Where's The Offense?

Two weeks ago Steven Hindle wrote a story for The Hockey Writers about the Montreal Canadiens' lack of offensive punch this season, and how the team is converting on just 7.6% of their total shots. Since then the shooting percentage has risen to 7.9% but the question remains the same, where is the offense? Where are all the goals?

Surprisingly the Canadiens are on virtually the exact same scoring pace this season as last season, 2.58 goals per game this year compared to 2.56 goals per game last year, even without Andrei Markov for all but 7 games. However the Canadiens are scoring at more than a full percentage point lower on the shots they do take. Cammalleri, Gionta, Plekanec and Gomez are all behind their point scoring pace from last year. The Canadiens are taking more shots, allowing fewer, and playing a much better puck possession game, so what's going on? Is it all just individual slumps? Is there a man-power shortage? Is the team in need of another top 6 forward like many in the media crow about?

Hindle falls into the same trap as many in the media, suggesting there's not enough talent on the team, injuries are to blame along with slumps, and that the high priced players don't live up to their paychecks. It's a familiar refrain, and it's lazy journalism.

He also incorporates some shoddy statistical manipulation to make the scorers on the team look worse by including P.K. Subban's shooting percentage to bring down the average of the top scorers on the team while highlighting the struggles of the team's top players, again throwing out the 7.6% margin. Considering that perhaps the best goal scorer from the blue line in this NHL season, Dustin Byfuglien is shooting at a mere 7.37%, I would suggest that the shooting percentage of a defenseman, even an offensive minded one, is pretty irrelevant to the performance of the team's forwards (as an aside, Raymond Bourque's career shooting percentage is 6.6%, I guess he sucks, right Mr. Hindle?).

If Steven Hindle would have bothered to read the work of his colleague Arpon Basu, he would have likely put the same 2 and 2 together that I have in explaining the biggest reason why the Canadiens don't score as much as the talent on their roster suggest they should, and it's by design.

Now I'm not suggesting that Jacques Martin is telling his players not to score, or to limit their scoring chances, I'm 100% sure the he would love to see more goals go in every single game. What I am suggesting, is that this would be very difficult to achieve using the system that Martin and the Montreal Canadiens have employed for this season, and attempted to employ for most of last season. That system, as Mathieu Darche explained to Arpon Basu:

"It's five guys everywhere," forward Mathieu Darche said. "When we look at the video, we want to see five guys in the picture. It's not as much of a system as it is putting the team ahead of the individual. You want five guys on the attack and five guys back. Ask anybody -- it's tough to go through five guys"

While this system is undeniably effective, with the Canadiens 9 games over the .500 mark for the first time in what seems like years, it's extremely hard on the players physically. So even though the team has become much better at executing this system, as shown by their record, increased shots on goal, decrease shots against, and going from a negative even strength team (22nd in the league last season) to a positive one (13th in the league this season), the offense overall hasn't improved.

It's common sense that defense is harder to play physically than offense, anyone who's played any team sport can tell you that. Focusing so much on the defensive side of the puck is very tiring, even for millionaire athletes who everyone (especially in Montreal) seems to think should be infallible paramours of perfection, bringing out Lord Stanley every year no matter who the competition is. My theory on the lack of offense from the Montreal Canadiens is simply that due to more focus on defense, when our players do end up creating scoring chances, which they do often, the players are on average more likely to be more tired than those from other teams that play easier systems, and therefore more likely to make a mistake, or choose the wrong course of action.

This theory is easily tested by anyone, try a skill testing activity, be it physical or mental, while well rested. Then work yourself to exhaustion and try it again. When did you perform better? It's also telling that after 3 straight disappointing exits from the postseason, the Washington Capitals' offensive numbers have also taken a big hit, as their team begins to focus more on defense.

The idea that the team is bereft of talent is becoming the easy way for a lazy journalist in Montreal to pump out an article that's guaranteed to get some hits. It's really no different than fans on a forum posting trade suggestions as armchair General Managers. Are the Montreal Canadiens as talented as the Philadelphia Flyers or Detroit Red Wings? No, but those are 2 teams in a 30 team league, who've been elite in that category for 2 decades. Montreal is certainly not an elite team in the NHL, but they are a competitive team. Players like Cammalleri, Plekanec and Gomez all have 70-80 point potential, while Gionta, Kostitsyn, Pouliot and Pacioretty could all well fall in the 40-60 point range in a good season, or on an offensive minded team. Markov being out is a huge hit offensively, but Wisnewski and Subban are both budding offensive studs from the back end, so there is talent there too.

There's likely no player available in a trade right now in the NHL that would magically turn the Canadiens into an offensive juggernaut like many like to dream about. For now, commitment to defense and the roster we have is yielding very impressive results, despite the absence of our best offensive defenseman, and our best defensive defenseman. Considering neither will be back this season, I personally don't see the point in making a trade to bolster the team that ends up sacrificing assets for a rental.

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