Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Canadiens Season Preview

Outgoing Forwards

After a long summer, the season is just about upon us now. And no season could possibly go forward without a season preview, could it?

Being as this was such a special off-season for the Canadiens organization, we have taken a slightly different, dare I say more factual, approach to the preview. By comparing like statistics against like and contextualizing with a sense of league standing, we hope to show how newcomers might fit in and even change the face of the team. I have done a legend and hidden it in the past.

Anyway, enough rambling, on to the preview.

As I said yesterday, we will begin from the top down, so to speak. From forwards to defence to goalies and each from the top of the depth chart to the bottom.

Outgoing forwards

No preview of a team undergoing such a massive refurbishment could possibly be complete without examining the rubble that were cleared away before the new foundation was laid. First up then is a brief look at the forwards from 2008-09 that will not be back to begin this season.

Saku Koivu

08-09 (MTL)65163450+4550.872.7112313.044
07-08 (MTL)77164056-4830.692.4115010.793
06-07 (MTL)81225375-211140.903.0715414.374

Even-strength profile

  • Top tier offensive performance at even strength

  • Below average defence at even strength

  • Bottom 20% in terms of preventing chances at even strength

  • Negative CORSI: -4.5


There's plenty to lament with the loss of a teammate like Saku Koivu. It's simplistic to see him as just a captain, because he was also the link to a past generation, an icon in the community and the team. After last year's more pleasant end, I mused on handing Koivu a lifetime extension, something which I supported thus:
Players like Koivu are rare and cannot be obtained easily in this league. He is a leader, a consummate professional and an excellent forward to boot. His ability to elevate his play come big games is well documented and completely invaluable to this team.

Well that's Koivu the full package. What of Koivu the first line centre in regular season action?

What the statistics show me, and have just about always shown is that Koivu is first and foremost about generating offense. Though he flirted with the top of the scoring list in Montreal, both regular season and playoffs, he never came near a Selke trophy nomination. He, like many a first line centre, opted to create offense at the expense of leaving the door open at the back sometimes. As his even strength profile shows, he was a top tier producer at the attacking end, but allowed a raft of chances against. His best statistical season (of 75 points) drives home this lesson with the glaring -21.

Finally, it is this fact that will make Koivu the centre an easier piece to replace. Although Gomez or Plekanec may struggle to put out 3.00 goals for every 60 minutes his line is on the ice, the balance of their output may yet exceed Koivu's by tipping the defensive chances into the green.

Koivu will be missed. Of that I am certain. But until the playoffs kick off, his loss will be easier to cover than after.

Alexei Kovalev

08-09 (MTL)78263965-51141.032.5720912.474
07-08 (MTL)82354984+181751.313.1423015.270
06-07 (MTL)73182947-19850.812.121979.178

Even-strength profile

  • Average offensive output at even strength

  • Strong defence at even strength (among team leaders)

  • Bottom 20% in terms of preventing chances at even strength

  • Negative CORSI: -5.7


Kovalev was a master of puck control throughout his time in Montreal. His final masterstroke, however, was a PR deke that made him the man who will be most missed by Canadiens fans across Montreal. While Komisarek continues to be vilified for accepting a few hundred thousand more (several hundred thousand after tax), Kovalev makes the same move and comes out as the man hard done by. It really does speak to the skills he possesses to make something spectacular when given very little.

Making something spectacular out of little is the thing we will surely miss most about Alexei. When you talk about game-breaking skill or dam-busting moves, his were something we have come to count on in Montreal for years now. No longer can we necessarily be assured that the PP will take the zone as the defenders back off, no longer can we assume a man on the left will be left free as Kovy takes double coverage. His highest points will be missed.

But what about the average Alexei Kovalev?

Statistics tell us that the average Kovalev is actually not that gamebreaker, but that he's actually a bit of a dampener. Although his 26 team goals were team high, while he was on the ice, the Canadiens were actually less inclined to score than they were with many other options. Equally (and to Alex's credit), though, his dampening effect extended to defensive play – with among the best GA/60 on the team.

