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...

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