Out with the old, in with the … old.
On February 13, Michel Therrien was replaced as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens by Claude Julien. Again.
I was there in Philadelphia, when it all started. At least that’s what I’d like to think.
I certainly didn’t expect to see the game that unfolded. Coming off a strong post-All-Star-break performance against a weak Buffalo Sabres team, the Canadiens generated only 16 shots in their 3-1 loss to the Flyers.
The Flyers, after their preceding sloppy outing against the Carolina Hurricanes, benched (sorry, “healthy-scratched for development purposes”) Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny against the Habs, replacing them with Nick Schultz and former Hab (and EOTP Goalie Analyst favourite) Dale Weise. Philly’s Dave Hakstol essentially sold out to a defense-first, offense-optional lineup, hoping to generate a few chances by Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, capitalize on a mistake or a power play, and win a tight, low-scoring game.
That’s exactly what happened. Giroux tied the game at the end of the second period on the power play from Andrew Shaw’s now-infamous interference penalty on Nick Cousins, Matt Read beat Carey Price off the rush early in the third, and Sean Couturier sealed the deal with an empty-netter. Obviously, the plan worked. Essentially, Dave Hakstol out-Therriened Therrien.
By the end of the night, I was determined to sound a warning bell that things were not right, and that it was time to storm the Montreal Management Foxhole with torches and pitchforks.
Ok, that was a little dramatic. I wish I could say that I saw this coming. I really do. Clearly, I didn’t.
I did decide that based on what I saw that night, the Habs’ chances of a deep playoff run were doomed, and that I was going to foray outside of goaltending microanalysis to explain what I saw and why it mattered.
For the record, I’m a huge proponent of advanced analytics, but I rarely write about them. There are plenty of brilliant folks doing that very well, on here and out there. At the risk of oversimplifying, in 2014-15 the Habs outperformed their underlying metrics because of Carey Price. Last year, their underlying analytics were dismissed because of his absence. This year, their metrics were improved early on, but failing after their early start. The Habs’ organizational relationship with the analytics community has been, well, rocky. Obviously, the lightning rod for the conversation was P.K. Subban (my personal feelings about him are here) and the trade for Shea Weber, but the effective swap of Lars Eller for Andrew Shaw also clearly illustrated management’s intentions.
"We are very pleased to have agreed to a long-term deal with Andrew Shaw. As I mentioned last Friday following his acquisition, we are adding a solid character player to our team, a reliable player who plays with grit and a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks over the past five seasons. Andrew will add more leadership to our team.” -Marc Bergevin
Beginning in Philadelphia, the cracks in the triangular foundation of the off-season — Weber, Shaw, and the vote of confidence for Therrien that they represented — were exposed. The Habs stumbled into the bye week with a record of 1-5-1 for the month of February. Their only win, in Arizona on February 9, came despite one of the strangest performances from Carey Price anyone will ever see, and followed a “leadership meeting” that didn’t include the head coach. (Yes, everybody says it had nothing to do with the subsequent coaching change. No, nobody actually believes that).
By the end of the 4-0 debacle in Boston on February 12, with Weber and Shaw signed long-term and Claude Julien suddenly on the market, Marc Bergevin realized the train had left the station.
So what do I think Bergevin saw in the Wells Fargo Center that Thursday night, which was, appropriately, Groundhog Day?
I think it’s important to begin with Weber, and the defensive system that is built around him. I hadn’t seen Weber play in person before. It reminded me of watching a 16-year-old midget player in a non-league game for his kid brother’s bantam team, brought in because the team is one person short. In case anyone isn’t aware, he’s big. He’s also much more than that. He is a physically dominant player in the defensive zone, and along the offensive blue line. His individual defensive abilities are impressive. He's a smart possession player in the defensive zone, capable of protecting the puck in space and finding a safe outlet pass.
In other words, he is exactly what Therrien and the Habs management wanted when they traded Subban for him.
In Philadelphia, he patrolled the back end like a defensive sweeper on a soccer field, and he engaged bodies in front of the net. He never took a risk that put him out of his expected position. Against Edmonton on February 4, even Connor McDavid, with his size and remarkable speed, couldn’t elude Weber’s physical presence. Fulfilling Michel Therrien’s expectations the way he did, though, was a double-edged sword. The downside is that as formidable as he is, he was also extremely predictable in his role.
Edmonton, specifically McDavid and Patrick Maroon, showed he can be vulnerable to a pressure forecheck when he has to turn his back to the ice below the goal line. Granted, that’s true of almost any NHL defenceman, but with Weber there just isn’t the threat that he’s going to attempt any kind of high-risk/high-reward play. As soon as he turns his back in deep, it’s a license to attack.