At its best, his patient puck control leads to years like 2007-08 where goals for him and linemates flow and wins naturally follow. At its worst, he is a very good player to have on the ice, though perhaps one getting too much ice time when chasing a lead.

Kovalev, like Koivu will not be easily replaced. But, by virtue of the fact that his game is not without cracks, it does leave room for alternative solutions. If I've read Gainey correctly this off-season, it seems like he hopes his team will be taking a lot more shots this season, and that is something that excluding Kovalev should help to accomplish, simply by vrtue of style.

Alex Tanguay

08-09 (MTL)50162541+13531.193.067621.134
07-08 (CGY)78184058+11330.742.3812114.948
06-07 (CGY)81225981+12500.923.3910720.644

Even-strength profile

  • Outstanding (and team-leading) offensive performance at even strength

  • Strong defence at even strength (among team leaders)

  • Among league worst in terms of preventing chances at even strength

  • Negative CORSI: -8.5


In the summer, I suggested that Tanguay's not signing was a puzzle. The more I look into this player, the more confident I am in saying that puzzle is a word that infuses his entire career.

There is no doubt that Alex Tanguay has top-line talent, and that he can fit right into that position on any team today. But why then have two teams in two seasons replaced him with Mike Cammalleri?

The answer is difficult to uncover. If you look at results, Tanguay is a stud. Last year, for example, his 3.32 GF/60 and 2.28 GA/60 when on the ice at even strength was head and shoulders above what anyone else came close to on the Habs. However, looking at chances (and if you extrapolate that to mean what should be happening nine times out of ten), Tanguay is a mess. His line barely generates an average output of shots, many of which don't reach the net, and he is among the very worst in the whole league while allowing 60 chances against per 60 minutes.

If we hadn't watched the player, we could only conclude that he got lucky – that his average shot generation led to more goals than it should and that goalies bailed him out of embarrassing defensive undressings. While I'd be comfortable saying his offensive contribution is not driven by luck, but rather an uncanny timing and skill. I can't remember anything he did on defence that made me think he would merit such high save percentages – I suspect he benefited greatly from missing the two-month goaltending meltdown in this regard.

All told, we are losing a great offensive contributor in Tanguay. But once again, the less than perfect all around package means he's not completely irreplaceable. We're about to find out whether his offensive skills, and those of the first line will be replaced or not.

Christopher Higgins

08-09 (MTL)57121123-1210.741.421517.922
07-08 (MTL)82272552E1251.102.1224111.222
06-07 (MTL)61221638-11831.212.0915913.826

Even-strength profile

  • Above average offensive output at even strength

  • Average defence at even strength

  • Bottom 20% in terms of preventing chances at even strength

  • Negative CORSI: -4.7


It's hard to nail down Chris Higgins the player with just one stat. The NHL doesn't keep track of good foot positioning when going into the boards, nor good positioning after the break up of play. Equally, the league doesn't track unmissable opportunities misfired or absolute sitters banged wide.

What the stats from last year do show for Chris is that he was no special member of last year's team. His offensive production was above average with a decent defence, but he came out on the wrong side of chances taken and given (aka CORSI score), just like many of his teammates.

I think it's fair to say that the player we once called an untouchable and a bargain is not the player we traded back in June. And, while he was a great skater, a hard worker and a great penalty killer – the simple fact that his stats show how he let as many chances as anyone in the bottom 5th of the league get to Carey Price on his shifts, shows that his loss as a defensive forward is not one to be sulking over. I expect him to continue his career as a good 2nd line sub/third liner in his new home. I'm comfortable in attempting to upgrade on him.

Robert Lang

08-09 (MTL)50182139+6831.282.7710117.836
07-08 (CHI)76213354+9730.902.3117212.250
06-07 (DET)81193352+12640.842.2916611.466

Even-strength profile

  • Top tier offensive performance at even strength

  • Below average defence at even strength

  • Bottom 20% in terms of preventing chances at even strength

  • Negative CORSI: -2.5


Like Koivu, Robert Lang is a red-blue type profile. That's to say, all the offense he provides comes while the back door is being left open. A positive balance in goals produced and another negative CORSI balance for Lang.

