The Montreal Canadiens have a sterling 26-12-3 record through half a season. They sit fourth in the Eastern Conference in points, seventh in the entire NHL, and have a +16 goal differential. Only Chicago and Nashville are allowing fewer goals against per game than the Habs so far, and over the last 12 games Montreal has nine wins.
Yet in every power ranking that comes out the Canadiens are suspiciously low. Every time cup contenders come up, the Canadiens are conspicuous in their absence. For some reason, in spite of a run to the conference finals last season, and winning their division the year before, national media just isn't buying what the Habs are selling. But why?
Over the last couple of years, puck possession has been forced into the hockey lexicon by study after study showing its importance, specifically that of shot attempt differential while the game is close. One of the biggest pieces in the history of Eyes on the Prize sought to graphically outline the importance of Fenwick (shots + missed shots) while the score is close (within one goal in the first two periods, tied in the third).
The Canadiens under Michel Therrien have been two very different teams in terms of possession, which you can see in the following graph using score-adjusted Corsi (all shot attempts).
After the first few games of last season, there has been a consistent decline in the Habs' shot attempt differential. There were brief upward jumps during the decline, but the biggest one occurred simply due to strength of schedule, with the Habs playing the record-breakingly-bad Buffalo Sabres three times and the Colorado Avalanche once in a short period. For all intents and purposes, the Canadiens have been a far-below-average possession team for about 130 games, including last year's playoffs.
Recent studies on the subject have concluded that even-strength possession is responsible for between 40-46% of the results of hockey games, meaning that while you can win without being good at it, it's exceedingly hard to do so. It is by far the largest factor in determining the outcome of games, depending on how you weight random variance, and what you include.
With that said, there are some things that Corsi misses. Teams that block a lot of shots can sometimes afford to give up a little bit in the run of play.
Because of the differences in the measures used, the margin has greatly moved in this graph, so pay close attention to realize that the x-axis is attached to the left side y-axis, not the right side, while it worked out fairly equally in the previous graph. Part of the reason for that is because, cumulatively, the Canadiens haven't been nearly as deep in the negatives when you discount blocked shots.
The Habs have still been below average in Fenwick, but their decline from the dominant team we saw in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season has been slower, with more interruptions towards the positive. Essentially the difference between the Habs' Corsi and Fenwick is that of bottom-10 team, to that of a middle-10 team. Yet, their record is that of a top-10 team, surely something is amiss.
Whenever people are attempting to explain how the Canadiens are able to be so successful in spite of being so far below average in even strength possession, the subject of shot quality always rears its head. The Habs apparently don't need to win the possession game because they take better shots than their opponents and keep them to the outside in their own zone.
The problem with this kind of analysis is that it is often arrived at as a default assumption, not a tested hypothesis. Fortunately, we can test this with reasonable success now. We are lucky enough to have Olivier Bouchard covering the Canadiens here, and several other places. Based on Olivier's calculations, the Habs aren't very good at controlling scoring chances this year either, controlling just 47.8% of even strength scoring chances, and 46.6% in all situations. In fact, those numbers are even worse than the Habs' possession rates in Corsi and Fenwick this season.
Olivier's criteria for a scoring chance is simple, a shot or missed shot within the so-called baseball-diamond-shaped area formed between the net, faceoff dots, and tops of the circle. Statistically, shots from that area have a much higher chance of beating goaltenders than shots outside that area, hence the term scoring chance.
It's by no means a perfect set up, and there is a bit of scorer bias involved, so there are always those trying to improve what we call a scoring chance. Chris Boyle has been working tirelessly, first here, now at Sportsnet, to create a system that accurately reflects what kind of shots are dangerous, and his data is intriguing to say the least, but we don't have a database of it. Enter WAR On Ice. The new stats site recently created a new definition for scoring chances, one that comes with a league-wide database that we can use to compare the Habs to other teams.
The results of the data from WAR On Ice are, once again, extremely unflattering to the Canadiens. According to them, the Habs have a share of just 48.3% of scoring chances at even strength; only 0.5 points off Olivier's manually-tracked data. In all situations, Montreal sits at just 47.1%, once again 0.5 points off Olivier's numbers.
However the real shocker is how Montreal compares to the rest of the NHL.
As you can see in the graph, only six teams in the entire league allow more scoring chances against at even strength than the Habs do, which should be shocking to people who believe that Michel Therrien's system cuts down on opposition shot quality. So how exactly is Montreal succeeding in spite of all this working against them?
Yeah, that guy. The average even strength save percentage of the six teams that allow more scoring chances against than the Canadiens is just .918, with Colorado being the only team with a save percentage among the top-16. Meanwhile, the Canadiens have a team even-strength save percentage of .934, second in the NHL to the Nashville Predators. Price himself is at .936, second only to Nashville's Pekka Rinne.
In all situations, the Habs only get worse, with only five teams allowing more chances against per minute played.
It's at this point that you realize that Carey Price is more than just a very good goaltender, he should be the leading candidate for the Hart Trophy.
Using two independently-developed scoring chance ideologies, we come up with essentially the same results: the Habs' skaters are not doing what is necessary in the largest portion of the game that determines wins, but Price (and to a lesser extent Dustin Tokarski) consistently save the day.
So, are the Habs contenders?
On any given night, the Canadiens can beat any opponent. Price can stand on his head, and the Habs' roster is skilled enough to overpower other teams on raw shooting percentage alone. However, the bigger the sample gets, the more vulnerable Montreal is to being beat.
The Canadiens currently have the eighth-highest shooting percentage in the NHL at 9.4%, yet are only 21st in goals per game. The reason why is simply that the Habs are terrible at generating shots. This season only the Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets New Jersey Devils, and Buffalo Sabres generate fewer than Montreal's 27.4 shots per game.
By this point you're probably feeling a little assaulted by all the numbers, so I'll bring it home for everyone. You can look to find reasons why the Canadiens are where they are in the NHL standings, but the truth of the matter is that they probably shouldn't be.
Price's goaltending brilliance has allowed the Habs to play far below their potential for far too long, and no matter what lineup changes they make, they just can't change that fact, because the problem is still the tactics the team uses.
There's no chance that this team will miss the playoffs, they're too good for that, but they will experience a hit in the standings at some point, and unless they change the way they play, they're more likely to lose in the first round than they are to win the Stanley Cup.