Thursday, May 21, 2009

How Not To Do Defensive Play:

Canadiens 2009

A team run by the first Selke trophy winner and coached by 3 others who defined the defensive forward role at various times in their careers – you'd expect a lot of expertise was passed on.

You'd be wrong.

While the Canadiens costly January collapse was in large part due to two goalies finding their way in the league. The defence of this team should not be absolved of responsibility altogether. The team as a whole was lost defensively for about 6 weeks. 2 statistical looks really crystallised what I had noticed all season.

Expected goals against

When I was doing my research on Carey Price, I came across some nice analysis from Behind The Net. In what was obviously a labour intensive process "they" (I don't know who actually did it) logged where shots came from and calculated based on average goaltending the likelihood of shots going in or staying out. In other words they compiled the number of quality shots that were allowed – sort of. They certainly gave the rudiments of that statistic.

The Canadiens for their part were mediocre to downright awful in the analysis of these stats:

1) Their expected save percentage was 0.908

Minnesota 0.919
Colorado 0.916
LA 0.914
New Jersey 0.913
Buffalo 0.913
Philadelphia 0.912
Florida 0.912
Pittsburgh 0.912
Phoenix 0.911
Tampa Bay 0.911
Ottawa 0.910
Edmonton 0.910
Boston 0.910
Calgary 0.909
St Louis 0.909
Anaheim 0.909
San Jose 0.908
Montreal 0.908
Carolina 0.907
Columbus 0.907
Nashville 0.906
Dallas 0.906
Washington 0.906
Vancouver 0.906
Detroit 0.905
NYI 0.904
Toronto 0.903
Chicago 0.899
Atlanta 0.898
NYR 0.890

This save percentage placed them an honest 18th in the league. This is OK for a team with an excellent goalie like Vancouver (0.906) or that can dig themselves out of a hole like Detroit or Washington (0.905 and 0.906, respectively); but not ideal for a team with suspect goaltending and offense prone to slumping simultaneously.

2) The Habs allowed 1848 shots at even strength

San Jose 1283
NYR 1316
Dallas 1379
Detroit 1426
Ottawa 1523
Edmonton 1539
Washington 1544
LA 1545
Anaheim 1553
Toronto 1554
Philadelphia 1567
Calgary 1582
New Jersey 1596
Chicago 1612
Minnesota 1621
Tampa Bay 1637
Pittsburgh 1640
NYI 1677
Colorado 1684
Nashville 1694
Columbus 1711
St Louis 1732
Vancouver 1759
Florida 1781
Carolina 1782
Boston 1797
Montreal 1848
Buffalo 1866
Atlanta 1915
Phoenix 2043

27th in a 30-team league is not the stuff of dreams. Again, it's fine if you are running and gunning at the other end (which we weren't) or have the best insurance policy at the back. As you can see, most teams would prefer to play the odds and cut the shots down.

Take Detroit again, they know they let up quality shots and they know Osgood and Conklin were all they could afford after spending on Hossa, so they keep shots very low.

3) Do the math and that's an expectation for 170.7 goals against at ES

San Jose 118.3
Dallas 129.9
Minnesota 131.2
LA 133.0
Detroit 135.3
Ottawa 136.6
Philadelphia 137.6
New Jersey 138.4
Edmonton 139.0
Anaheim 141.5
Colorado 142.0
Calgary 143.3
NYR 144.5
Pittsburgh 145.0
Washington 145.4
Tampa Bay 145.5
Toronto 151.1
Florida 156.7
St Louis 157.1
Nashville 159.1
Columbus 159.9
NYI 161.5
Boston 162.6
Buffalo 162.6
Chicago 163.3
Carolina 165.3
Vancouver 165.8
Montreal 170.7
Phoenix 181.4
Atlanta 194.7

Once again, Montreal is at the bottom of the heap. Only the shambles of teams that are Phoenix and Atlanta come after.

The three categories together don't paint our defensive play in a very good light. A team that allows the 3rd most shots should probably endeavour to reduce shot quality to better than league average. And conversely, a team that lets up good quality shots (based on the average NHL fare) should probably look to keep the shots down.

It's also worth remembering that the goal of the Montreal Canadiens this season was to win, or at least contend for, the Stanley Cup, not to beat Atlanta and Phoenix. Consider also that the cliche tells us that it's defence that wins championships.

Look at playoff teams only, then – the Canadiens defensive play looks even more dire:

Expected save %: 9/16 – ahead of CAR, CBJ, WAS, VAN, DET, CHI, NYR
Shots allowed: 16/16
Expected goals allowed (ES): 16/16
Actual goals allowed (ES): 14/16 – ahead of STL, CGY

Realistically, this shows us that the Canadiens (at least defensively) were probably the very worst of the playoff teams this season. Not only that, they were positively out of touch with San Jose, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Anaheim. How they ever expected to contend with the defensive system they were running is a bit mind-boggling.

Suddenly, the fact that our goalies were only 8/16 playoff goalies in terms of rescuing us from goals that should have gone in looks a lot less relevant. Suddenly the need for a new number one centre doesn't look like priority one.

Bottom 6 forwards

Everyone knows our defence suffered. We all know that our coach overplayed Komisarek as a #3 when he was playing like and AHL grad and that random giveaway generator Brisebois was overused (i.e., ≥0 games). But hockey is a team game right? Well, sort of. On a tangent here, I looked into the forwards.

It's one thing for Kovalev or Kostitsyn to get caught – one can forgive a player who pays back for his mistakes. But defensive forwards? Guys that don't really contribute up front and are sold to the fans for their defensive contribution? These guys must surely be scrutinized, mustn't they?

Fortunately, someone (mc79hockey) looked at this little aspect of the game as well. Here (with regard to the Canadiens forwards) is what he found:

Montreal's non-top 6 forwards (bottom 6 group of more than 6 members) were on the ice for 55 GF and 76 GA

– Considering the ice time, it doesn't look good that the defensive units were on the ice for more goals than the top 6 at ES (76 vs. 75)

– Their 76 GA is the 8th most in the league (only PIT, EDM, TB, PHX, DAL, COL and NYI); see many playoff teams to emulate?

In general, at least this witch hunt for the biggest defensive liability has really turned over a lot of new leaves. I think the conclusion that one must take is that no one group of players is solely responsible. or, put in another way: everyone can pretty easily point the finger at someone else. Goalies can blame the defence for shot numbers and for not giving them lower quality shots to face. Defencemen can blame forwards for not helping much at all. And forwards can blame both other groups for being just as incompetent. At times, we probably had the worst defence, the worst goalie and even the worst defensive forwards. In early February, they all met up to play a 6-game road trip together.

To me all of this shows that our injuries cost us in defensive play from the defencemen and the forwards in a major way. I remember watching Alex Henry. I remember thinking how absolutely terrible D'Agostini and Stewart were defensively.

It shows there's work to be done, but it also that there's hope – because if Toronto's rag-tag bunch can learn to play better defense, so can our rag tag bunch.The bottom line is that this team was poor defensively (if we had stats from Jan/Feb alone we'd all be crying). The bottom line is that they must improve.

Sign a defensive coach, please...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Veering Towards Firewagon

Canadiens Targeting Voltigeurs PP Whiz Guy Boucher

Rumour has it that the Canadiens are studying the option of signing current Drummondville Voltigeurs coach, Guy Boucher, to the post of head coach in Hamilton.

This could present a very interesting follow-on strategy to Don Lever. Don was a forward as a player, but a defensive proponent as a coach. Guy, for his part seems to favour an offensive game plan, as his season in the QMJHL would attest. What makes Guy even more interesting is his education and his non-NHL background (courtesy of McGill):

Boucher, 37, possesses a master's degree in sports psychology from the Université de Montréal, plus arts and engineering degrees from McGill, where he played four seasons for the Redmen, from 1991 to 1995.

He could be just the breath of fresh air the Canadiens and, indeed, the NHL need.

The Drummondville turnaround

"The Voltigeurs held the league's worst record last season, finishing with just 14 wins and 33 points. Drummondville actually had a longer winning streak this season than 14 wins as they finished with the top record with 112 points, a league record 79-point turnaround."

Guy Boucher oversaw this remarkable turnaround with the Voltigeurs. To go from last to first is impressive enough. To go from utterly pathetic to first, as he and his team did, is another.

