Monday, August 10, 2009

Canadiens Outlook

The Expected Impact Of Jacques Martin

A couple of days ago, I saw a reporter joking about Bob Gainey's first answer when he's eventually asked the question about who he thinks his best off-season acquisition was. The reporter suggested that there will be no hesitation and Gainey will offer the name of Jacques Martin.

It's a joke because that's what Bob Gainey said this past winter when asked about his best move of the summer – replying without taking a breath that it was Guy Carbonneau. No sooner had he said it, was Guy losing games like a southern expansion franchise and earning his multi-million dollar salary for relaxing days on the golf course in March.

I can hear Bob Gainey giving the anticipated response. For one thing, he has that kind of humour. For another, it means he doesn't have to choose between players – the diplomat's way. But you know what, if you really think about it, shouldn't it be the answer we're all hoping for anyway? I'm sure we all hope Gomez is a success and that Spacek replaces Streit, but if come January Gainey stands up and says any name other than Jacques Martin's, I have a feeling we're not going to be a happy bunch.


Bad rap

The reason people probably don't wish to be looking to Martin as the beacon of hope in the mid-season is because of the fear for what that will mean. Upon his hiring, the media (especially outside Montreal) made a big deal about the hiring. They also tended to focus very heavily on two distinct elements of Martin's history: a) the trap and b) playoff failings.

Fair enough. Take your shots when you can get them in (Toronto). However, when one looks back over the career of Jacques Martin as a coach, one can see that the criticism as it was back in June, was a bit unfair. For one thing, labeling him as a trap-man completely ignores what he did for Ottawa at the other end of the ice. For another, his playoff record is only bad when placed in the light of the regular season success he had. Few coaches did better over the save time period.

I thought it would be interesting to look at what happened to Ottawa when Jacques Martin joins and what this might mean for the Habs.


Wins/standings


The season before Jacques Martin's first complete campaign Ottawa were a pitiful outfit garnering just 41 points. In the space of that year, Jacques took largely the same team and made them a playoff qualifier for the next 9 seasons. His first season witnessed a 36-point jump in the standings to 77 points and by his 3rd full campaign, Ottawa were perennially hovering around the 100-point mark.
SeasonWinsPoints
1995-961841
1996-973177
1997-983483
1998-9944103
1999-004195
2000-0148109
2001-023994
2002-0352113
2003-0443102

The points serve as a comfort to us Habs fans, but they hardly tell the story. Many teams see jumps in points from one season to the next and many go on to sustain those jumps as well. What was more notable with Jacques' changes in Ottawa was the impact he had on the way the team played. And it was that that eventually led to the winning ways.


Defence


Here you have it trappers – evidence that Martin did indeed tighten up the Ottawa defence. The changes he made to the system were marked and it's no wonder they stick out in so many peoples' memories. In 1995-96, the last year that started without Jacques Martin as the Ottawa coach, the Senators allowed an astounding 291 goals. The very next season, without a real jump in save % (0.888 to 0.891) and very few changes to the overall makeup of the team, Jacques' Senators sliced 57 goals from that total to a "mere" 234. The story comes together when you look at shots against as well, which nosedived from 2493 in 1995-96 to 2,113 the next season.

The changes were sustained as well, with further improvements even to the point that Ottawa could be counted upon to be much better than average in the GA column and even flirt with Jennings contention into the latter stages of seasons.

SeasonGoals againstShots against
1995-962912493
1996-972342113
1997-982002030
1998-991792065
1999-002102061
2000-012052228
2001-022082123
2002-031822032
2003-041892037



Offense

Just as striking as the defensive turnaround over Martin's time in Ottawa was the complete jump start of the offensive juggernaut that they were to become under Jacques' tutelage – an oft forgotten side effect of good trapping.

While it's clear that Jacques Martin seems to target defence first, and that he certainly tailors a plan to the players he has available (see Florida), there is also a definite part in his long-term planning, it seems, for generating offensive opportunity from out of the discipline.

From 1995-96 to 1996-97, the Ottawa offense didn't roar to its full potential, but it certainly put together an encouraging start with a boost of 35 goals for (from 191 to 226). There were fluctuations along the way, but by the 4th or 5th year of his tenure they were flirting with top 5 offense in the league annually, and in 2004, when Jacques eventually parted 2004, Ottawa were the top goalscoring team in the entire NHL.

Once again, the results came from a philosophy, as evidenced by the increased and then sustained number of shots for, making sure the team had every chance of scoring at a higher rate.

SeasonGoals forShots for
1995-961912204
1996-972262347
1997-981932401
1998-992392503
1999-002442584
2000-012742472
2001-022432469
2002-032632442
2003-042622421



Impact on Montreal


The parallel between Montreal 2008-09 and Ottawa 1995-96 is not perfect, to say the least, but there are some similarities. For one thing, Ottawa of that era moved to Jacques Martin out of a frustration with a less disciplined style that produced sporadic (and less than hoped for) results, just like our most recent Canadiens. For another, both defences can both be fairly categorised as atrocious by most standards. Both teams let up far too many shots for the calibre of goaltending they could rely on and both paid in goals against, and, to some degree, losses.

In what was a bad season for Montreal last year, the team allowed an astounding 2600 shots against. Quite a contrast with some of those numbers for Martin's Ottawa. Even if you take into account the inflation in shot totals since the lockout, there's no hiding form the fact that Montreal allowed more shots than 23 of their rivals and that most good teams see 300 or so less over a season. Surprisingly, it was an improvement on Carbonneau's system of a year before where the Habs let up 11 less shots, but in a more defensive league overall to put them 26th among their peers.

If Jacques Martin does nothing else but reduce the number of shots aimed at the Montreal end, he should succeed. If Ottawa is a relevant precedent, and the team cuts shots against by 300 or more, then Montreal could flirt with being an above average defensive team; and that's probably regardless of how Price and Halak fare.

Less goals against won't guarantee success, but they do often predict it. Specifically, a team that shoots more than they allow shots should score more than they allow. A team that scores more than they let up should (on average) produce more wins that losses. If it's about positioning yourself for wins and not losses, a cut deep into the heart of shots against is a good place to start.

From that point, if we're playoff bound, we can worry about coach Martin's other legacy when that time comes. If the regular season is negotiated with more ease than by his predecessor, I can't see him setting himself up to do any worse in the playoffs.

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