Replacing Lang at his 2008-09 best would be a difficult task indeed. However, take a look at his historical stats – last year was a bit of a departure for him. 1.28 G/60 and 2.77 Pts/60 were pretty massive jumps. His 17.8% shooting was not sustainable (as history showed).

Therefore, think not of replacing that Lang, but rather the Lang that may have been around this year. A 39-year-old with plenty of sense cunning to offer, but a player whose decline is probably set to continue this year and into the next. Even at his Chicago best, we may not have been too happy about him taking space that could be occupied by a learner like Chichura or Pacioretty, and hurting Plekanec's PP minutes.

Of all the free agents, Lang's release was the least surprising to me. I'm happy we got a good year from him, and I wish him the best in his recovery from injury. But as a unit moving forward, our assets are now better directed elsewhere.

Tom Kostopoulos

08-09 (MTL)7881422-1000.431.201216.6106
07-08 (MTL)677613-3010.561.03987.1113
06-07 (LA)7671522-2000.481.50907.873

Even-strength profile

  • Average offensive performance at even strength

  • Average defence at even strength

  • On the ice for a high number of chances at both ends

  • Negative CORSI: -3.6


If you're like me, you look at Kostopoulos's ES profile here and think how did I get duped? We thought you were good Tom. I believe the fact we saw Tom Kostopoulos as such a bright light speaks not to how good he was, but rather how consistent his play was as those around him fell apart.

To be frank, a team like the Canadiens aspiring to better things is best not resting their laurels on players like Tom. Though he is a good guy and a hard worker, ultimately he is a tough guy that no one is afraid of, a shooter with below average success (7%), and a defensive forward with minus numbers.

If I believed, as Brian Burke does that 6 places on the roster should be reserved for players who can't play hockey going forward, then maybe I'd settle with Tom. But as it is, I don't. I think the fourth line can be a good staging ground for a youngster with the right coaching, and the third line can be as dynamic as you make it. As such, Tom needed to be let go at this time, if only to make some space after so many signings risked clogging the pipeline at the exit from Hamilton.

Mathieu Dandenault

08-09 (MTL)414812+7000.501.49468.717
07-08 (MTL)619514-11000.791.246913.034
06-07 (MTL)68268-8000.110.44543.740

Even-strength profile

  • Above average offense and defence at even strength

  • Good chance creation, balanced with low chances against (among team best)

  • Neutral CORSI: +0.8


Dandenault is another shocker. And after looking through all these pie charts, you'd be forgiven for thinking we've let a great one go.

The reality is, in many he will be missed. His versatility, for one thing, is something you can't teach. His French is something RDS will be longing for after two weeks of exclusive Max and Gui time. And his defensive play up front isn't replaced by anyone coming in, with a positive CORSI to boot. However, there are a few reasons he had to go as well. Not least among them is his habit of complaining at his ice time.

Turning the page

Statistically speaking, the players Gainey let go here were a solid bunch. Their offensive capabilities in particular will be hard to find from other sources. But by this point in time, I think we have all gathered that what Bob did on July 1 was two-fold:

1) To hollow out the core of a team he thought was rotting from within, and
2) Do his best to replace the skills he lost in the purge

I think his purge was pretty determined and unforgiving. In other circumstances, I'm sure Koivu could have been signed, Tanguay could have been given another chance, Higgins could have been taken more under the wing. But in Gainey's plan, this one time, the clear out had to be as deep as this or risk losing all assets across the organization.

Judging the decisions will be complex, since Koivu won't decline, Tanguay may thrive and Kovalev will probably be inspired by the damage to his pride. But try to remember May 2008 against Philadelphia and April 2009 against Boston when making your full assessment. Try to remember that all was not right – and that even if the diagnosis was not done with care, the intervention was warranted.

I go on next with a much more positive spin to preview the players we do have. First up will be the first line of forwards – that's tomorrow...

Statistics adapted from nhl.com, behindthenet.ca, Olivier

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