Some of the credit for the turnaround must go to the GM (who ditched an astounding 33 unproductive pieces in just over a year and also brought in a league leading scorer and a dynamic Russian defender). Some of the credit must also go to the players like Yannick Riendeau (126 pts) and Danny Masse (110 pts, and signed recently by the Habs) who added punch and speed to a team whose second scorer was a 37-point man the year before.

The remaining credit can go to the coach, though. The system he implemented with obvious success is described by Sportsnet:
"Drummondville plays a very strong puck pursuit game. The Voltigeurs are strong in pressuring the puck-carrier and eliminating his outlet lanes through strong positioning. They make it very hard to enter their zone and don't give up many second-chance opportunities in front of their goal. Their cohesive team play might just be the best in the CHL."

Adjectives like strong and cohesive are just what one would hope for. If only the Canadiens could be described that way even half of the time.

Special teams make it interesting

It seems that Guy is a pretty creative guy. This is not someone who will drag out a line change every time something goes wrong.

He shocked the hockey world, apparently, with his deployment of PK Subban on the Canadian Junior team this past tournament by placing the big shot in the high slot. He used it again in Drummondville (Their PP was a rampaging 35.7% in the playoffs at the time that article was written). Reviews also rave about his PK – saying that he changes his penalty killing tactics (gasp) on the go to surprise his opponents.

This kind of experimentation is what led to dynasties in the past. Innovation and risk taking will be critical in getting a Cup to Montreal, as prospects don't tend to fall into the laps of teams unprepared to spend 5 years at the bottom.

Can he make the jump?

There is a big difference between winning in junior and at the NHL level, so I am glad this article deals with the possibility of Guy making the jump to the AHL first. The jump from AHL to NHL is still significant, but a coach has the advantage of already having coached some of the younger players before and to play in a league with much better defensive coverage.

I don't think there's any reason to believe that Guy couldn't jump from Q to AHL level. The question about a future in the NHL can be resolved then in Hamilton.

If the Canadiens want to have French Canadian coaches in the NHL, this is a step in the right direction. Developing and testing coaches at the lower echelon is as sensible for coaches as it is for players (and would have been for goalie prospects...).

I hope Guy does sign when the Memorial Cup wraps up. It would be a sign of good things to come.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Round 2 Was Kind – Will The Third Be?

As I take the time to scour stats and analysis from the season for things to discuss, I thought I would take a break to let you know how I'm doing in the Score hockey pool (as if any of you care).

In the second round, I chose mostly with my head (so I thought), but had the Bruins falling thanks to my heart. Thankfully for all our blood pressure levels, they did fail to progress – and for a bonus, their loss has vaulted me into the upper reaches of hockey prognosticators (go figure).

This is what I had for Round 2:

Canes over Bruins in 6
Again, I couldn't have picked the Bruins. But I have to say, the Hurricanes looked a lot more likely to pull this off right from the beginning than the Habs ever were. Still, a big and fulfilling upset.

Penguins over Capitals in 7
I believe in big-game players, and big-game players paid back in kind. Crosby proves once again that when he's interested, he's much more interesting.

Wings over Ducks in 5
I didn't think it would be as long, but this battle looked one too far for the Ducks to me.

Canucks over Hawks in 6
I underestimated the Blackhawks again. I'll continue to do that until I'm right...

On series winners, this makes me 9/12 or 3 lucky choices over the expected crap shoot. I'm not too great at predicting series length but, luckily for me, neither is anyone else. The updated standings (i.e., bloggers making Mark Osbourne look like an ass) can be found here.

I'd also like to note that Leafs fans and former Leafs players live up to their franchise expectations by threatening to come somewhere between 9th and 15th in any league they are in again. I think they feel most comfortable there.

Round 3

I'll now explain my round 3 choices and watch as my luck runs out in this game of chance...

Penguins over Hurricanes in 7

So far, so good. Though I love the crafty additions Jim Rutherford has made, he is going against the tried and true method of losing for 5 seasons to stack with talent approach. Malkin and Crosby together could make up for any number of Komisarek and Brisebois blunders; and Price could fluff goals to his heart's content. Carolina have one answer to this duo (Eric Staal), but I fear Brind'amour will be stretched beyond his limits with the big Russian. 7 games though – it was a tough choice.

Red Wings over Blackhawks in 6
The reigning (and probably eventual repeat) Conn Smythe winner really tips this one in Detroit's favour. I fear that the Wings have the answer to Chicago's speed and forecheck with their team defence, experience and most importantly: patience.

As fun as this is, with the chance at winning and all, I would just like to reiterate: Is it October yet?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Carey Price Segment


Section 1: Are These Thoroughbred Trends? (Published and ready for critics)

Section 2: The Cost Of Betting On This Thoroughbred (Published and ready for critics)

Section 3: Getting This Horse Up And Running (Published and ready for critics)

Carey Price: Thoroughbred In The Gates?

Getting This Horse Up And Running

Is Carey a thoroughbred? Has Gainey and the team made mistakes with his development?

If the management group have committed to Carey Price in the way it seems they have, then really these points are moot.

Thanks for letting me air my frustrations on them. But now the time has come now to move onto real-world practical scenarios. This closing segment on Carey and his care treats you to some of my ideas on how things can be done better on the Canadiens, assuming a cornerstone named Price.

Back-up goaltender

It all sounds very logical – get a veteran back-up goaltender to help Carey Price develop and act as insurance in case he stumbles again. I do have a problem with this approach, however: it is not worth losing Jaroslav Halak over.

Let me elaborate.

I assume (based on lots of experience now) that Gainey and his new coach will press on with the “development by minutes approach” they have been implementing with Carey Price to this point. That said, to keep with the current progress and build his endurance, I think it would be reasonable to predict that a healthy Carey Price will be favoured for the start in ≥2/3 of Canadiens games in 2009-10.

For a back-up that means 20-odd games over the season. For a mentor, that suits. One could imagine many a graying netminder stepping into such a role. However, we also want this back-up to be reliable (and dare I say it, even good/great).

Now last time I checked good/great veteran goaltenders of the free agent variety don’t like to consign themselves to a back-up role before the head-to-head play has been evaluated, no matter what the salary. Sure, someone like Manny Fernandez played the back-up in Boston, and Huet did in Chicago, but they went in looking to be the starter. In Montreal, the starter role is not on offer. In my mind, that rules out a lot of eligible candidates.

So, let’s say then we forego the "capable stopper" part of the description. We sign up Curtis Joseph or other washed up vet and their now sub 0.700 save percentage and have the guy room with Carey for the season while Price takes on 72 games himself.

It’s a possibility, but not one that I like.

First of all, it undermines the original veteran back-up idea. All we've done is replaced inexperienced Halak with more Carey Price. There's no insurance, and no matter how hood the mentor is, I'm not sold on that. If anyone is ready to bet that Carey Price has undergone his last deep slump, it’s not me. I’m not a fan of burning another season, so I like the idea of insurance.

In that case, let’s forget the mentor – just get a veteran who can come in and be reliable and take over from Carey for a few weeks at a time when things get bumpy. Martin Biron, for example.

Not ideal for me either. I mean, we’re back to where we started aren’t we?

Halak already does that job. Why pay Biron to be an older Halak? It would be foolish to pay $2-3 million more for the mere tag veteran. Nevermind, the chance that Gainey will find a goalie as good as Jaro with the same tolerance for back-up duty (yet more experience) is slim indeed. No, if this vet can’t be a mentor and play with the plan for Price, then I don’t think we pay over the odds to make this type of move. This brings me to my next point…

Goaltending coach

I am not the first, and I won’t be the last to bring up this idea. If mentor is what Carey needs, surely the position of goaltending coach is a place we can park this guy.

Next year would be Roland Melanson’s twelfth season as assistant coach of the Montreal Canadiens. And, while I congratulate him on the achievement, it might be time to remind him that “all good things must come to an end”. It may be harsh to criticize him as a coach with so little understanding of what he actually does, but he has now presided over so many goaltending blowouts that one surely must question his tenure.

He has successfully presided over the rise of Jose Theodore, Mathieu Garon, Cristobal Huet and now Price and Halak. But it seems every time one of his pupils begins to ask questions of their game or their confidence, Rollie the goalie doesn’t have the answers. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t have the answers. Perhaps it’s because they weren’t asking for the type of answers he was giving. Maybe they can't relate to him, who knows.

