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Micro Analysis: The value of predictability

The blender brought us new lines last night, but despite looking promising in theory, they didn’t all function in practice.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

On offence, being predictable is often perceived as a flaw. As the opposite of creativity, which is universally heralded as a great strength, and the attribute of some of the best players in the game.

In a given game, there is an immense value to predictability, to sound habits, to making the same plays in the same situations over and over again. It gives clear marks to teammates so they know what to expect and where to head next. As a result, it speeds up puck movement significantly. It’s why systems exist and why, more often than not, the best decisions are often the ones that follow that system.

Offensive creativity might keep defenders guessing, maybe leading them to make wrong choices in one-on-one battles, but predictability creates team-wide offence, with players overwhelming defences together.

So how does this relate to last night’s game, you may ask?

Well, Claude Julien illustrated the value of predictability quite well by experimenting with his forward lines. He separated Brendan Gallagher from Phillip Danault and placed him on Max Domi’s wing, creating two lines with different purposes: one more offensive (the trio of Domi, Gallagher, and Charles Hudon) and one more defensive (the group of Joël Armia, Paul Byron, and Danault).

As expected, Domi’s line had trouble on the defensive side of the game, but surprisingly, they also created fewer shots on net and far less dangerous scoring chances than the Danault line. While Domi and company looked disjointed, like three players who barely played together before — which was the case — the group of Danault looked like they evolved together for much of the season. They found each other in more elaborate passing sequences, performed better in transition, and managed to threaten the slot in the offensive zone a lot more.

It was the direct result of their habits as players. They knew what to expect from each other.

Danault supported his defencemen low in the zone. He retrieved the puck and looked up to see his wingers curl in open ice. The group then attacked the neutral zone as an ensemble. They gave each other space to create better passing options and to orchestrate offensive-zone entries.

Once they did break into the zone, automatically one player, or even two, rushed the net to push back the defence and become tip or rebound options. If the puck changed hand, then all three players activated immediately to counter the breakout and regain the puck.

None of the plays above are spectacular, but they all ended up with at least decent scoring chances — one could have very realistically resulted in a goal.

The Domi, Gallagher, and Hudon line couldn’t equal the offensive efforts of their counterparts. Even when they did gain control of the puck in the offensive zone, the offensive movements didn’t feel threatening. They were disconnected.

In the sequence below, when Gallagher received the puck from Domi behind the opposing net, he expected a give-and-go play to the front of it. But Domi remained on the periphery, wanting a return pass in the corner. He did get it eventually, but not before the defensive box of the Predators fully formed against them. The Habs ended up attempting a couple of non-threatening point shots.

Predictability creates chemistry and better offence. Doing the little expected things, like going to the net, especially when skaters haven’t played with each other very much, eliminates the need for thinking.

Montreal, more than ever, will have to be predictable to each other in all facets of the game if they want to overcome injuries and add some wins before the end of their season.

Nick Suzuki hitting a wall

I saved this sequence of Suzuki from the Habs game against the Panthers a few days ago. Suzuki chained error after error. He over-dangled, turned the puck over, made bad decisions on the breakout, and launched a backhand saucer pass to no one after entering the offensive zone.

It’s fair to say that the rookie hasn’t been playing up the level he has accustomed us to in the first 60 or so games of the season. He has made many uncharacteristic decisions, sometimes in short succession like the clip above.

It was good to see him pick up a point last night and set up a couple of scoring chances late in the game. It could help renew his confidence for the last stretch of games.

To be clear, I don’t think that what Suzuki does from now until the end of the season really matters. He has shown everyone his potential, how he can play at the top level of his game. The next important stage of his development is the off-season, where he will find much needed rest after playing a ton of hockey in the past two seasons, and also time to work on specific parts of his game, like his skating form.

Suzuki has already surpassed all but the most unrealistic expectations for him coming into the season. It’s hard to ask for more.