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
New Jersey 0.913
Tampa Bay 0.911
St Louis 0.909
San Jose 0.908
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
New Jersey 1596
Tampa Bay 1637
St Louis 1732
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
New Jersey 138.4
Tampa Bay 145.5
St Louis 157.1
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...