Carey Price for his part clearly needs to be nurtured. I think we can all agree that the cool, independent image that we were sold two summers ago has been destroyed. He is needy, he is insecure – or in other words, he’s a regular goalie. We all remember Carey’s first season and his first successes. Positioning was the name of the game and rebounds were rare. He once knew how to provide the commodity we were after. In trying to improve, he has lost the above average abilities he had before. I, for one, would take those back and have him stabilize there. Sometimes a mentor is all a young charge needs to find what they once knew. And I don’t think all the calls for a veteran back-up are misguided in that way.

So who can be the man for the job?

Not Rollie.

Francois Allare? Likely the greatest technician available, but probably not the mentor for Carey.

I’d look for someone who’s been through what he has and come out alright. Someone who’s played the mentor before. My target would be Jeff Hackett. Who else could you find that was drafted high, started slow and survived a shocking 0.856 save percentage season to come back and be Canadiens star and teacher to Vezina winner?

Practice culture

Carey was failed this season by his laid-back attitude. He was failed by the laid back attitudes of those around him as well. I remember reading, in the deepest, darkest days of his slump that Carey had been working hard in practice
“On CKAC this afternoon, Martin McGuire reported Price has been working very hard in practice. He's the first one on the ice with the injured guys and often the last to leave.

Implicit in McGuire's praise is the notion that Price's work habits have not always been exemplary.”

It wasn’t the only article talking about lax habits in training.

He wasn’t great that next game as hoped, he was horrible. But practice doesn’t work that way. Practice takes time. So, presumably still in his bucke-down mode, Carey did get the next start and the next and the next and the next. And fuelled by his hard work on off days, it was probably Carey’s most impressive stretch of the season. He got four straight domes from a fed-up Tobalev (which says a lot). He let in a mere 8 goals, got 5 important points for the Habs and kept them in every game.

The connection between practice and success was unfortunately overlooked or forgotten a month later, though as more optional practices were handed down by Gainey and the one player who should have been as motivated as anyone to correct his gaps sat a few out – including during the playoffs.

It’s a simple thing really – practice makes perfect. In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, he repeated the estimate that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at something. That goes for skating, playing guitar, glove saves, stick-handling (see Kovalev). This recap from the book says it all:
The Story of Success challenges assumptions about innate genius and natural-born talent. Through a series of detailed examples, Gladwell explains away these gifts by attributing them to practice, timing, circumstance, upbringing, culture, and opportunity. In other words, those really smart, successful people we admire – Mozart, Bill Gates, the Beatles – weren’t born with natural talent. Instead, they had the right upbringing, were in the right place at the right time, and through 10,000 hours of hard work and a few lucky opportunities, landed success.”

This should be mandatory reading for Halak, Price and all the Canadiens. People often wonder how to emulate the Red Wings (looking for easy things like signing free agents, or getting a big man for the PP), but nothing can replace the hard work in practice that has kept them on top since the Bowman years and continues with Mike Babcock.

Internal competition

More than a win-you’re-in scheme, I would like to see some serious internal competition. Assuming it’ll be Price/Halak, the seeds are already there.

Here’s an idea of what I might do. From the beginning of the season sit both goalies down. Explain the situation: Carey will play 2/3 of regular season games, Jaro will play 1/3. Here’s where it gets interesting – the goalie who plays best wins the right to the first two playoff games. Stats considered could be saves, wins, giveaways and more. The scoring would be laid out and prorated based on to 2-1 ratio.

The point of the complicated scheme is that these boys have to start caring about being better than each other. That’s the starting point to them caring about exceeding the average level of play across the league. It doesn't have to be this formal (or this complex). Whatever stirs the young men. Hopefully the reward or consequences they can see on a day-to-day basis, with their competition right there will fuel them t work for what they want (one can only hope that's a playoff start...).

Improve communication

On-ice communication, that is.

With a soft-spoken Russian running the D and a couple of shy goalies, it’s no wonder the Canadiens run around following each other all over the defensive zone.

One of the benefits of better practice would be better understanding among players, but also confident leaders will emerge from defensive pairs and goalie teams.

Ultimately one person has to be in charge, otherwise you are just hoping for coverage as a unit...

Upgrade on D

Rather than pouring money into a veteran back-up, it would make more sense to allocate some funds to upgrade the defence at the 1st, 2nd or 3rd D level. That would mean Komisarek could be a comfortable number 4/5 with Gorges and a natural 6th like Bouillon could take his rightful place.

Ultimately, I would like Bouwmeester. He’s young, can skate, can cover the back, has long reach, can shoot and clearly has an understanding of the game. He’s also young and could conceivably still get even better. But Jay may be looking at top top money, and Montreal, handcuffed by the taxes may just not be able to outbid. That’s why I like Johnny Oduya UFA as a target. He’s youngish, from a good system and plays some effective if not spectacular D.

For Price/Halak, the simple addition of a player like Oduya could reduce shots, time in zone and importantly rebounds. It would be a stats enhancer, which in turn could be a big confidence boost to the young goalies.

Defensive coach

Finally, in the same vein, assigning a defencman to coach the defencemen alone could really help overall team defence and by extension the goaltenders.

Nevermind the goalies for a minute. We’ve done nothing but draft defencemen for 4 years – can we really afford to have the brilliant coordinator who came up with the coverage plans we saw this season taking those assets under the wing? I think that answer is clear as day.


If another season is about to get underway with Price pre-selected for important starts, I think it’s high time we start tipping the scales for the boy. Get him a coach who he responds to, get him to practice well and practice hard, light fires under him with competition or whatever fires him up, sort out the defenders and bolster their numbers with people who can defend.

There’s been enough hoping things are going to turn out right. This team mustn’t accept another season launched with hope masqueraded as patience. There are tried and true methods that work.

It’s too late to draft a thoroughbred who comes in and saves the franchise at 19.

It’s too late to develop the most promising prospect the organization has had in a decade in the sensible way.

It’s not too late to install the best coaches possible, sign players that fit the needs and install a work ethic that pays dividends in the spring. It's not too late to take the lessons from the past two seasons on board and apply them to the developing team for the future.

Bruins Take Habs Song, But Used Wrong Script

The Boston Bruins were trying to emulate the Montreal Canadiens by coming back from a 3-1 series deficit with hot goaltending and a renewed team effort.

Instead they aired a repeat of the 2007-08 Canadiens – taking the conference crown, beating their main rival in the first round, only to slip vs. a team they had beaten handily 4 out of 4 times over the year.

It must be said that Bruins prolonged the agony (and interest) longer than last year's round 2 Montrealers, but in the annals of the Stanley Cup they don't make room to record the details of teams who slip two rounds away.

It was the rare piece of satisfaction that remained in these playoffs where only exciting hockey and academic interest remain. The Bruins were the only team left that I either loved or hated – and to see them go (especially after being taunted and lumped under the term disgrace by the collective smugness) was a pleasure. It is also a big feeling of escape, because the Bruins that dominated the Canadiens looked good enough to emerge from the East, and that would be too close for comfort.

Incidentally, the Bruins probably brought it on themselves as it's never a good idea to plagiarise. Same coach as our 3-1 comeback? Michael Ryder? Mark Recchi? It's been done... It's also probably not a good idea borrow a chief rival's fight song (which proved a loser anyway).

[I should note that the song here was "created" by the "Gifted" Losers some time after the Canadiens were eliminated from the playoffs. The Bruins are only one of the teams featured with the interchangeable lyrics (lame). Nevertheless, one hapless Bruins blogger posted it, so...]

The better and original version, with its own lyrics and player contributions is form 1991: "Courtnall in flight man, what a goal!"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Price For Luongo?

A chance at some fun.

Vancouver's not happy with their goalie either. Mike Boone link's to this article from CanWest, which suggests, among other things, trading Luongo for a goalie like (not specifically) Carey Price.

If I was Gainey, I would do this trade. Heck, I'd trade any young goalie (Varlamov, Fleury, Ward) for this guy.

