progresses.

Pateryn received the toughest zone starts, but still managed to put up respectable numbers. Unfortunately, he hasn't seen very much luck in the goals-for department, but seeing as he's had limited minutes this season, it's tough to judge him on that statistic.

Despite only scoring one goal this year, Subban is playing fantastic hockey. His numbers have only improved since he was paired with Beaulieu. He's been on the ice for 77 of Montreal's 114 all-situation goals, and only 44 of their 99 goals against. He may not be putting many pucks in the net, but when he's on the ice the Habs are generally putting the puck in the opposing goal.

Barberio has an incredibly limited sample size, but his three-game audition has gone as well as you can expect. For what it's worth, in 53 games with the Lightning last season, Barberio produced a 52.72 CF%, as well as controlling 55.57% of the scoring chances. He could stand to be given more ice time, or at the very least he offers up a good alternative if the Canadiens decide to trade one of their defenders.

Emelin saw a resurgence in his play this season, which can partly be attributed to the first quarter of the season, when he was paired with Petry. His stats have dipped since that pairing was broken up, but Emelin is still maintaining respectable numbers, save for his goals for percentage. The Canadiens get outscored when he's on the ice, although to be fair Emelin starts his shifts in the defensive zone more often than not.

Beaulieu's season has been a tale of two pairings. With Gilbert he put up Douglas Murray-type statistics, but since his promotion to the top line he's almost erased that tough start. Don't be surprised if by the end of the season Beaulieu is among the top 3 defenders from a statistical standpoint.

Markov is finally starting to show his age. At 37 he's slowed down, and his numbers have taken a hit. His offensive play is still stellar, but his defensive game is showing an obvious decline. Therrien would be wise to keep a close eye on Markov's minutes as the season progresses.

Gilbert ranks in the lower half of every statistic, and despite putting up good numbers beside Pateryn, it's probably fair to say that he's had a tough season. With Barberio and Pateryn waiting in the wings, don't be surprised if Marc Bergevin attempts to move Gilbert to either clear up the defensive log jam, or liberate precious cap space.

As for Jarred Tinordi, it's hard to project him as a part of the Canadiens' future. We can ignore his poor results due to a limited sample size, but he's clearly last in the depth chart at the moment. As it stands, he should probably be considered a trade bargaining chip. He's not developing while sitting in the press box, and his value keeps dropping.


The low-down

As you can see, this season the Habs are receiving very encouraging results from their defenders, and despite some obvious weaknesses, they make up for it with depth and mobility. As opposed to last season, Habs defenders tend to control the majority of the shots whilst on the ice.

Therrien will have to figure out how to properly distribute his ice time, especially now that Subban and Beaulieu have formed a legitimate top-pairing, but one thing is clear: he has more than enough quality options to make it work. Once Carey Price is back in the fold, the Habs should be in good shape from a defensive standpoint.