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Do the Montreal Canadiens have a winning top nine?

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Looking at stats to determine the Habs’ best lineup.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

In the weeks leading up to the NHL trade deadline, it seemed increasingly apparent that the Montreal Canadiens needed to add a top-six scoring forward to boost the dried up secondary scoring.

For one reason or another, the Canadiens were not able to pick up that forward. Instead, the Habs brain trust opted to ride out the rest of the season with their current mix at the top of the lineup. Do les Habitants possess the proper players to put together a winning alignment even if their scoring woes continue?

The stats

One way to look for ideal top lines is five-versus-five goals-for percentage (GF%). It is the percentage of all goals that are scored by a team (e.g. a 3-2 decision means the winning side scored three out of the five goals, for a goals-for pecentage of 60%). At an individual level, it is the percentage of goals scored by a team of all goals scored while that player is on the ice.

Although it has been shown that GF% isn’t the best way to predict how a team will score in the future, it is the chosen stat because it indicates which pairings and/or line combinations have been positively affecting the team. Basically, GF% can acknowledge the team’s struggles to score goals, and while it may not offer the solution to change that, it may point to the best chance at piling up wins during this home stretch.

The Canadiens currently have nine players that they have featured in their top six at different parts of the season: Max Pacioretty; Alexander Radulov; Alex Galchenyuk; Phillip Danault; Brendan Gallagher; Artturi Lehkonen; Paul Byron; Andrew Shaw; and Tomas Plekanec.

The table below indicates 2016-17 GF% as of March 2, 2017. Duos at 55% or higher are highlighted in green, while those at 45% or lower are highlighted in red. Those listed as “N/A” in grey have played a total of less than 60 minutes together.

All stats via stats.hockeyanalysis.com

When looking at this data it is important to acknowledge not all pairs have the same amount of ice time. For example, Radulov has played 509 of his 912 total minutes with Pacioretty at his opposite wing, while only 180 minutes came alongside Byron.

Many have said that Galchenyuk and Radulov should be a pair in the top six with Danault and Pacioretty being the other. However, this chart would suggest the opposite centre/winger duos have been the better options this year.. In fact, after looking at the chart you start to see why a Lehkonen-Galchenyuk-Radulov line has not lasted long together.

While Galchenyuk does produce offence at an all-star level (currently 21st in the league at 2.97 points per 60 minutes), he still has room to improve defensively, and this table shows that leaving him without a defensively sound forward to cover for some of his mistakes has hurt the team.

Pacioretty, a very sound defensive forward, is somebody who can insulate Galchenyuk while also playing the role of the team’s top offensive player. The pair has an outstanding 62.5% GF%, and Galchenyuk is Pacioretty’s most proficient partner.

The team’s current first line of Pacioretty-Danault-Radulov has one strong duo as Danault and Radulov have a 63% GF%. However, Danault and Pacioretty are barely above 50% as a pair. With Pacioretty being very proficient with Galchenyuk, and Galchenyuk with Gallagher (78.3%), one of the potential top six lines could already be formed.

Unfortunately, the chart only shows what has happened so far this season and is likely to alter with each passing game.

Expected offence

To ensure the Habs’ success it is helpful to know the future. Luckily, Corsica provides us with expected-goals-for percentage (xGF%), which gives an estimate of how a player or team should be performing based on the danger of chances both for and against.

Expected-goals-for percentage takes shot distance, shot type, shot angle, rebounds, etc. into account when determining expected goals at both ends of the ice.

Below is a list of all line combinations with greater than 50% xGF% that includes the previously studied players.

Trio xGF%
Trio xGF%
Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Gallagher 60.99%
Byron-Galchenyuk-Radulov 60.88%
Pacioretty-Plekanec-Radulov 57.61%
Pacioretty-Danault-Shaw 57.47%
Lehkonen-Plekanec-Radulov 56.78%
Pacioretty-Danault-Radulov 54.80%
Lehkonen-Plekanec-Byron 54.51%
Pacioretty-Danault-Gallagher 50.39%
Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Radulov 46.19%

As expected from the previous chart, Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Gallagher should be a lock as the Habs’ number-one line. It was last season when Pacioretty and Galchenyuk started a late-season push to 30 goals each, and should be once again.

Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Radulov have an xGF% of just 46.19%. The difference is too large to choose that combo over the former.

After removing those three players, there are just two combinations with their head above water remaining: Lehkonen-Plekanec-Radulov and Lehkonen-Plekanec-Byron. The latter is one of the Habs’ most proficient lines in terms of goals-for-percentage.

The middle six

After looking at both GF% and xGF%, the Habs should clearly have a top line, but there’s no obvious second trio. Danault, Plekanec, Radulov, Byron, and Lehkonen tend to do well at five-versus-five. Danault has found success on offence with Radulov (2.76 GF/60) and Plekanec does really good defensive work with Lehkonen (1.55 GA/60). Depending on the situation, either of these duos can work as the secondary line.

Byron acts as the wildcard in this situation, and could be penned onto the second trio, as he shows favorable results with all of the players in the mix, with his speed giving him the ability to be a dynamic offensive threat and a tenacious defensive asset.

The odd man out is Andrew Shaw, who gets relegated to third-line duty no matter how you sort the top nine on merit, and hasn’t shown to be a good fit with the otherwise steady duo of Plekanec and Lehkonen.

The lines

Based on the numbers presented, the Habs’ lines at the start of a game should be:

Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Gallagher
Lehkonen-Plekanec-Byron
Shaw-Danault-Radulov

With this lineup, the Montreal Canadiens should be able to collect enough wins whether their scoring drought continues or not, as they’ll be able to keep the run of play in their favour.

What lines do you think the Habs should go with?