My reasoning is this:

1) Yes, it's true that:
"The winning goaltenders of the Stanley Cup since the last time a "franchise" goaltender - Martin Brodeur in 2003 - backstopped the victorious team have been Khabibulin, Ward, Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Osgood, who has won two Cups already and could make it three this spring. Among the losing finalists' goalies have been Dwayne Roloson and Ray Emery."

However, you have to look at how many franchise goaltenders there even are. Given how few there are, I have a feeling that having someone as good as Luongo (provided you're not as organizationally pathetic as Florida) is probably enough to make the playoffs. He did get 9 shutouts this year (9 wins on his won, that is).

2) We already have Andrei Markov (Vancouver do not). He is signed for two more years and is at his prime. Markov in front of Luongo is better than he is in front of most. Heck, Komisarek might be decent again. Hamrlik would be more reliable. Gorges would probably thrive in an environment where he could afford to slip.

3) Having a franchise goalie fall in your lap is probably better than developing one. Developing a franchise goalie can be painful. He must get starts. He must learn lots. And what you get at the end is probably one contract at his zenith. Sign a guy at his zenith and you get the same thing without the learning. Where's the downside? It costs more, but there's value in being assured at one position like that.

Markov is our core, and he will be for 2 more years (possibly at most). Developing Price for 2/3 more years if it comes off burns those years after which point we have no guarantee of a top-notch defender.

What's more, our prospects are coming up duds, and we'd be lucky to pull a Markov out of the hat there. Fischer might never play a game, let alone be the big dream defender we thought he could be. McDonagh likely won't anchor a team like Chelios, despite the comparisons. That's our best depth, don't even ask about forwards...

Getting a top goalie in now, with Markov, would change our window of contention again. We should (health permtting) be in the game for the deep playoffs again. On top of that, it might actually help the UFA negotiations. Current Habs UFAs might be turned on by the move. League free agents might take notice too.

Chance of this being a straight up trade...

You'd have to think it's very very low. This is a Patrick Roy (not quite) for Jocelyn Thibault deal. Are trades like that made twice?

The chance of either team trading either guy is already miniscule, straight up would be highly unusual. I don't really see many packages sweetening this trade partnership either. It's sheer fantasy really, but is good fun for news-starved fans in the off season.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Carey Price: Thoroughbred In The Gates?

The Cost Of Betting On This Thoroughbred

As promised, my third post on Carey Price will deal with the question of the management of Carey Price and his career trajectory has affected the Canadiens and members of the team.

This piece is not so much about Price as Gainey and the management. It is about how decisions on Price affected everyone else but #31.

Goaltending prospects

The people most directly affected by the decision to promote Price were the other goalies. The first to feel the repercussions of the decision were Yann Danis and Jaroslav Halak who, in effect, were leapfrogged in the depth chart.

Yann Danis, once first in line behind Theodore and Huet, then Aebischer and Huet, was already usurped in 2005-06 by the play of Jaroslav Halak down on the farm, so was not pipped for an NHL job as it happened. Even so, Yann had already had respectable stint in Montreal with 6 GP, a 2.69 GAA and a 0.908 Save %. And, considering all the hard work he had put in to get from a non-scouted program in the Ivy League to an NHL club, we were impressed. It has to be said, that surpasssed by Halak or not, by 2006-07, Yann’s seasons in Hamilton had proven his mettle. He could not have expected a junior to bump him so quickly and, had he been a lesser man, he probably would have been a bit more put out than he was to see Boy Wonder come in and take everything by right.

Jaroslav Halak was probably even more aggrieved. He had made a real mark in the Canadiens ranks while junior goalies were having their fun. In 2005-06, he put up stunning stats in the ECHL to earn a promotion, then in Hamilton he went on to replicate his form in 13 games with 7 wins, a 2.29 GAA and a 0.927 Save %. 2006-07 he was even better wresting the starting role from a pretty good Yann Danis, posting the best stats in the AHL over 28 starts (2.00 GAA and 0.932 Save %). As reward for his play, he was promoted to the Canadiens and got them into playoff contention with 10 wins in his first 16 NHL games under pressure cooker conditions. Not only that, he posted 2 shutouts in tight wins against the rival Bruins (1-0 and 2-0 – must be the last 1-0 win we’ve had) and did what it took in his typical fashion with a 0.906 save %.

2007-08 Training camp

It didn’t stop there, Jaro came in and performed best of the 4 goalies (including Huet) at training camp and looked to be restating a case he had made the last spring.

Alas, both Danis and Halak were demoted in favour of Price. At the time, I recall some ridiculous claims that Price had nothing to learn in Hamilton (which got me really angry at the time). I think, my friends, that if anything has been proven over the past two seasons it’s that carey price had plenty to learn in Hamilton.

Back to the point. The effect that initial demotion had on Danis and, unitl then, ultra-confident Jaroslav Halak could have been devastating. In fact, it was devastating for Danis as he slipped lower than any previous form would suggest he would and for Halak, at least initially, it seemed it was bad news as well. He was devastated:
“Firstly, there was no doubting Halak’s disappointment about being sent down to Hamilton this fall at the conclusion of the Canadiens training camp. Not only was it widely reported in the Montreal Gazette but his coach in Hamilton, Don Lever commented on it as a possible reason for Halak’s poor start with the Bulldogs.”

The fact he bounced back was lucky and good news for the Canadiens. It proved that Jaroslav Halak had backbone and determination. But one has to wonder how much more the guy can take.

The training camp demotion, after all, proved to be a harbinger for things to come. First, there was his call up for five games in December 2007 where he didn’t get a start, and only saw 20 minutes of action after Carey had let in 4 and lost the game. It was during a stretch where the Habs were struggling all around, so it looked hopeful for him – but he was sent back down empty handed. The next stint was worse. Called up for 12 games as Golden Balls nursed his wounds (and waited out his time where he had nothing to learn) in Hamilton, Jaro managed a mere 20 minutes again. The fact that Huet was purported to fatigue and the Halak posted 20 minutes of shutout hockey did nothing to win him a call. The slap in the face would come as Carey Price started in his second game back.

The next time Halak would see the light of NHL day was after the Huet trade. At that time, Gainey declared he was going with Price (not Price and Halak). Jaro would get his long-awaited permanent position in Montreal, but nary a start. Carey played well, but for someone who was so convinced of his tired excuse in May, one might have thought caution and a few Halak starts could have paid off. Jaro instead continued to get brow-beaten and played 4 more games before Price’s playoff meltdown.

We know the story from there. Although he gets the nod in September 2008 to be the #2 guy, when the chips are down, Halak is always passed over, and only an injury to Price really afforded him a decent chance.

I will listen to a lot of reasonable arguments about how Price and Halak differ and compare in terms of potential. But, I will not be moved from thinking that 2 full seasons of outright favouritism have not harmed the Slovak. Where once he was the man who came in and confidently won 10 virtual playoff games in March, he is now so nervy that he can’t put two periods together.

If you ask me, the Canadiens have done a horrible job at managing the man who probably should have been treated as the #2 or #3 prospect in the organization. And for what?

Cristobal Huet

Another man greatly affected by the decisions on how to manage Carey Price’s career was Cristobal Huet. It must be said that at times he benefitted, while at other times he suffered.

There was no question that Huet would be coming out of the 2007 training camp on the Canadiens team, so the decision to promote Price was of limited impact for him. If anything, it probably gave him more starts initially as the coaches tried to wean Carey onto his NHL diet. The same would be true when Carey was demoted. Halak could not play, because if he did, and played well, there would be a dilemma – one good goalie would have to be moved to make way for Carey Price when he was to be reinstated as per the plan. This period gave Cristobal another chance like he had in 2005-06 to take the bull by the horns. He did. That January was a defining moment for the Habs and Cris made it happen with an 8-3-1 record.

But Carey would not wait. Cristobal who was an all-star, played like an all-star in January, would slip in February. Not much, but enough for Gainey to move. There was a game that Huet and the Canadiens blew a 3-0 lead against the Rangers to lose 5-3, a game where he let in 3 goals on 4 shots (over the first 5 minutes) and a final 5-4 loss to Pitsburgh. That combined with Carey’s three consecutive wins (and convenient omission of the fact he too dug a 3-0 first period hole on 11 shots over 14 minutes – which Huet and the Habs would overcome) meant Carey was ready and Cristobal was done.

