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Reasons for the Montreal Canadiens' failed season: Part I — The injuries

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With the playoffs about to begin, fans of the Canadiens are wondering what went wrong for the team that seemed destined for a deep run after the first two months of the season. This series will examine the various factors that played a part in their demise.

Gallagher and Price Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The season is over. It was technically over long ago, but the Montreal Canadiens played their last game of the 2015-16 campaign on Saturday.

It was a season full of promise. The organization, confident from its three consecutive playoff appearances, was talking of taking the next step. To become contenders.

Then things turned ugly.

The ultimate question is: Why did the Canadiens miss the playoffs? That will be explored from various angles in the coming days.

"The injuries have been a plague for the Habs this year" has been the mantra since Carey Price first sustained an injury on that fateful night in Edmonton. From that point, everything became excusable. Every times a challenge was made on someone's performance within the organization, there was the answer: injuries.

So, let's look at how accurate that claim is.

To make the playoffs under the current "loser-point" system, you generally need 96 points (though less was required this season in both conferences), and 98 points will secure a berth for sure.

If we look at stats recorded by injury website mangameslost.com, we can see that the Habs were greatly affected by injuries. Normally, we look at injuries in terms of man-games lost, and talk about "injury impact to team" (IIT), which helps to evaluate the impact of the absence of a particular player. IIT bases that impact upon the average ice-time of the injured player, with the idea being that those players who get the most playing time are the most vital to the team's success. Goalies are in a different category than skaters, and are considered the most crucial to a team, and therefore are weighted most heavily in IIT.

The following chart shows the correlation between injuries and an NHL team's ability to win in the 2015-16 season, as of April 2.

man games lost chart

Image credit: mangameslost.com

The Habs were one of the most injured teams this season, ranking third in both total man-games lost and skater IIT, due mostly to the long-term injuries to Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher. That's without factoring in Carey Price's league-topping injury impact among goaltenders.

The loss of a top-liner for a substantial chunk of the season is a greater blow than an injury to a bottom-three player. We laugh at the Edmonton Oilers' plight each year, but they've been plagued with injuries to their top forwards for a long time. Connor McDavid was the main absence this year, but they've also missed big minutes from Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and others over the past few seasons.

Injuries to your defencemen have a greater impact because they tend to play more minutes, so the loss of Oscar Klefbom for 51 games may have been felt more than the loss of the Oilers' superstar rookie (Klefbom ranks third in IIT-skater, while McDavid is 10th).

Let's be cautious here. There is something that I need to be pointed out immediately. The impact represented here is based on the average ice-time of the player. Let's say, for some frivolous reason, that a third-liner is actually given first-line minutes. When he gets injured, your IIT would be greatly impacted, but the talent level on your team, and ultimately your team's ability to win games, shouldn't be greatly affected.

Let's say that an NHL-capable rookie defenceman would see only 10 minutes of ice-time in favour of another less-capable veteran. You would achieve about the same impact with an injury to that rookie, though the IIT would make it appear an an insignificant loss.

So I decided to represent it differently. Here is how the season transpired by per-game injuries over the whole season.

injuries Oct-Dec

injuries Jan-Apr

The numbered row lists the 82 games played, while their colour represents the result: turquoise for wins, green for losses. Being scratched or sent to St John's for no reason did not qualify as 'injury,' but rather 'management.' so none of those players are listed.

It's interesting how the majority of the injuries seem to cascade from Price's second injury in late November.  The loss of the star goaltender may have forced everyone to try a little harder than they normally would in order to get a win, and ended up doing just a bit too much.  Whether that was blocking an extra shot so the second- or third-string goalie wouldn't be tested, making a desperate lunge to get the puck out of the zone with a forechecker bearing down, or crashing the net in hopes of cashing in on a rare foray into the offensive zone, the heightened effort level may have had something to do with the situation.  That could also explain the trend the Columbus Blue Jackets have experienced in recent history once Sergei Bobrovsky has gone down with a long-term injury.

If we exclude the less-than-one-game stint of Brett Lernout, 23 players were injured this season. Also, as you can see, most of the injuries were accumulated at the end of the year.

Because it's not very clear above, here are the results per month.

