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Without special teams, the Montreal Canadiens will not be a contender

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Looking at just how important special teams are to success, and how poor Montreal’s have been in recent years.

Montreal Canadiens v Ottawa Senators Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

In a recent podcast, Jason Paul described the Montreal Canadiens’ penalty kill as “painting lipstick on a pig” with regard to the short-handed goals the team had scored. The seven goals are best in the league, almost double than of the next team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, with four. However, the the 72 penalties that Montreal has taken makes the Habs the second-most penalized team in the league, trailing only the Vancouver Canucks. Montreal ranks 22nd in the league in their ability to handle those situations, with a success rate of 76.40%.

Looking at the power play, the 18.20% success rate ranks Montreal 20th in the league. For reference, the top three teams are having success one-third of the time with a man (or two) advantage. While the Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be up there, the other two teams are a bit surprising: the Buffalo Sabres and Chicago Blackhawks.

The question we ask in this article is: How good are Montreal Canadiens’ special teams? In order to get a deeper understanding the special-teams success, and failures, of the different teams in the league, we combined the power play and the penalty kill (i.e. power-play success rate plus penalty-kill success rate). As an example, at this moment Montreal’s combined score would be 95.60. The league average will be 100.00.

To get a better historic understanding of Montreal’s score, we also looked specifically at the last four seasons of Montreal’s combined score. We will also look at the league as a whole for last season, and try to determine what the combined score means for a team.

Results

The combined penalty-kill and power-play success for Montreal Canadiens (rolling average).
Andrew Zadarnowski

As can be seen in the chart, Montreal’s combined score has never stayed over the score of 100 for a prolonged period of time during a season, with the exception of 2016-17. The 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20 seasons were extremely bad as the score was only above 100.00 for the start of the 2020-21 season as well as the current season.

Montreal finished 16th in the 2016-17 season, just below the median at 100.75. In 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20, and in the current season, Montreal resides in the bottom half of the combined rankings, and in no season have they finished above a combined score of 97.00%.

This season, Montreal ranks 21st in the league with a combined score of 95.62, well below the league mean at 100.00 and league median at 102.20.

When looking at statistical correlations, an “R-squared value” between 0.30 and 0.50 is generally considered a weak or low effect score, whereas a R-squared value between 0.50 and 0.70 is considered moderate.

Looking ar the R-squared values for penalty-kill success versus a team’s final standings position over four seasons, the number is 0.33. The power play versus final ranking over the same period gives the R-squared value of 0.46. Combining penalty kill and and power play, the R-squared value increases to 0.52.

Discussion

Looking at the combined score for the Montreal Canadiens over the last four seasons, it is clear that the special teams aren’t really working, except for the 2016-17 season. Recently the seasons have been starting out well, but things rapidly deteriorate and never really go above average again. The periods of success have all come early in the season and it really seems that other teams figure out the Montreal’s special teams. The coaches were unable to come up with a new play or strategy for all seasons under Claude Julien and Kirk Muller’s leadership.

In order for the Montreal Canadiens to be successful, the special teams needs to be working. Over the last four years this hasn’t been the case. This points to a slow-working system where there is no Plan B, but rather a system where you try the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result.

It really does seem that the system is too rigid and structured, with players being afraid of breaking the system. The coaches showed good adaption when the Vancouver Canucks used the ‘Frölunda play’ in their first game and Montreal made an adjustment on the penalty kill for the next game, closing off that passing lane.

In recent games, no adjustments have been made to have a working penalty kill. The only change that has been made is to sit Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen: the two forecheckers who have hassled the opposing teams’ defenders and stopped them from entering the zone. Now, there is a lack of neutral-zone engagement and teams enter the zone and get set up against a static box. Unsurprisingly, that strategy hasn’t been successful.

In order for the team to have a successful season, the coaching staff will need to make some good adjustments to the special teams, adjustments that will have to give results with immediate effect as the teams play each other more often than in a normal season. It will be important to bring out the game-breakers and rely on the talent of skilled players rather than a structure that should work.

In other words: It is time to give players like Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi the chance to run a power-play unit, and not only rely on a pass over to Shea Weber for a big slapshot or a tip in front.

Even if the correlation is moderate, woking special teams are a core feature of teams that succeed in the NHL. With a short season, the Canadiens cannot risk falling in the standings. Adjustments must come if they want to be a contender.