We knew pretty well at the time that the decision was mostly for Price’s benefit, because who trades an all-star goalie from a first-place contending team when the new back-up would have 40 minutes of NHL play that year for a second round draft pick? We know now for certain, because Gainey has said as much in his end-of-season interview.

The decision was a blessing in some ways to Huet as he surged and outplayed his protégé to vault the hot Capitals into the playoffs. It would be the streak that won him a massive contract, and he has Bob Gainey’s Carey Price fixation to thank for lifetime financial stability.

But in another way it took Cristobal from a team due to contend at that time and onto one that wouldn’t be ready – not with the defensive corps they had, and one which Ovechkin was still dragging largely without Semin and Backstrom’s help. It took a chance at a long playoff run away from Cristobal (the man who’s first into the third round this season). It also removed him from the teammates he had grown close to and cared most for.

Guy Carbonneau

It’s difficult to tease apart just how much say Guy Carbonneau had in the Carey Price situation. In the good times, I’m sure he was as much a Price advocate as anyone. What we do know is that Carbo, fresh off assisting for Halak’s sweet run was pretty keen on keeping the young Slovak around for the start of the 2007-08 season. He was quoted on it, and it was well aired at the time.

One doesn’t know how much his decisions over the rest of that season were dictated from above, but it seems unlikely that a coach who at one time is happy to stick with a goalie for 12 straight games during the tough part of the schedule would then turn around, suggest that goalie be traded and go al the rest of the way with the boy demoted then promoted from Hamilton.

This season, I’d suggest the same. Carbo showed a tendency for sticking with the “hot hand” and when it was working for the team, he didn’t care what their mother tongue was. I personally think it’s quite telling that Carbonneau and his coaches turned the team around (or rather were there when the team turned around), but was dismissed the very minute that Jaro recovered from his flu.

At the time, I wrote this:
“Carbonneau and Gainey are known to have disagreed about Halak and Price in the first place. Halak was finally playing, and then suddenly (boom) Golden Glove is back in. I don't know if it was the coach's decision (I'm guessing not) or the GM's. I suspect we will find out when the starter for the Edmonton game is announced. Is this enough for dismissal. If the rift has been going on ever since it started, and the GM is tired - then quite possibly, yes.”

What we know now is that the reasons for Carbo’s dismissal were compound. It’s worth noting that Price, not Halak, started that Edmonton game, though; as well as 14 of the 19 remaining games for the season. Good games were no longer guarantees for next start, nor bad games guarantee of the hook. It’s questionable whether 3 wins in 10 would have trumped 2 wins in 5 if Carbo were calling the shots. Based on precedent, he wouldn’t have.

If Carbonneau wasn’t affected day-to-day by meddling, he was definitely broadly affected by the GM’s consecutive decisions to promote and develop Price, come what may. It is said that a GM is paid to work with a 5-year window, whereas a coach is paid to work with a 1-game window. In this case, I don’t think the two strategies meshed. I also think the words that were likely thrown around about that fact played at least some part in Carbo’s fate.

The other coaches

While the other coaches are all gainfully employed by the Canadiens at this moment in time, odds say they won’t be in September.

Of all decisions taken, the Huet trade probably affected the assistants most. From that point, they had to deal with goalies whose confidence was fragile and whose puck control was, well below the standard they were used to. Plying games to get Carey Price big league experience doesn’t fit well with the winning that is required from coaches on the ground.

Roman Hamrlik

Roman Hamrlik is the biggest free agent signing the Canadiens have made since Kovalev. Being both a veteran and a defenceman, he likely chose his destination carefully – looking at organizational strengths, potential partners and even goalies.

When he signed up, he was joining a team with an all-star goalie, the number one PP and a very solid #1/2 pair of defencemen. Things looked good in Montreal. He probably thought: out-perform Souray (easy) and we’re in with a chance.

Well, that’s exactly how it went. But it all looks a bit differently today doesn’t it?

As it stands right now, with 2 years left on Hamrlik’s contract, the Canadiens have multiple free agents who probably won’t be back. And given the factors like less bring-home pay, they are unlikely to upgrade in the UFA market. What’s more, the GM has committed to Carey Price, which even the GM has finally realised is a waiting game.

I use Hamrlik as an example because, frankly, does anyone think he would have signed up had he known that he would be part of the Carey Price tutoring program. Nevermind how Price or Halak played, does anyone think he or any other veteran D looking for a potential contender would have gone with a team that opted to go with a 20-year-old and a 22-year-old and no one behind them? Didn't think so...


As an extension on the Hamrlik theme, I think Gainey’s pronouncements on Carey Price will likely send stirs into the UFA signing period as well.

To put it simply, I think Gainey pressed reset on his 5-year plan. Don’t you?

Now the message is out there though – our GM is willing to be make decisions that favour the 5-year career projection of one man vs. the next game’s performance for the team. Some players might rightly call it what it is – a rebuilding stage.

My feeling on this is that it will affect not only new talent we are trying to attract, but also remaining talent who have experienced one rebuilding process too many. Building a championship team is about timing, and I think even the most optimistic won’t be betting on Carey Price’s progression to take him from January 2009 form to Roy 1989 form. This group includes players we won’t find equivalents for like Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev and others (thank goodness Markov is signed). From outside, why would Bouwmeester, Lecavalier or Marian Hossa pay so much more tax to hope for the best?

Fans like you and me

Bob Gainey has to start appreciating the concerns of fans. The fans were told to be patient because Gainey would be implementing a 5-year plan. The end of our best chance at a Cup in spectacular fashion: patience. Carey Price is young: patience. The end of this season: patience.

Last year was the 5th year of his grace period you know, which actually for the most part looked to be coming to fruition. He preaches patience, which is fine; but no one asked him to press reset in the fifth year of the plan when the team is on the verge of vanquishing Ottawa’s hold on first. No one gave him permission to lower the bar for himself, yet again.

Personally, after giving him the 5-year benefit of the doubt, I felt a little bit cheated when the 2008 playoffs were earmarked for Playoffs 101 class for our young apprentice.

It was all the more puzzling that it would have happened anyway (with patience), given that we would have been very accepting of losing Huet in a bidding war that ended up with Cristobal vastly overpaid. At that point, we’d have all accepted the need to proceed with our two promising youngsters.

As it is, I feel like the organization didn’t give their best shot last season. I feel disgusted when I hear Bob Gainey say he expected the playoff loss in 2008 (and even 2009, now) and that we should have all accepted it too.

Gainey’s mess

Though this piece revolves around young Carey Price; the implications have nothing to do with him, thoroughbred or not.

The onus on evaluating his talent and demeanour (and fatigue levels if we’re still giving him that excuse) fell at the feet of the GM. It seems to me that in this regard Bob Gainey made errors here, many of them. Worse still, he seems to have tried to cover his tracks by making more errors and not admitting a temporary defeat.

Jack Todd, on form as if he were nailing it to Loria said:
“If Gainey does come back, he is going to have to accept that, after running this team since 2003, he can no longer pawn off his failures on Réjean Houle or André Savard. For better or for worse, this was the Gainey show, and so far it has produced more failure than success.”
He’s right. For me, his handling of this prospect (thrown to the wolves, as Jack put it) is first and foremost among his mis-steps.

Luckily, I do have some advice for Bob (if he’s reading). I’m actually relaying this to him from a comment more than a year ago – I can't remember which commenter hit the nail on the head – the advice went something like this:

"It is Bob Gainey's job to manage the Montreal Canadiens. It is not his job to manage Carey Price's career."

I think a little reminder, considering all now left in the wake, might be in order.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Top 100 Sporting Events

Habs Make The Cut

A friend of mine called my attention to a recently published book called The 100 Sporting Events You Must See Live: An Insider's Guide to Creating the Sports Experience of a Lifetime.

I would recommend you go and buy it, but then I don't think any of you guys want to trawl a list that includes nearly 25 college football and basketball games but allows only enough space for 4 hockey events. By and large it is an awfully US-centric view. And I bet many Americans could be turned off by the small town feel of it.

I am bringing your attention to it here, because: a) Hockey season is over and b) the Canadiens happen to make the cut. I have plenty else to say about, though...