The Flyers used a similar tactic at times. At others, however, they did the opposite, in that they seemed content to let Weber make a safe outlet pass with only light forecheck pressure. It looked like the alternate plan, at least to my spectator’s eye at the end of the ice, was only to influence which direction the first pass went, then clog up the neutral zone and prevent any kind of entry speed across the blue line. It wasn't quite as boring as a trap, because the Flyers seemed to be looking to generate turnovers and counter-attack rather than simply force a dump-in.
It makes perfect sense as a numbers game. With Weber looking to make a first pass from below the faceoff circles, two main things happened. He wasn’t a factor to create transition through the neutral zone, and as long as there was at least a single forechecker, his defence partner had to remain back for support. His first pass either went to an area of the neutral zone that the Flyers influenced, or to his supporting defensive partner.
Either way, by the time the Habs forwards received the puck in the neutral zone and tried to execute a zone entry, they were outnumbered, with Weber and his D partner only regarded as trailers and release valves. As a result, the Habs weren't able to generate the attacking rushes that make a player like Max Pacioretty so dangerous in transition.
Here’s an example with Alex Galchenyuk, Andrew Shaw, and David Desharnais on the ice with Weber, in which the Flyers are able to make a full change and still completely outnumber the forwards on the attempted entry.
When the Habs were able to gain offensive-zone possession, they encountered similar problems.
It comes down to positioning and spacing. This was particularly true for the top line, which Haskstol consistently countered with Sean Couturier’s excellent defence. The Canadiens’ defencemen, specifically including (but not limited to) Weber, appeared anchored at the blue line against a Flyers team that was determined not to allow Pacioretty to beat them from his preferred mid-range distances.
Alexander Radulov and Philip Danault spent a good amount of time effectively recovering the puck below the goal line, only to then have no clean passing option once they gained possession because of the close watch Philly kept on Pacioretty. When the puck was moved to the points, the large gap to the defencemen required either a long pass that allowed the Flyers forwards to close down shooting lanes, or an uncontrolled release pass that similarly allowed the defensive coverage to adjust, or compete for puck control.
For example, look at the spacing here with Jeff Petry, who most would consider as a more active defenceman than Weber.
That’s not to say Weber wasn’t active, because he was, it’s just that his mobility was contained within a limited range of space. This was most evident on the Habs’ lone man advantage of the night.
Again, it’s a question of predictability. Weber’s biggest scoring threat is his one-timer from his off-side on the power play. The problem is that everyone knows that; they know where it’s coming from, and they know how the Habs want to get him the puck. The Flyers, for the one minute of the first unit’s power play shift, took that away in two ways. One, by successfully disrupting zone entries, and two, by just not letting the Habs get Weber the puck cleanly.
In Sunday night’s debacle in Boston, the Bruins did the same thing. They forced Weber to vacate his preferred shooting position and remain in motion in order to receive the puck, thus rendering his primary scoring weapon ineffective. They were happy to let Pacioretty shoot, expectedly, from the face off circle to Tuukka Rask’s left rather than face Weber’s blasts.
The Flyers also demonstrated that Weber’s predictable instinct to play as a defensive sweeper can be used against him at the point of attack. Matt Read’s goal, for example, begins deep in the Flyers’ zone. Pacioretty’s forecheck on Nick Schultz (55) causes him to rush an errant pass toward Sean Couturier (14), which bounces off the boards well out of his reach. Weber, though, is already in conservative retreat despite his full view of the broken play in front of him.
Galchenyuk, marking Couturier toward the boards, doesn't yet realize that Weber is retreating. He sees the loose puck and the space, and begins to angle back into the offensive zone. This ultimately allows Couturier to gain position and momentum on him when the play continues out of the Flyers’ end. Nick Cousins (25), meanwhile, skates along the blue line toward the play.
Instead of being able to regenerate the possession by stepping up to the errant pass, Weber’s retreat allows Cousins space to intercept the puck, with speed.
Cousins has the time and space to control the puck along the boards, and face the centre of the ice. He is completely unfazed by Weber’s physical presence, because he already knows he’s caught #6 flat-footed.
Weber attempts to challenge Cousins, and it doesn't go well. A simple, short pass to Couturier completely eliminates Weber as a defensive factor, leaving Alexei Emelin to defend a 2-on-1 against Couturier and Matt Read.
Couturier makes an early pass to Read, and establishes inside position on Weber. Emelin is unable to recover, and Read snipes Price top blocker corner with the best shot of his NHL career for the game-winning goal.
This simple, small-area attack renders Weber’s toughness and one-on-one defensive abilities completely irrelevant — twice — by taking advantage of his defensive priority to retreat and regroup.
