Feb. 26, 2012: Sunrise, FL, USA; Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban (76) talks with teammate defenseman Tomas Kaberle (22) during the first period against he Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Montreal’s power play point men over the last three seasons

A key part of a successful power play is quality point men. The Montreal Canadiens have been blessed in this regard with multiple very high-quality point men over the last few years, headlined by the incomparable Andrei Markov but also featuring strong specialists such as Marc-André Bergeron and James Wisnievski. This has been a factor in Montreal’s recent excellence on the power play; from the lockout until the beginning of last season, they had not finished a season with an efficiency under 19.2% and have not been worse than 13th in the league, had missed the top-5 only twice and twice had led the league in the category. The consistent excellence of their power play had been a defining characteristic of the club for the entirety of the era.

When Montreal struggled on the power play in 2011-2012, therefore, it was natural that the point men would be fingered as a cause. After all, Andrei Markov was injured, they lacked the “shooter” specialist, the Bergeron or Wisnievski of years past, and they resorted to using a forward, Tomas Plekanec, at the point — a moved that was seen as a failure.

How fair was that assessment? Analytics can help us find the answer, but this comes with a caveat. Power play effectiveness is not as well-understood as five-on-five effectiveness, simply because teams play a much smaller portion of their hockey time on the power play. This means that there simply hasn’t been nearly as much data to draw conclusions from.

Nonetheless, just as for five-on-five hockey, it is generally understood that generating scoring chances is the key to long-term success, and that conversion rates may fluctuate over short periods. Because of the smaller samples of power play time, such fluctuations can have a more striking impact; a shooting cold streak that lasts 60 minutes of icetime might mean less two games at even-strength, but that could easily be eight to ten games on the power play.

Let’s examine, then, the performance of the various pairs of point men employed by the Habs over the last three seasons. In the table below I have listed every major 5-on-4 pairing used by the Habs since the 2009-2010 season. I have not included 5-on-3, 4-on-3, or any empty-net situations as those are far too rare to lead to useful conclusions. I have listed the number of scoring chances each pair has recorded (once again, we are indebted to Oliver Bouchard of En Attendant les Nordiques for this invaluable data) and the number of minutes each spent on 5-on-4 power play; the last column is simply a chance-per-minute rate, allowing us to compare pairings that were in use for different amounts of time.

You’ll also note that I split the 2011-2012 pairs between the time spent under Jacques Martin and that spent under Randy Cunneyworth, for reasons that will become clear below.

Year Pair Chances TOI Ratio
2011-2012M TOMAS KABERLE-P.K. SUBBAN 19 16.18 1.174
2009-2010 JAROSLAV SPACEK-ANDREI MARKOV 22 26.78 0.821
2011-2012M TOMAS PLEKANEC-YANNICK WEBER 42 54.10 0.776
2009-2010 JAROSLAV SPACEK-JOSH GORGES 15 20.67 0.726
2009-2010 PAUL MARA-JOSH GORGES 11 16.48 0.667
2009-2010 ROMAN HAMRLIK-ANDREI MARKOV 15 22.58 0.664
2010-2011 TOMAS PLEKANEC-JAMES WISNIEWSKI 16 25.62 0.625
2011-2012M RAPHAEL DIAZ-P.K. SUBBAN 19 30.92 0.615
2009-2010 JOSH GORGES-ROMAN HAMRLIK 11 18.38 0.598
2010-2011 ROMAN HAMRLIK-P.K. SUBBAN 45 75.48 0.596
2011-2012M TOMAS PLEKANEC-P.K. SUBBAN 14 23.67 0.592
2010-2011 JAROSLAV SPACEK-P.K. SUBBAN 17 28.82 0.590
2009-2010 MARC-ANDRE BERGERON-ANDREI MARKOV 51 86.53 0.589
2009-2010 ROMAN HAMRLIK-MARC-ANDRE BERGERON 16 27.23 0.588
2010-2011 JAMES WISNIEWSKI-P.K. SUBBAN 47 80.55 0.583
2010-2011 JAMES WISNIEWSKI-ROMAN HAMRLIK 24 41.85 0.573
2009-2010 JAROSLAV SPACEK-ROMAN HAMRLIK 52 91.83 0.566
2011-2012C P.K. SUBBAN-ANDREI MARKOV 16 28.78 0.556
2010-2011 ROMAN HAMRLIK-YANNICK WEBER 26 51.67 0.503
2010-2011 P.K. SUBBAN-ANDREI MARKOV 9 17.93 0.502
2011-2012M JOSH GORGES-P.K. SUBBAN 10 20.62 0.485
2011-2012C TOMAS KABERLE-P.K. SUBBAN 46 96.60 0.476
2009-2010 PAUL MARA-MARC-ANDRE BERGERON 18 41.67 0.432
2011-2012M RAPHAEL DIAZ-YANNICK WEBER 9 22.45 0.401
2011-2012C CHRIS CAMPOLI-YANNICK WEBER 8 21.60 0.370
2011-2012C CHRIS CAMPOLI-RAPHAEL DIAZ 5 13.80 0.362
2011-2012C CHRIS CAMPOLI-P.K. SUBBAN 7 20.12 0.348
2011-2012C TOMAS KABERLE-YANNICK WEBER 8 23.53 0.340
2010-2011 JAROSLAV SPACEK-ROMAN HAMRLIK 4 14.08 0.284

