Seven Days in Stats: Third time’s not the charm for the Montreal Canadiens

One step forward, two steps backward for the Canadiens, who will be happy to see California in the rearview mirror.

This week’s results: 6-2 L @ ANA, 5-1 W vs. FLA, 4-0 L vs. LAK

The Montreal Canadiens finally locked down their first regulation victory of the season, but that victory over the Florida Panthers was sandwiched by two decisive and crushing defeats to California-based teams.

Typically, as one approaches the end of October, we begin to start seeing what a team is made of. The Canadiens, however, are no more defined as a club today than they were in the first game against Buffalo. Different line combinations have been tried and players have been shuttled in and out of the lineup with little effect on the end result. As the Canadiens have gotten slightly better bounces, they’ve started to play considerably worse hockey, and the losses have mounted as a result.

Disclaimer: although the topics we highlight here are based on data, they are not to be taken as trends, as the sample sizes aren’t nearly sufficient. The intention is to look at curious or noteworthy things and talk about their implications if they persist in the future, or to explain something that’s occurred the previous week.

1. Claude Julien trusts Galchenyuk defensively more than Michel Therrien

The spotlight has been firmly centred on Alex Galchenyuk this week, but conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations aside, the American forward has not lost the faith of his coach. Despite shuttling up and down the lineup, Galchenyuk has not been sheltered in a noticeable way, indicating that Julien is relatively confident using him in most game situations.

2. Julien is sticking to his guns

Claude Julien has always firmly believed in rolling four lines in a more or less even manner, without any specific zone-based deployment strategies. So far this year, zone deployment percentages range from around a low of ~40% (Phillip Danault) to a high of ~60% (Max Pacioretty), which is a far cry from the Jay Beagles of the league (30%).

There is one player though that Julien seems to have turned into a situation specialist, and that’s Artturi Lehkonen. The Finn has been relied on for both offensive- and defensive-zone draws, and as a consequence barely gets deployed for a faceoff in the neutral zone.

3. At times though, a coach should probably shorten his bench

Julien’s propensity for equal ice time needs to be better balanced with situational awareness, though. For example, in Thursday’s game against Los Angeles, Kings bench boss John Stevens overloaded his top line, led by Anze Kopitar. Since Julien did not adjust accordingly, this meant that the fourth line of Galchenyuk, Michael McCarron, and Nikita Scherbak (and later Brendan Gallagher) were caught out against Kopitar for three-and-a-half minutes (or one-third of Galchenyuk’s total even-strength ice time). The results (0 Corsi for, 9 against for Galchenyuk, 0-8 for McCarron) were probably somewhat predictable.

4. Shea Weber and Victor Mete are having issues denying zone entries

One of the bright spots for the Canadiens in this trying season has been the play of Victor Mete. Paired with Shea Weber, the young defender has brought some much-needed offensive creativity to the Canadiens blue line. However, the Mete-Weber pairing is not all sunshine and roses.

Olivier Bouchard of Athletique has been tracking zone entries for most of the games of this nascent season, and upon collating them, one of the most striking trends is that the Mete-Weber duo has significant issues denying their opponent’s controlled zone entries.

On the California road trip and even against Florida, Mete and Weber’s controlled vs. uncontrolled zone entry ratio was 11% higher than the rest of the team. The top pairing has allowed a greater proportion of controlled zone entries than the other pairings in every individual game since the start of the California road trip.

This could be because the rookie is apprehensive about engaging attackers at the line, and Weber is holding himself back as a security blanket. It could be an indicator of Weber’s lack of footspeed forcing the stalwart to yield space against speed. It could be a combination of both. How the new pairings of Jordie Benn-Karl Alzner and Brandon Davidson-Jeff Petry perform will go a long way to providing some insight on how important speed is to denying zone entries.

5. Karl Alzner’s early season lustre has faded …

The Canadiens’ prized off-season blue-line acquisition started the season brilliantly, but as the team’s play has slipped from the heady days of Week 1, so has Alzner’s.

This chart is basically an “on-ice/off-ice” comparison at an individual level; what are Alzner’s numbers without a certain individual, and what are those individuals’ numbers away from Alzner?

The chart indicates that every Canadiens defenceman has better shots-for numbers away from Alzner than vice versa. Perhaps that’s not surprising given the nature of Alzner’s game, but the trend also applies to the defensively oriented Jordie Benn.

More surprisingly – and worryingly – most of the blue-liners also post better shots-against numbers away from Alzner. The exceptions are: Joe Morrow (who’s roughly equal), Petry (whose increase in shots-for far outweighs the slight increase in shots against), and the duo of Weber and Mete, whose numbers are affected by some of the issues outlined in point #4.

6. … and it’s not Jeff Petry’s fault

The natural inclination when a defender begins to show weakness is to look at the play of his partner. In Alzner’s case, shot maps would indicate that his predominant partner, Petry, is not to blame. Both Alzner’s and Petry’s heatmaps show roughly the same trend: stronger defending on the right side, more shots allowed on the left side.

Furthermore, comparing Alzner’s “with” and “without” heatmaps indicates that more shots are being launched on the left side of the zone with Alzner on the ice (more intense red on the “with Alzner” image).

The reverse is true for Petry: more shots are taken from the right side of the zone without the former Oiler on the ice (less intense blue on the “without Petry” image).

Petry’s heatmap does indicate a weakness in the net-front region that’s not as prominent on Alzner’s map, indicating that Alzner supports Petry in the slot when the two play together. Still, that doesn’t fully compensate for the tremendous increase in volume coming from the left side of the ice versus the right.

7. Short lapses are simply killing the team

Three goals in 2:31 (Ovechkin, Oshie, Kuznetsov). Two in 0:19 (DeBrincat, Saad). Two in 0:44 (van Riemsdyk, Matthews). Three in 1:37 (Montour, Grant, Wagner). Two in 0:11 (Kempe, Toffoli).

The Canadiens have performed admirably this season – for about 70% of the minutes played. In the other 30%, they’ve been victimized, exploited, or just plain played out of the rink.

Backbreaking rapid-fire goals have been a regular feature so far this campaign. Of the five examples listed above, two put the opposition ahead after the Canadiens had taken an early lead, two put a tie game firmly out of reach, and the final example quashed a promising Canadiens fightback from an early deficit.

These lapses are indicative of a team that’s thinking the game rather than playing it naturally. When you’re thinking on the ice, everything happens a little slower, and when something goes wrong, there’s no instinctive backup plan. A shift or two where the players don’t know what they’re doing is all it takes for an opposition to pounce, and that’s been the source of much of the Habs’ woe so far.

(Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Corsica. Visualizations courtesy of HockeyViz.)

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