Month Games W L OTL Pts Pt% Total Pts Req. Pts (/96)
October 12 10 0 2 22 92% 22 74
November 13 8 3 2 18 69% 40 56
December 14 3 11 0 6 21% 46 50
January 11 3 7 1 7 32% 53 43
February 13 6 7 0 12 46% 65 31
March 15 6 8 1 13 43% 78 18
April 4 2 2 0 2 50% 82 14

With the 9-0-0 start to the season they had, if they had been able to play for 49% of the remaining points available, the Canadiens would have clinched a playoff spot. That would need a record of 24 wins, 25 losses, and eight defeats past regulation time.

But there was a total, utter collapse that started on December 3.

December - January

Who was injured during that season-ruining period? Price and Gallagher at the beginning. This is where it gets interesting. The first match after the loss of Gallagher, Devante Smith-Pelly was moved up to play with Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec. He scored two goals. I admit I was skeptical and thought it must be luck. The game after, he was returned to the bottom six. Since his move on deadline day, he has been able to repeat that production while playing with skilled players in New Jersey.

December was the same month that Andrighetto and Carr saw regular action. During that time, Carr scored four times in 12 games for a pace of 27 goals over a whole season; very close to Gallagher's pace. Basically, the replacement of Gallagher by Carr was pretty close in terms of offensive contributions, though the scoring chances created were greatly reduced.

Torrey Mitchell was also injured during that period. He was red-hot from the beginning of the season, with a shooting percentage above 15%. That was bound to regress, but his contributions were key to the Habs' early-season success.

This is also when Smith-Pelly went down with injury. Okay, let's be honest here, he wasn't producing much, and was struggling in a fourth-line role apart from that one game against the Rangers mentioned above.

Paul Byron was injured at the end of January. He was not getting into the lineup when the team was leading the league two months before, was the only forward to be injured at the time, and was playing a minor role in between penalty-killing assignments. Dale Weise was absent for four games in January, putting a temporary halt to his career-best season. Like Byron, he was the only forward on the sidelines at the time.

On defence, Petry missed three games in that two-month period, and Tom Gilbert was injured for the next 14. Gilbert was having a terrible season before the injury, with a defence-worst -5.3% relative Corsi-for percentage (Markov was next-worse at -1.0%), though he was playing an average of 17.2 minutes per game, thereby inflating his IIT value. With his two points, he was not a major contributor to the team's good start, and his loss was not the reason for the Habs' collapse.

February - April

After that debacle, Brian Flynn was injured. He was playing on the fourth line and was easily replaceable. Phillip Danault, acquired just before the deadline, was more fit to the role Flynn had played. Stefan Matteau had been a healthy scratch before his injury, as well.

Lucas Lessio, I believe, is a great asset, but it would be greatly exaggerating to say that the Habs were unable to turn the season around in the second half because of his absence.

David Desharnais was out with a broken foot in mid-February, and that forced Michel Therrien to put one of his wingers in a centre role. During Desharnais' 17-game absence, Alex Galchenyuk scored 13 goals; more that Desharnais produced in his 65-game season. The Canadiens only won seven of those 17 games, but for Galchenyuk's development, it was more than beneficial.

Mark Barberio stepped up when Nathan Beaulieu was down, and his level of play was very similar, largely because Beaulieu was not having the results expected of him for this season. Only for the games in April were the pair of them out of the lineup at the same time.

Victor Bartley received some playing time, perhaps to legitimize the Jarred Tinordi trade, but he was not having a great impact on the team.

The absences of Petry and P.K. Subban at the same time were indeed important, but they happened very late in the season when the team was virtually eliminated. Petry had been playing for several games with an injury, which could help explain his disappointing performance after the first part of the year. It was also confirmed that Emelin had suffered a broken foot while playing at one stretch mid-season as well.  For a team that boasted about its defensive depth, allowing two key members of the defence corps to play and risk exacerbating existing ailments — which Petry did — is another serious failing of the management group.

Conclusion

The Habs had a lot of injuries this season, but it's at the end of the season where they were most numerous and had the greatest impact. The loss of four of the regular defencemen is not negligible, though the team had much better results when forced to scrape the bottom of the prospect barrel than it did with a fairly healthy group of skaters in its mid-season collapse.

During the debacle of December and January, the team made few adjustments, save for the usual blending of the lines.

The most significant injury this season was the one Price was afflicted with from the game versus the Rangers on November 25. It's not possible to say it was the only reason for the team's struggles, but it does seem to indicate clearly that this team relies too heavily on their goaltender to be successful.

A question remain: Is this year just bad luck, or the cumulative effect of a system that forces the players to push their bodies to the limit?

In the next part, we will look at the special teams.