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The impact of Canadiens defensemen on centers

A player's overall possession numbers and production tell us certain things about how they're playing, but not everything. Going a little deeper, one Habs center is at a disadvantage.

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Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

In hockey, for decades we've been taught as observers of the game that players make their own beds, or to be more clear; players will produce what they produce regardless of who they play with, and if they can't, they don't deserve anything else.

This is true of some players for sure. Max Pacioretty has proven this season that he's going to score approximately a goal every two games no matter who his center is. There isn't much of an adjustment period, he's just an elite goalscorer. Likewise, Sidney Crosby can lead the NHL in scoring with Bill Guerin on his wing, or with Nick Spaling. However for players that aren't elite at their positions, how they're used and what linemates they get has a monumental impact on both their production, and their possession.

For the Montreal Canadiens, the way the team is run depends highly on the skill level of their defensemen. Unfortunately for the Habs, they've been very top heavy in this regard. With Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert having horrendous seasons after they were both expected to play in the top-four, they now compose the third pairing. Nathan Beaulieu has been fantastic, but pucks haven't been going in much with him on the ice, though that is beginning to change now with Sergei Gonchar. Offensively, and from a possession standpoint, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov rule the roost. This is why it's important to figure out which player plays most with each pairing, and how that impacts them personally.

What's also important is to realize how much offense each defenseman drives while they're on the ice.

Player Team goals scored per 60 minutes on-ice at even strength
Subban 3.033
Markov 2.607
Emelin 2.217
Gilbert 2.205
Beaulieu 2.049
Gonchar 2.391
Weaver 2.823

Mike Weaver hasn't played much this season, so his numbers are not only against weak competition, but also a small sample for goals. Ignoring Weaver for a second, you can see a clear drop from Subban to Markov, then from Markov to everyone else. A player's chances of producing offense on the Canadiens is significantly lessened the less ice time they have with the top pairing, simply on average.

For the individual, chemistry is important too. Some players just do not work well together. Looking at possession, we can see how each of the Habs' top seven defenseman impacted the top offensive centers on the team (We're not looking at Malhotra here because he's so bad he messes up the charts).

center wowy es

Right away you can see that the biggest drag on possession from a defensive standpoint is Emelin, while Subban and Beaulieu have the biggest positive impacts, with Markov in third. Lars Eller is fairly unique in that he's not as good with Subban and Markov as he is with Gonchar and Beaulieu, but I suspect that's due to him facing both stiff competition and stiff zone starts with those two players on.

Now that we've seen how each defenseman impacts each center, we can shift to what percentage of their usage is with each player.

TOI with ES

Once again looking at each center, Eller stands out. Eller is the only offensive center who has played more ice time with Emelin and Gilbert than with Subban and Markov. Keep in mind that those two players are the biggest drags on both possession and offensive production that the Habs have iced this season.

This breakdown though, is subject a bit more to roles than it needs to be. We know that Eller and Tomas Plekanec start a significant amount of their shifts in the defensive zone, while David Desharnais and Alex Galchenyuk do not. So why not compare these same players using Hockey Analysis' zone-adjusted numbers? It should give a more accurate view of how each player is impacted in open play.

center wowy za

When zone starts are taken out, Eller is once again the outlier, because outside of Gilbert, he's a wrecking machine with essentially everyone. Galchenyuk is mostly positive as well, but not to the same extent that Eller is, in spite of stronger linemates throughout the course of the season. Desharnais is very positive with the Habs' top pairing, but struggles away from them, and Plekanec needs the two strongest possession defenseman to get him into the positives. I'm guessing that Plekanec's possession struggles are partially due to the high quality of opponents he faces, but he's also never been a great possession player, so this makes sense.

Now to see how usage is impacting these centers, we can go back again and look at how much time they're spending with each defenseman in zone-adjusted time on ice.

toi with za

Once again, Eller is the center facing the most difficult job here, playing with Emelin and Gilbert more than Subban and Markov. Keep in mind that the worst impact on Eller's possession this season has been Gilbert, and he has played a higher percentage of his ice time with Gilbert than any other center. The two biggest negative impacts in unadjusted terms are Emelin and Gilbert, the pairing he's spent the most time on ice with this season.

And yet, with all this working against him, Eller leads the entire Canadiens team in zone-adjusted Corsi at 52.2%. Keeping in mind that Eller is producing more per minute at even strength than Desharnais, and more per minute on the powerplay than every center except for Plekanec, you have to think that optimizing his usage should be something the Canadiens should be trying to do going forward, which should be fairly easy considering how impressive he has been with Beaulieu and Gonchar, he doesn't even need the top pairing.

The problem to be faced

The main issue the Canadiens have with optimizing their lineup is that Emelin has been a drag on every single center, there is nowhere that we've seen that he can be put and be successful. Gilbert has been good behind Desharnais, and would likely look even better if his left side defense partner drove possession well, like say Jarred Tinordi (53.7% career Corsi).

As long as Galchenyuk is staying on the wing, that would allow the Canadiens to run three five-man units, with Subban and Markov backing up Plekanec in tough minutes, Beaulieu and Gonchar backing up Eller in secondary minutes, and Tinordi with Gilbert backing up Desharnais in fairly sheltered, offensive minutes. Obviously you can't line everything up perfectly all the time, but it would be a positive step forward for a team that refuses to adjust its system, but seems more than willing to apply a line blender after every loss.

Hat tip to @RegressedPDO for inspiring this analysis.