I managed to get the whole list without buying the book through this Japanese website that promotes the book with the Table of Contents:

1 Masters
2 World Cup
3 Super Bowl
4 Summer Olympics
5 Army vs. Navy Football Game
6 New York City Marathon
7 World Series
8 Winter Olympics
9 Red Sox vs. Yankees at Yankee Stadium
10 UNC vs. Duke Basketball Game at Cameron Indoor Stadium
11 Wimblebon
12 Stanley Cup
13 Tour de France
14 Cubs Game at Wrigley Field
15 BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans
16 Liverpool vs. Manchester United at Old Trafford
17 Michigan vs. Ohio State at The Big House
18 NFL Conference Championships
19 Daytona 500
20 Final Four---NCAA Men's Basketball
21 Ryder Cup
22 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend
23 Harvard vs. Yale at Yale
24 Kentucky Derby
25 UEFA Champions League
26 Rose Bowl
27 British Open
28 Horse Racing at Saratoga
29 Late Season Green Bay Packers Game at Lambeau Field
30 Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs in Toronto
31 Indy 500
32 Professional Bull Riders World Finals
33 Dubai World Cup
34 Hong Kong Sevens
35 Monaco Grand Prix
36 Running of the Bulls
37 Rugby World Cup
38 Red River Shootout
39 Notre Dame Football Game
40 MLB All-Star Game
41 Iron Bowl at Alabama
42 Epsom Derby
43 Calgary Stampede
44 Koshien Baseball Tournament
45 Special Olympics
46 Soccer Game at Maracana Stadium in Rio
47 Texas Football Friday Night Lights in Odessa
48 U. S. Open Tennis Tournament
49 USC vs. UCLA Basketball Game at Pauley Pavillion
50 Le Mans 24
51 Ironman World Championship
52 Iowa vs. Iowa State Wrestling Meet at Iowa
53 Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden
54 French Open
55 Baseball Game at Fenway Park
56 Belmont Stakes
57 Kangaroos Australian Football Game
58 Heavyweight Title Fight at Madison Square Garden
59 All Blacks Rugby Game
60 ACC Basketball Tournament
61 Caribbean World Series
62 FA Cup
63 Indiana High School Basketball Tournament Finals
64 U.S. Open Golf Tournament
65 Midnight Madness at University of Kentucky
66 Preakness Stakes
67 NFL Draft
68 National Finals Rodeo
69 Basketball Game at PHog Allen Fieldhouse
70 Basketball Game at Madison Square Garden
71 Prefontaine Classic
72 MLB Opening Day in Cincinnati
73 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest
74 Iditarod
75 Little 500
76 Basketball game at Rucker Park, Harlem, NY
77 Boston Marathon
78 Cowboys Monday Night Football Game in Dallas
79 Head of the Charles Regatta
80 Florida vs. Georgia Football Game
81 Lady Vols Basketball Game
82 NBA All-Star Game
83 Pipeline Surfing
84 Australian Open Tennis Tournament
85 Baseball Game at Rickwood Field in Alabama
86 Harlem Globetrotters Performance
87 Spring Training Game at Tigertown
88 Backyard Brawl in Morgantown
89 London Marathon
90 Penn Relays
91 Presidents Cup
92 World Junior Hockey Championship
93 Westminster Dog Show
94 NFL Hall of Fame Induction
95 NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championship
96 College Baseball World Series
97 Beanpot Hockey Tournament
98 Bayou Classic
99 Little League World Series
100 UFC Title Fight

You can see the obvious problems with the list right away. The top 10 alone has 2 college games. It only gets worse from there. I'm afraid event the most hearty argument from a fan of the West Virginian College football scene would probably fail to convince me that I would rather see that than the grievously omitted European Championships of football (aka Euro), or even a Memorial Cup hockey game.

One review of the book said the fun part is to look down the list and check all the things you've seen and all the things you have yet to witness. Personally, I had more fun in counting the events in which I had no interest whatsoever, either before or after this list (a good 50, if I'm honest). The second most fun I had was counting the things I'd never heard of before, yet still ranking ahead of the Euro (Midnight Madness anyone?).


We are all aware that Americans don't like hockey and that our sport is under-appreciated, so in a way it's nice to even see the Stanley Cup at #12. Of course, anyone who'd rather watch a marathon than a Stanley Cup final game can't really be trusted to write a list, can they? But it's there. Even as a hockey fan, I have to admit that the Olympics and the World Cup are just bigger, and fair play to the Masters, World Series and Super Bowl (though not my choices).

You can also tell this homer doesn't know much about hockey at all, because he would also rather watch the Habs and Leafs at the cavernous ACC than at the raucous Bell Centre.

And why would anyone want to watch the Beanpot hockey tournament, which promises to send 4 checking line wingers to the NHL one day over the Memorial Cup which is an intense and talent-packed hockey event?

I'm sure you have some opinions of your own as well, but I was thinking of a few other hockey games I'd rather take in than a dog show, a hot dog eating contest and a high school basketball game...

1. Winter Classic (any teams)
2. Battle of Alberta (Edmonton)
3. Sweden vs. Finland
4. Spengler Cup (Davos, Switzerland)
5. Montreal vs. Boston (Montreal)

Other things I'd probably put on the list. Hmm, maybe a cricket match, Kitzbuehel downhill, Barcelona v Madrid, the Dragon boat festival in China, Sumo Grand Championships, European Championships, US Olympic Swimming trials...

What do you all think?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Carey Price: Thoroughbred In The Gates?

Are These Thoroughbred Trends?

As promised, my second post on Carey Price will deal with the question as to whether he is a thoroughbred or not. This piece is not a debate about Halak or Price (that may come later), just the thoroughbred issue.

Carey Price 2008-2009

This season is touted as a season to forget for Carey Price, but I don't think that on the whole is being very fair. I only have to look at my own writings for reminders, like this from the mid-term analysis:

Carey Price: A+
Top ten in multiple categories in NHL rankings, his contribution to the Habs has been undeniable so far. His value to the fan, as we've seen during Halak's reign, is that he positions himself so well and so far ahead of the play that many saves look too easy. Only a year into his career, to be A+ on a 56-point team midway through the season is an impressive feat. Tough tests to come though, no doubt.

But it wasn't 20 minutes of play after that post before Carey began an atrocious stretch of the season that lasted an unacceptable 14 starts and 6 weeks in all. The beginning of the downfall may have been to injury or, if you buy my pet theory, may have been the How-to-score-on-Price seminar, aka the Youngstars game, in January.

His statistics over that 14-start stretch include a 3.91 GAA, an Aebischeresque 0.862 save percentage and a paltry 5 points from a possible 28 for his team. Conversely, the other 38 games look quite acceptable indeed with a 2.46 GAA, a 0.919 save %, with a contender-like 21 wins and 9 OTLs.

Consider also that in the 14-games of putridity he had a save % under 0.900 on 8 occasions, whereas in his first 25 games that only happened on 6 occasions.

As though letting in nearly 4 goals a game weren't bad enough, it was the style in which he did it in the confidence-sapping stretch of the season that killed the team's morale almost completely by early March. It was goals within the first ten shots ten times and within the first five shots on five occasions. It was goals on consecutive opposition shots (3 times). And it was the untimely way he faltered, such as after the team got a lead or clawed back to tie it up.

All of these things happen to Marin Brodeur once in a while (see playoffs 2009) and to the next tier down a little more. And they happen to average goalies for long stretches.

But isn't that the point? Is he or is he not above average? (A thoroughbred does not conjure thoughts of running in the pack) Perhaps more pertinent, do great goalies start as average/below-average goalies (do thoroughbreds)? To get to the bottom of it, I had a look at some nice stats.

Quality shot stats

Anyone who has been watching Carey Price over the last year (starting specifically at the Philadelphia series) must surely have noticed that good shooters with a good amount of time seem to be able to beat him more than we'd like them to. Anyone who gets sight of the top of the net seems to score. Of course, the defence is heavily to blame for letting so many good shooters get so many good shots away, but there comes a point when you have to wonder -- is Umberger a good shot. If he is, who isn't?

From a subjective point of view, once you get this idea in your mind you start seeing what you want to see. That can be a problem if a goalie lets in high shots game after game. Witness Kostadis' point in the comments to the introductory portion of this series. He notes that Carey Price makes plenty of outstanding saves in some games where we end up un-doming him. Usually because we see the eventual gamewinner as a misplay. So a more objective approach is required from someone so tainted as me, stats...

