Jan 31, 2012; Montreal, QC, CAN; Montreal Canadiens center David Desharnais (51) congratulates his teammate after left wing Max Pacioretty (67) scored a goal against Buffalo Sabres during the first period at the Bell Center in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-US PRESSWIRE

Pacioretty's goals by center and situation

This one is going to be much shorter and more unscientific than usual. I apologize for that, but there just isn’t very much NHL hockey to analyze right now…

It’s also not really about proving something about the Habs. The samples involved in this little analysis are too small to come to much in the way of definitive factual conclusions. This one is really about perceptions.

Specifically, this is about the perception that Desharnais is essential to the scoring performance of his wingers and, consequently, that breaking up the 67-51-72 line would be counter-productive.  At first glance, this seems logical enough: Pacioretty, for example, scored the vast majority of his goals this year (23 out of 33) with Desharnais serving as his center.

Missing from this statement, however, is an important bit of context: Pacioretty also spent the vast majority of his icetime with Desharnais.

Out of curiosity, I went back through all of Pacioretty’s 2011-2012 goals to find out what situation they had been scored in and who was the center at the time, and then used Olivier’s invaluable database to find out how much time Pacioretty had spent with each center in each situation. I then totalled all 5-on-5 data without Desharnais, as DD was by far his most common center. A quick division then gave us the scoring rates of those various combinations.

Context Goals TOI (hr) Goals/TOI
5-on-5 w/Plekanec 5 2.49 2.01
5-on-5 w/Desharnais 18 13.80 1.30
5-on-5 w/Eller 1 1.12 0.89
5-on-5 w/Gomez 2 1.01 1.98
4-on-4 w/Desharnais 1 0.36 2.78
5-on-4 w/Desharnais 4 3.23 1.24
EN w/Plekanec 2 N/A N/A
Total 5-on-5 without DD 8 4.92 1.63

When looking at this chart, it’s important to keep the sample size in mind, and equally important to put the numbers into perspective.  With 1.47 goals per hour of 5-on-5 icetime, Pacioretty was third in the entire league among players with 40+ games (behind only Stamkos and Malkin!). The 1.30 number with Desharnais may look low when compared to others in this table, but it is an exceptional number: it would have be good for tenth in the league, and beat out names such as Patrick Sharp, Bobby Ryan or James Neal.

But the perception that Pacioretty was a more effective goal-scorer more with Desharnais than other centers, at least at even strength is put into question. Pacioretty scored more goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 icetime (1.63) without Desharnais as his center than he did with him (1.30). The perception exists because Pacioretty scored so many goals, because he played so much with Desharnais, and because he was with Desharnais when he scored most of his goals in absolute terms. But it is really an artifact of the amount of icetime they spent together. It’s unlikely, of course, that Pacioretty would have been able to maintain a 1.63 goals-per-hour scoring rate (let alone 2!) had he played more time with Plekanec or Gomez rather than Desharnais. But the point remains that Pacioretty was a scoring machine, one of the very best left-wingers in the NHL. He is capable of maintaining high rates of goal-scoring with any set of competent linemates.

Now, the point of this exercise is not to suggest that Desharnais isn’t a good player (he is, in fact, very good). It’s not to imply that he has no value (on the contrary: at a mere 800k per year, he’s better value than virtually any other Habs player). It’s not to suggest that he is keeping Pacioretty from scoring at his full potential, dragging Pacioretty down, or otherwise not contributing to his scoring (Pacioretty scored at elite rates with Desharnais as his center).

The point is that the perception that Pacioretty’s goal-scoring increased alongside Desharnais is incorrect, and that decisions and analysis made upon that premise are going to be erroneous as a result. And in a situation where the Habs don’t have enough top-6 forwards to go around, it is important that perceptions about how much player X needs player Y be based in reality and not perceptions. It may be valuable for Michel Therrien, next year, to place the Habs’ best two-way center with its best two-way wingers. Perceptions about how Pacioretty “needs” Desharnais to be effective should not stop him from doing so if it is tactically sound — or vice-versa, for that matter. Both players are very capable; together they are an excellent combination, but when apart, they don’t “need” each other to be effective.

It is also yet another reiteration of some of the most important principles in hockey analysis. Context matters. Our general perceptions often fool us. And straight-up counting stats, the goals-assist-points of fantasy hockey, do not tell us a full story at all.

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