In an off-season where the Montreal Canadiens have seen sweeping changes to the coaching staffs at both the NHL and AHL levels, there is still more work to be done to help improve the team overall.
They’ve added a talented coach in Dominique Ducharme to Claude Julien’s staff, while also retaining Kirk Muller as an associate coach. Ducharme’s focus will be on the team’s forward corps, but there is still room for one more person to join Julien’s group in Montreal, and it’s in an area that desperately needs improvement. That area is of course on defence — more accurately, the penalty kill — which sank Montreal’s season right from the first game onward.
Enter former Calgary Flames assistant coach, Paul Jerrard. A former defencemen in his own right, Jerrard had seen a stints in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche in 2002-03 before working in the AHL with the Hershey Bears, Iowa Stars/Chops and Texas Stars.
In Texas, he worked with Glen Gulutzan for two years. When Gulutzan was hired by Dallas, Jerrard followed with him. In 2013, both coaches were fired by the organization, and Jerrard returned to the AHL, taking an assistant role with the Utica Comets.
In his three seasons in Utica, he took a penalty-killing unit and improved it exponentially, from 25th in the AHL (80.6%) his first year, to seventh overall (86.3%) in his second, to fourth-best in the league (86.0%) in his final season behind the bench in the minors.
When Gulutzan returned to the NHL with the Calgary Flames in 2016-17, he brought his old assistant Jerrard with him, specifically to run the defence and penalty-killing units. The results were immediately impressive; based solely on league standings alone, Jerrard’s penalty-kill ranked 12th (81.6%) and eighth (81.8%) in his two seasons with Calgary. For reference, in that same stretch the Canadiens were 14th (81.1%) and 30th (74.1%).
Perhaps more impressive is that he accomplished this without having an elite netminder like Carey Price to backstop his defence. No disrespect to Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, Mike Smith, and David Rittich, but none of them has come close to the consistent level of Price in Montreal.
The Canadiens need to improve the penalty kill immediately and substantially, as its ineptitude under former coach Jean-Jacques Daigneault was nearly unbelievable. Taking a penalty this past season may as well have counted as a goal for the opposing team before their power play even started. A 74% efficiency is unacceptable; a team that drew at least four penalties against Montreal was expected to score on at least one of them, and it often did.
These two charts are Montreal’s penalty-killing and five-on-five defence last year, and the biggest flaw is instantly apparent. The Habs surrendered far too many chances from inside the slot and in front of the net. With those quality chances happening so often, it’s not hard to see why Canadiens goalies struggled.
So how could Jerrard help the Canadiens this upcoming year? He just has to implement his proven system, and utilize the defensive options at his disposal. This of course means Shea Weber and Jeff Petry will likely again see heavy minutes on the penalty kill, and a reduction in Jordie Benn’s ice time should he still be an option.
In Jerrard’s first season with the Flames, their penalty kill was extremely efficient at limiting chances in the areas where Montreal struggled last year. Scoring chances from around the crease were few and far between, easing the workload on Calgary’s goalies.
A healthy dose of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie combined with a dangerous tandem of Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik fortify a fantastic system in place. The areas in which the Flames did allow more shots from than average present much less of a threat for the goalie as opposed to ones coming from just a few feet away.
For last season however, the heat map is a little less glamorous, but there’s a reason for the change, with a lot of it relating to the personnel utilized in Calgary. Despite the changes in player usage, the penalty kill saw a slight uptick in effectiveness, and was two points higher than the league average.
From 2016-17 to 2017-18, there is a noticeable change in where the Flames began to allow shots from, with more coming from the slot and less from the blue line. A major part in this likely is related to who was utilized the most in penalty killing situations. While Mark Giordano was still the focal point of the system, T.J. Brodie’s minutes were lessened in favour of Travis Hamonic and Michael Stone, with Troy Brouwer also seeing a jump in his usage. To put it lightly, Hamonic’s 208 minutes on the penalty kill were dreadful, and the Flames were inherently better with him off the ice. The same goes for Brouwer, who, in 156 minutes, may have been the worst regular option. The gallery below highlights this.
For Jerrard, it was a head-scratching choice to abandon the usage from the prior year, or to not give expanded minutes to someone like Dougie Hamilton, who was arguably the top defencemen on the roster last year. Yet in spite of this, it was a top-10 ranked unit in the NHL, and if Jerrard can manage that feat with players like Brouwer and Stone playing heavy minutes, it’s not a stretch to say he could achieve the same in Montreal.
Petry and Weber can hold down half the penalty killing duties, so the left side would be handled by a combination of Noah Juulsen, Karl Alzner, David Schlemko, and Benn. The Habs have forwards capable of playing effectively as well, including Max Pacioretty and Phillip Danault, then any combination of Jacob de la Rose, Andrew Shaw, Paul Byron, and Artturi Lehkonen.
There is also the aforementioned factor that behind all these players is one of the best goalies in the world in Price. If Jerrard can tighten up some of the flaws in the penalty kill and defence, then Price is going to rebound into form much quicker, and that can only serve to help launch Montreal back toward the playoffs.
It’s not star-studded, and it doesn’t need to be the best in the league, but addressing the penalty kill by hiring Paul Jerrard would be another positive change for Marc Bergevin this off-season. The penalty kill was second-last in the league last year; it can only improve, but hiring someone with a track record like Jerrard’s can make sure those improvements happen quickly.
Charts courtesy of HockeyViz.com