The Montreal Canadiens’ Road to Redemption: Penalty-kill woes on the road

Down a man, the Habs were one of the worst teams in the league this season, but much of that was from a dreadful showing away from the Bell Centre.

The 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens displayed such poor penalty-killing that three articles were required to analyze it. In part I of our breakdown, we explored whether the fault lay with Marc Bergevin’s assembled defence corps. In part II, we looked at the “system” devised by the coaching staff. Now we shed some light on the Canadiens’ historic short-handed road woes.

The team finished the season with the second-worst penalty-kill percentage in the NHL, clocking in at a dismal 74.1%. Amazingly, the Habs were actually the 10th-best home PK team in the league, recording an 83.6% success rate at the friendly confines of the Bell Centre. However, this was overshadowed by a comically bad 66.7% success rate on the road — last in the league by almost three percentage points.

The Habs’ home PK also remained astonishingly stable through coaching changes, injuries, and roster turnover until the very last quarter of the season, with most of the fluctuations to their overall percentage dictated by their road fortunes.

The Canadiens didn’t just get scored on more when away from home; they gave up significantly more shots and more chances. At home, the Habs managed to post above-average numbers in terms of shots, goals, and scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes short-handed. On the road, the team was at least bottom-three in every metric, and was the worst in the NHL in terms of goals agains per 60 minutes by almost a full goal.

To compound matters, the Habs were not only bad at penalty-killing on the road, they took significantly more penalties on the road compared to at home. The Canadiens ranked 18th in the league in terms of penalty minutes per game, but had the fourth-worst home-road PIM differential.

The million-dollar question, of course, is: how could the same team — the same players — be so good at home and so poor on the road? From a rules perspective, the two main obstacles that road teams must overcome are last change and faceoffs, so we’ll start our analysis there.

Generally speaking, home and road player deployment did not differ too significantly for the Habs. However, there were many minor changes potentially contributing to a cumulative effect.

While every one of the Habs’ main PKers saw an increase in per game short-handed time on ice on the road due to the Habs’ predilection for the penalty box, the minutes were not allocated primarily to the better PKers. The likes of Max Pacioretty, Jeff Petry, and Tomas Plekanec saw modest increases, while weaker players — Artturi Lehkonen, Jordie Benn, and David Schlemko, for example — saw two or three times more ice. Jacob de la Rose also saw a much larger increase in TOI compared to fellow second-uniters Nicolas Deslauriers and Byron Froese.

Not only was the second unit getting more ice, they were generally getting harder minutes as well. Last change clearly allowed home coaches to get their top PP unit out against the Habs’ secondary or tertiary penalty-killers, with Lehkonen, de la Rose, Benn, and Noah Juulsen seeing particularly large increases in terms of quality of competition. Accordingly, the likes of Pacioretty, Plekanec, Danault, and Shea Weber saw decreases in QoC.

The second unit was generally unable to cope. De la Rose was particularly affected, allowing almost 48 more scoring chances per 60 minutes short-handed. Rookie Juulsen also found himself unable to deal with the increased workload and competition.

Finally, while I am not generally a believer in the utility of faceoff prowess as a noteworthy metric, it does have its situational importance. Four Canadiens players were charged with taking faceoffs on the penalty kill: Froese, de la Rose, Danault, and Plekanec. Only one of them proved up to the task both at and away from the Bell Centre: the one moved at the trade deadline. Danault in particular was interesting, as his faceoff win percentage dropped over 25% on the road.

All of these little things, combined with the lack of tactical structure outlined in part II, contributed to the Canadiens’ road penalty-killing problems. For all of the talk about the Canadiens having ample depth in the bottom six and being loaded with “stable” defensive stalwarts, the penalty-killing was victimized by a lack of depth beyond the first quartet, especially with Weber out of the lineup and Tomas Plekanec in Toronto.

The Canadiens are plagued by issues with personnel, tactics, and deployment, but nothing is so major that it cannot be fixed in relatively timely fashion. Fifth and sixth defencemen and fourth-line forwards can be replaced, tactics can be introduced with good coaching, and the road issues can be solved with better discipline and better deployment.

That being said, something clearly has to give, because the Canadiens certainly cannot go another season with penalty-killing on this subpar level.

Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

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