Quality of shot analysis

For this part of the analysis, I sought some evidence of shot quality from statistics to probe the question properly. The first ones I found were the Behind The Net analysis based on shot quality at 5-on-5.

Here Carey proves himself to be better than average (first pleasant surprise). Based on the average ability to save shots form the positions they came from, we should have expected Carey to let in 93 goals (92.7 actuall) on 1027 shots at even strength. In play, he only let in 88 even strength goals - saving 5 goals more than he should have - good news.

I took it a step further to do some save percentage on these numbers. Basically, I calculated how many goals each goalie saved over and above the expected and divided by the number of goals expected. What this gives us is a statistic that I have called clutch saves; it gives some guide as to what's been happening with "clutch" goaltending this season.

Carey's 4.7 goals saved over 92.7 expected goals means he saves 5.1% of shots that he would have no business saving (if he were average). Very good, I thought.

Furthermore, this percentage puts Price about 32nd among goalies who play enough to warrant consideration. If you look at NHL starters, he's 18th. And if you chuck in Varlamov for good measure, Price is 19th.

The top 5 in the league are all still alive in the playoffs:

Tim Thomas (29.2%)
Simeon Varlamov (26.6%)
Roberto Luongo (26.6%)
Nikolai Khabibulin (26.4%)
Jonas Hiller (22.6%)

Others worth noting:

Henrik Lundqvist (20.8%)
Tomas Vokoun (20.7%)
Martin Brodeur (20.5%)
Pekka Rinne (15.5%)
Steve Mason (13.7%)
Jaroslav Halak (13.4%)
Cristobal Huet (13.2%)
Yann Danis (12.3%)
Cam Ward (12.2%)
Marc-Andre Fluery (3.2%)
Chris Osgood (-6.7%)
Mikka Kiprusoff (-10%)

What does this mean?

Well, it means he's average - or at least he was for the enire season.

The problem here is that averages include all goalies who play in the NHL, not just the 30 starters. So when Pogge (worst in the league, btw) steps in an lets up 9 more goals than expected in 7 games, Carey is compared to that. What's more, for me, where he currently sits is not thoroughbred territory - too many thoroughbreds are ahead of him (some almost as young).

His save percentage, though, at even strength is still a plump 0.914, so no decisive knock-down here. Based on this analysis, his toroughbred status hangs on.

Penalty-kill save %

Behind the Net also has a whole raft of other stats if you're that way inclined. For the second look, I decided to show you goalie performance while his team is a man down. The reason I choose this is because the shot quality analysis isn't done for anything but ES, also it seems logical that shots are better set up on the PP than at ES.

These stats offer a bit of a quick and rude awakening for all those people who support Carey's thorough breeding. If you look across the season for the whole league, Carey Price is in fact the worst starter across all teams in terms of save percentage on the PK. On an average of 38.6 shots per 60 minutes of PP time, Carey Price allowed an average of 7.61 goals. That means his save % was a rather embarrassing 0.803 at 4-on-5.

Now, PP shots are harder to save you say. Of course they are. But the average NHL goalie has a save % of 0.852, and that includes every weak link there is (like Mathieu Garon who saves just over 75% of PP shots in 20 games). Some good goalies have low save percentages here (Brodeur, for example at 0.816), but many don't. Thoroughbreds shouln't, I say.

The top 5 starters in the league here are:

Nicklas Backstrom (0.923)
Henrik Lundqvist (0.918)
Martin Biron (0.894)
Simeon Varlamov (0.893)
Tim Thomas (0.888)

Others to note are:

Craig Anderson (0.910)
Jaroslav Halak (0.890)
Mikka Kiprusoff (0.888)
Pekka Rinne (0.887)
Steve Mason (0.870)
Marc-Andre Fleury (0.867)
Cristobal Huet (0.866)
Jonas Hiller (0.862)
Cam Ward (0.862)
Jose Theodore (0.845)
Yann Danis (0.833)
Roberto Luongo (0.833)

What does this mean?

Well not much on its own. If Carey had been Halak-efficient it would have meant a mere 2 goals less. It's not a case on its own, but as things add up, it certainly seems to follow the pattern. It's another hit against the thoroughbred hypothesis.

Giving a chance to win

In response to Kostadis' case that LIW is wrong about Halak > Price (which is not the point of this piece, rather whether Price = thoroughbred), I thought I could take a similar approach.

He claims, that Carey Price gave the Canadiens a chance to win in 33 games of 49 (so 67.3%), whereas Halak only gave them 52.9% chance. I'll start by pointing out neither goalies stats are based on starts, which I thought they should be. Price goes up and so does Halak, with this tweak. Halak, for his part, gave opportunity for wins in 19/33, or 57.6%.

I thought I would look at things a bit closer. For can we really say that a goalie who loses in OT always gives his team a chance to win. In reality, you say, we can. And I concede on that. But for us at Lions in Winter, we generally look at how many goals a goalie allows to decide whether that would allow a win on most nights (i.e., those where his team doesn't win 6-5). While each goalie loses a couple of games this way, this subjective method actually works in the goalie's favour, since games that are lost 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 can be counted as games he gave his team a chance to win.

By this criteria, nothing really changes. But if you get generous and say that 3 GAs is a reasonable amount for a goalie in a league where average GAA is parked in between 2 and 3 year-upon-year, then it gets interesting.

Carey Price, by the 3-goal criteria, actually gave his team a chance to win 73% of the time. And, lo and behold, Jaroslav Halak gave his team a chance to win an incredible 73% of the time. Funny that it would be equal.

By this criteria, Carey has to win. But only against Halak. It doesn't really prove that anyone is or isn't a thoroughbred. After all, no one has ever accused 9th round QMJHL alum Halak of being thoroughly bred. For that we need to look at goalies on other teams - ones that actually win.

Quickly for illustration I looked at Tim Thomas, Roberto Luongo, Cam Ward and Pekka Rinne.

Tim Thomas by the first criteria (W and OTLs) gave his team a chance to win 79.6% of the time. If you guve him the 3 goal benefit of the doubt that's 83.3% of the time.

Roberto Luongo gave 74.1% and 74.1%.

Cam Ward gave 64.7% and 76.5%.

Rinne gave 67.3% and 81.6%.

This is not a random sample, but I think it's a fair group to sample if you want to look at thoroughbreds. While Carey Price and Halak look OK in isolation, in the light of day they don't stack up to Thomas or Rinne. They come close to Luongo, but to be fair to Roberto, he did have 9 shutouts which mean automatic points (not just chance at), both our guys mustered only 1 of those. I think this category shows Carey in a much better light than the other two. What's more, given his age, I think you could argue that giving his team a 73% chance to win is pretty darn goosd. Is it thoroughbred stuff? Let me just say, I'd rather have Rinne based on this season... (is he a thoroughbred?)

One streak to skew all stats

There's a very very solid case to be made that it was all due to one bad streak. But was it just a bad streak? Did 14 games destroy everything? It's a valid argument, I concede.

For me it's about trends, though. If this were the very first slump from Carey Price, then I'm sure it would be water off a ducks back. It's not though, and a responsible scientist like myself has to ask whether the good is the aberration, or the bad. Those of us counting will note that Carey Price has had a few breakdowns since his arrival with the team. To be generous (and a bit facetious) I'll call these non-thoroughbred episodes, or NTEs. The more research-minded among us will note that he also had a pretty long NTE the season following his selection in the first round, not to mention his blow-up in the WHL playoffs that year. So to enumerate the NTEs:

1) 2005-06 Tri-City Americans
2) January 2008 Montreal and Hamilton
3) April 2008 Round 2 Montreal vs. Philadelphia
4) January and February 2009 Montreal (the aforementioned 14 games)
5) April 2009 Round 1 Montreal vs. Boston

That of course allows us to paint every stretch in between as one where the opposite position is held (i.e., a thoroughbred stretch):

1) 2006-07 All teams (Tri-City, Canada, Hamilton)
2) October to December 2007 Montreal
3) February to April 2008 Montreal (including Round 1 vs. Boston)
4) October to December 2008 Montreal
5) March 2009

On balance there are as many good games as bad in there, and most games are probably just adequate or average (less than 3 goals, saving 90% of shots). What we have is a pint glass with half a pint of beer and half a pint of air. If you go for the glass half full approach, you see the Gold medal for Canada the Calder Cup, the end of the 2007-08 season and Round 1 and the very sturdy beginning for this last season. It all adds up for you. The glass half empty perspective notices the floundering in the playoffs, the 14-game stretch to forget and the easy goals, and starts to question whether sub-NHL success will ever be translated.

