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A statistical look at the Montreal Canadiens’ strong start

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A dominant top line and a rookie star pace what might be the NHL’s most surprising team so far.

Boston Bruins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The 2018-2019 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Montreal Canadiens. Many people expected the team to struggle and be in the mix for Jack Hughes in June. Instead the Canadiens currently occupy a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and they’re doing it not by luck, but by being a legitimately good possession team.

In years past the success of the Canadiens was dictated almost entirely by the play of Carey Price in net, and not at all on the ability of the team in front of him. Price would be the one to carry a broken system kicking and screaming into the post-season. This year that isn’t the case, as this Canadiens team continues to produce solid numbers all around.

In fact, looking at some statistics for the team, Montreal’s biggest downside this year has been keeping pucks out of the net. They have shooting rates for and against better than average, and have limited the quality of the ones against as well.

Sean Tierney/Charting Hockey

Out of every area on the team, Carey Price is one of the players people shouldn’t be concerned about in the long run. The defence has begun to gel into place with the return of Shea Weber, and Price is more than capable of turning his season around quicker than Thanos can snap his fingers.

What is driving the Canadiens so far this year is a possession system that not only generates chances, but does a great job limiting the ones they face as well. It’s not the end all be all, especially considering the NHL is also a game of luck, but the continued play at this level bodes well for future success.

Looking at the above charts, one thing is immediately clear: the Canadiens’ ability to generate and limit shots against is among the best in the league. They’re keeping pace with teams like Tampa Bay and San Jose whose offences are stacked with long-established NHL talent. Montreal has its stars, but they’re just that small notch below the perennial contenders right now. This Montreal side is keeping pace with the elite of the NHL in a year where it was expected to struggle.

So what is driving that shot-generating machine?

The short answer is that the Canadiens’ top line has been nothing short of incredible this year. Even with injuries, the call-ups and depth players are continuing to turn in outstanding performances.

Sean Tierney/Charting Hockey

Clustered right at the forefront of the “Good” section is the trio of Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, and Phillip Danault, who have formed a fantastic shutdown trio while maintaining a big offensive presence.

The linemates are deployed almost equally in all situations, buoyed by the fact that Danault is the team’s best defensive pivot right now. In spite of them often drawing the harshest assignments, they continue to be a driving force in Montreal.

There’s a stark contrast in how the team operates when they’re on versus off the ice. In the offensive zone one thing is abundantly clear: the top line gets into the dangerous areas, and doesn’t leave until the puck is in the net or they’re forced to change.

Comparatively speaking, when Gallagher, Tatar, and Danault are off the ice, the Canadiens offensive-zone presence evaporates, so to speak. Even with the great contributions from Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, the most consistent group night in and night out is Danault’s.

Even defensively the group manages to lock down their roles with aplomb, especially when compared to their teammates.

Limited chances in front of the net and in key scoring areas make things a lot easier on goalies. If Price can continue to find his footing, having this kind of support makes it more than likely the team will continue to turn in great performances.

It’s not just the veterans who are playing well either. Eighteen-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi is quietly becoming one of the best forwards on the team, even with limited ice time.

Bill Comeau/SKATR

Max Domi is currently shooting the lights out, and is proving a lot of his detractors wrong so far this season, but Kotkaniemi is trending just as well, if not better, in his underlying numbers as well. What’s more is he’s doing it with lesser linemates, time on ice, and a poor shooting percentage. In spite of that, he’s controlling the puck at both ends of the ice.

If this is what Kotkaniemi is doing in his rookie year with limited time, it’s not impossible to envision him exploding offensively if given a spin with Gallagher and Tatar at the top of the lineup.

On defence, Jeff Petry is putting together another fantastic campaign, and since returning, Shea Weber has looked like he hasn’t missed much time at all.

At 5-on-5, Petry was a workhorse in Weber’s absence, playing almost 40 minutes more then the closest defender, putting together an impressive 54.75% Corsi-for percentage, while starting most of his shifts outside the offensive zone.

In his four games back, Weber has an incredible 60.87% CF%, and appears to have found a solid partner in Brett Kulak. Before joining Weber, Kulak and Petry had also formed an outstanding pair at 5-on-5, enough so that Claude Julien had little issue putting the AHL call-up onto a pair with Weber this past week.

The team is playing incredibly well, that can’t be denied, and they’re doing it minus Joel Armia who was a top-nine staple and provides great defensive value. They’re doing it with a fourth line made up of AHL call-ups and Nicolas Deslauriers while Charles Hudon sits in the press box, so the Canadiens can actually improve on this great start to the season. They’re doing the right things, even if the lineup hasn’t always been optimized for it.

The results are trending toward a position just outside the playoff picture based on various prediction models, but the Canadiens have been beating projections all season long. They have the underlying numbers to match the best teams of the NHL, a surefire top line that is consistently playing lights out each night, and they also have a rookie star primed to explode offensively at any moment.

The Canadiens look like they’re actually good, and that bodes well for the future of this team as their top prospects come to roost in the following years. It’s all part of the process, and whatever Julien and his staff are doing should be trusted to continue going forward.