Overall, the Flyers, in the midst of their own crisis, were able to completely neutralize Weber at both ends of the ice. Whomever the Habs face in the playoffs certainly would have noticed. I thought specifically of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers’ approach to outnumber the Habs forwards in the neutral zone, offensively challenge Weber with small-area speed at the point of attack, and add in a smattering of Edmonton’s forecheck would be right up their alley. Honestly, Therrien’s Habs wouldn’t have had a chance in a seven-game series.
It’s well known that he was benched for the entire third period following his interference penalty on Nick Cousins that led to Claude Giroux’s game-tying power play goal. Therrien received considerable praise at the time for having the guts to bench a veteran like Shaw, in order to send a message that he needs to be more responsible.
I get it. Fans, and old-school hockey journalists, like to know that the coach is in charge of the millionaire players, and that the inmates aren’t running the asylum. The team comes before all else, and stupid penalties hurt the team. Except that the coach’s decision hurt the team more than Shaw’s penalty. It was a reactionary punishment by a disciplinarian coach, and that was exactly the problem.
Alex Galchenyuk was playing his second game after missing significant time with a knee injury. He looked strong enough skating, and it didn’t look like he was favouring anything, but he couldn’t be expected to have his usual explosive creativity or elusiveness. Clearly, the coaching staff thought the same thing, starting him with Shaw and David Desharnais, leaving Philip Danault to centre the top line with Pacioretty and Radulov.
Shaw’s third-period benching, therefore, filtered through the lineup on a night when expectations on Galchenyuk needed to be restrained. Galchenyuk isn’t a defensive stalwart at his best, and he’s not great on faceoffs, so he certainly couldn't be expected to anchor a line of Brian Flynn and Jacob de la Rose if necessary.
Danault is more versatile, particularly given that he was healthy, so he and Galchenyuk swapped roles. This required Galchenyuk, working back from an injury, to deal with the hard-matching against Couturier’s line that had already proven effective for two periods against a healthy Danault. Not unexpectedly, the top line generated nothing for the third period, nor did the remainder of the jumbled lineup. (As an aside, it bears mentioning that Therrien, notorious for his line-blending, never really separated Radulov and Pacioretty in an attempt to free at least one of them from the Flyers’ home-ice change advantage.)
Absolutely, Shaw’s penalty gave the Flyers the opportunity to tie the score in the final two minutes at the end of the second period. However, his benching reduced the Canadiens’ chances to win the game during the entire 20 minutes of the third period.
It didn't make sense from a strategic perspective, and it didn’t really make philosophical sense either. The Habs were playing the Flyers, a more physical team with less overall talent, who had been skated out of the rink in Carolina a few nights earlier. In response, they scratched their two most creative young offensive players against Montreal, replacing them with two guys who also brought more sandpaper than talent to the lineup. Brendan Gallagher hadn’t yet returned from his hand injury (sustained from a Weber slapshot; he’s tough to play against, and tough to play with) and Michael McCarron was in St John’s. Wasn't this exactly the kind of game for which management wanted Andrew Shaw rather than Lars Eller?
Shaw is an agitator. He takes dumb penalties. He is who he is. By the way, he can also score, and contributed significantly to two Stanley Cups during his time in Chicago. Oh, and he played for Joel Quenneville, who isn't exactly a pushover. What message could Therrien possibly send by benching him that Shaw doesn't already know? Why not just chew him out at the intermission, then let him go out and show some of that “character” and “leadership” by making up for his mistake? Sorry, I just don't get it. If Shaw needs to be benched for taking a dumb penalty in Philadelphia in early February, then why did Bergevin and Therrien sign him in the first place?
The beginning of the end
I’d like to think that as Bergevin watched this game unfold in Philadelphia, he saw the same things that I did. I’d like to think that he saw the offensive system stymied by a middle-of-the-road defensive team with a simple plan; that he watched his shiny new traditional stalwart defenceman be neutralized offensively and exposed defensively; that he watched his best hope for a top-line center be subjected to more stressful duty than was warranted in his second game back from a significant knee injury because of a punitive decision designed to teach a lesson to a guy who’s heard it a million times already; and that he watched the guy he had been asked to bring in for grit and leadership ride the bench for an entire period while his team struggled, and lost a winnable game.
I’d like to think that, watching the same game that I did, Bergevin came to the same unavoidable conclusion: he had constructed a team according to the specifications of his head coach — his good friend — Michel Therrien, and it just wasn't going to work.
Marc Bergevin knows that the Montreal Canadiens don’t play hockey just to make the playoffs. They play to win the Stanley Cup. It’s going to take more than Claude Julien to get this team back on track, but the journey had to start somewhere. I’d like to think that somewhere was right before my eyes in Philadelphia.