I've come to the end of this and realise that despite a lot of stats, not much has changed. I haven't proved that Carey Price is not a thoroughbred, nor can we look and say that he is one. I think I would conclude that there is plenty of reason to question whether his progression will be as smoothe as some assure us it will be. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that anyone who says he's not a thoroughbred is at least as sane as someone who purports he is. I think that's all I wanted to do - prove our point of view on this isn't as crazy as some make it out to be.

What I can say with some assurance is that this season he was not a great goalie. On average he was an average goalie. Is that good for 21? I don't know.

I think we'll have to wait and see what happens by next season on this one. Maybe even wait until the next playoff test. Given that Gainey is basing our team around this guy come hell or high water, I'd recommend to anyone that hasn't already dedicated 50 blog pages to this to take the glass half full approach -- it'll be better for your sanity.

Carey Price: Thoroughbred In The Gates?

At his press conference, Bob Gainey was asked why he kept turning to Carey Price, despite the fact that the reporter, his wife, and a multitude of fans thought an alternative approach was called for.

Bob, finding a chance to wriggle out of the question, decided to make jokes about the reporter's wife. Laughter ensued and lost in the analysis was his response.

His response, after his joke, was that Carey Price is, and I quote, "a thoroughbred". The other part of the answer was that Bob made this decision more than a year ago when he decided to trade Cristobal Huet.

It seems that one decision carries a lot of weight in this organisation as Gainey is prepared to stick by it regardless of what fans think, regardless of wins and losses and regardless of other players' careers being trampled in the process.

This is all well and good and maybe Bob Gainey is right.

But here at Lions in Winter, we are not as easy to please as most, nor do we just roll over in the face of a good old debate. We think (and you'll know that if you're a regular reader) that there is certainly a reasonable margin of doubt as to what Gainey has to say about his protege is accurate, and we're going to put forward our case for consideration.

Since this is a big issue and we have plenty of time before the next game, I have decided to portion out this argument into segments.

The first question I want to deal with is whether Carey Price is or isn't a thoroughbred at all. I have scoured some stats to come up with my side of the argument and I expected to meet some resistance in the comments (which I welcome).

The second topic I want to address is the way that Carey has been handled by the organization; and, moreover, how drafting Carey Price in 2005 has affected how every other player in the organization is handled.

Finally, the third segment deals with the practicalities of dealing with the seemingly inevitable – that is having Carey price as our starting goalie for the next 5 years. Here things like veteran back-ups, shoring up the defence and strategy adjustments are presented.

[I'll keep this post at the top of the blog until all sections are complete and update the links when available. Hope you enjoy.]

As an aside, I thought with all the attention on the young man, there would be some calls for us to cease and desist as there usually are. In anticipation of this I offer:

Is Lions in Winter out to get Carey Price?

The simple answer is no.

The minute a player steps onto the ice for a competitive game in the uniform we love, we support that player. We support this team to win.

It is the very same with Carey Price. When Carey starts a game we very much hope for a shutout each time out. We cheer his saves and wish him on.

It has to be said that we created a bit of a monster with the dome when we set it up – particularly the goalies. Unlike other blogs, we have a requirement to address the goaltending in a specific section 86 times a season – which means that goalies seem to be garnering a whole lot of attention. Such is the position, we say. You need a goalie for every game; that one player is on the ice for 60 minutes; so it seems natural to us that he get a lot of attention.

We also made a choice early on (despite comments that thought we were being ridiculous): to use the dome position to put in the back-up when we felt the goalie had a bad game. So when Carey Price lets in 2 bad goals in a loss and we put Halak in the dome, it simply means Carey Price had a bad game in our estimation and the other guy (whoever it is) gets the mention. This goalie selection for the dome has already been the focal point for so many good comments and stimulated the best discussions, that it would be a shame to get rid of it – even at the risk of seeming entrenched on positions at times.

Outside the game reports, Carey has had a lot of the spotlight, but in our defence it was not brought on by us alone. All I've ever wanted is to open the discourse on the seemingly closed book about Price being can't miss in this league. That's not to say I don't think he's the closest thing to can't miss that we currently have, or have had in a decade. And it is the golden ticket issued to Price that we take most issue with, not his worthiness for the Sainte Flanelle.

All that said, this latest piece is what we call an elephant in the room – we just feel someone needed to talk about it. I invite you to join in as you will.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bettman Selective In Remembering

"We fix the problems. We don't run out on cities."

Except in cases where teams move from hockey markets to experimental sun-belt cities. I can't think of an example of one of those gone wrong though...

Bettman also alluded to:
A move to southern Ontario, where the league already has a successful team in the Toronto Maple Leafs, would represent a retrenchment for the NHL.

Again, a bit selective as we have to watch two teams duke it out in LA for some reason and then 2 other teams and a farm club play in the Big Apple.

Out With The Pride: In With A Real D

I know this organization values its own reputation more than anything, and that seems to extend to its reputation of hanging on to the wrong players while valiantly trying to make them play in ways they were never born to.

But as we are already hanging on to one massive project at the back to save face, would we be comfortable in saying that perhaps the project in trying to turn a man who happens to be 6'4" into an NHL defenceman?

Mike Boone wonders 'akey' about what it might take to sign Mike Komisarek.

Pardon me for looking right past Mike's name and to that of Jay Bouwmeester in the very same article. The way I see it, we should try dabbling with young defenders developed by competent defence coaches rather than hope another might slip through under our noses here like Markov did.

If Mike Komisarek is to be paid $5 million a year, I would happily see an extra $3 mil a year off to watch him try to set the all-time record for meaningless hits on another team while Jay-Bo forms the second partnership we crave in front of the Apprentice.

We like Mike K, but if he's going to be unreasonable about his value as Souray was before him, then we can do better things with our money. If the salary cap ever fell and Mike Komisarek was taking up more than 10% of our salary base, it would indeed be a sad day for the team.

Alternative solution

Bridesmaid Bob Gainey could anticipate losing that battle of tax-free salary right now, however, and simply set his sights on a minor upgrade at the back (whether or no he offers a savings on Komo's contract).

One I've had my eye on for a while, and who could be a UFA on the right date is Johnny Oduya. He's not technically as big as Mike Komisarek, but perhaps the fear that he'll play good defence will go further than the fear you might be checked just before celebrating your teammate's goal next year. One can only hope. He might also be amenable to playing for his true value.

Other ways to better spend $5 million: Matthias Ohlund, Alex Kovalev, part of Scott Niedermayer, and indeed Mike Komisarek plus the other $2.5 million player we could sign if he took a sane raise.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Robinson Leaves Door Ajar

Apparently, Larry Robinson is at least interested in the possibility of coaching the Canadiens. Says so here on RDS (hopes up? – proceed with caution, it’s RDS).

The first encouraging thing about this is that not everyone in the known world is afraid of the Montreal media and the attention from the fans. The second encouraging thing is that Larry knows a thing or two about defence and has made some pretty average players into league-wide exemplars of the back end.

As far as I’m aware, Larry Robinson does not really meet the francophone criterion set forth by team president Pierre Boivin, though he probably gets by in French. But if there’s anyone who can skirt that rule it will be a Canadiens hall-of-famer. We should take advantage of that possibility while we can, because pretty soon the youngest hall-of-famer will be in retirement.

The downside of Larry Robinson is his record as a head coach. Apart from his consecutive Stanley Cup finals with NJ when blessed with Niedermayer and Brodeur in their primes, as well as a then healthy Scott Stevens; Larry hasn’t been that impressive. He also withdrew from coaching the Devils because the pressure was getting to him – you heard right, the Devils. He seems to thrive as an assistant coach, however. And, I think we all hoped he might fit into that role here too.

If you think about that scenario, you could almost have Larry coaching the team and token other guy as the face for the media, but who essentially performs the role of assistant in decision making and coaching capacities. I think something like that could really work.

The fact that it’s even a possibility is very encouraging indeed.