Looking over this data, one can come to a number of conclusions:

Montreal’s early 2011-2012 pairings were not weaker than those of years past in terms of generating scoring chances. This points to similar findings that saw Montreal be among the league leaders in generating PP shots and chances, but having an extended cold streak in terms of conversion. Olivier examined this phenomenon back in January. Martin’s early-season power-play was still one of the very best in the NHL in every way that he could  control. Given time, we could’ve expected the team’s goal efficiency to catch up with their chance generation.

For all the flak they receive as point men, Subban and Weber have done quite well this year, relative to other Habs point men. Something to keep in mind when discussing trading Weber; he may be a power play specialist, but he seems to be a good one.

Tomas Plekanec is an excellent point man in terms of chance generation. This is actually not new to 2011-2012; he manned the point with James Wisnievski late in 2010-2011 with Markov out, and the results were also excellent. There was a perception that he struggled early in 2011-2012, but that seems to have been the result of the Habs’ early-season finishing slump combined with a short-term inability to get saves on shorthanded chances against.

That said, the addition of Tomas Kaberle clearly didn’t hurt. Stephan suggested that in Kaberle-Subban the Habs might have a very good power play point-men pairing; this seems like a very fair assessment.  Kaberle’s performance with PK Subban under Martin is clearly inflated over a small sample, but it’s nonetheless clear that he is a quality point man.

Finally, and perhaps more tellingly, it’s noticeable how the pairings under Randy Cunneyworth are clustered near the bottom of the chart. Martin’s power play was no weaker at chance generation than their usual, but went on an extended conversion cold streak. When Randy took over, the conversion rate went back to normal… but the team’s chance generation cratered, leading to no net improvement in terms of goals. Cammalleri’s critique of Cunneyworth’s “put bodies in front and bomb from the point” tactics was ill-received, but it was apt; power plays are about puck possession and puck movement, and Cunneyworth’s strategies significantly hampered what had been one of the league’s best collection of PP talent for several years.

Let’s just call a spade a spade: Cunneyworth’s power play was terrible. Point men matter but, it seems, so does coaching.

Nevertheless, the more-than-respectable performance of the Markov-Subban pairing despite this handicap, combined with the sheer dominance of Kaberle-Subban under Martin, hints at good things to come for the Habs’ power play in the future… so long as the right strategy is in place and the Habs do not limit themselves to simply bombing from the point. And while we lack the same extensive data on previous seasons by Michel Therrien, there are encouraging signs: the Penguins were a top-6 power play every season he coached them but 2008-2009, when he was fired… and perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Pens’s foremost point man, Sergei Gonchar, missed all but one game Therrien coached that year.

With their 5-on-5 game a question mark for next season, strength on special teams is likely to be key in shaping Montreal’s success next year. The Habs will have the talent to mount a strong power play, and between Markov, Subban, Kaberle, Plekanec, Weber and even Diaz, they will not be lacking for highly capable point men. It does appear as though their new-again coach can take talent and assemble it into a successful unit. These things are very diffcult to predict, but the ingredients may be in place for Montreal to resume their recent power play excellence.


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