Dec 15, 2012; Montreal, QC, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward David Desharnais (51) celebrates his goal with teammate Erik Cole (72) during the 2nd period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-US PRESSWIRE

Cole's goals by center and situation

Having done a similar exercise with Pacioretty, I thought it only natural to go through the same exercise team’s other first-line winger/thirty-plus goal scorer. I admit I came to this exercise with an ulterior motive; I was worried that my precedent piece might have been seen as casting a worse light on Desharnais than I felt he deserved. My perception was that Cole had had a greater proportion of his goals with Desharnais and that this exercise would cast the Habs’ diminutive playmaker in a better light, as well as illustrate the volatility of the data given the samples involved.

I was wrong.

I did get confirmation of one thing I already knew: my general perceptions aren’t any better than anyone else’s. Which is why it’s so important to always go to the data… so let’s look over it now and see where my perception went astray.

Context Goals TOI (hr) Goals/TOI
5-on-5 w/Plekanec 4 2.73 1.46
5-on-5 w/Desharnais 16 14.43 1.11
5-on-5 w/Eller 2 1.52 1.32
5-on-5 w/Nokelainen 1 0.42 2.40
5-on-4 w/14+51 2 0.90 2.23
5-on-4 w/Desharnais 8 2.68 2.98
5-on-3 w/14+51 1 N/A N/A
6-on-5 w/14+51 1 N/A N/A
Total 5-on-5 without DD 7 5.03 1.39

Again, it’s important to keep in mind the small sample size for the non-Desharnais centers, and to understand that even though that 1.11 number doesn’t look like much in that table, it’s still an excellent number (better than Nathan Horton, Rick Nash, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Claude Giroux). But once again, we see that Cole scored more goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 icetime without Desharnais as his center (1.39) than he did with him (1.11). Once more, he turns out to have been most productive with Plekanec, though the sample is small and it’s unlikely he’d have maintained such a high scoring rate given more icetime together.

What fooled my perception is that unlike Pacioretty, Cole scored a large proportion of his goals on the power play — and that was when Desharnais was his center. In fact he didn’t score a PP goal without Desharnais playing center, whether it was with Plekanec at the point or not. Of course, he only played 38.6 minutes of 5-on-4 time without Desharnais (compared to a whopping 215.7 minutes with him), so perhaps that is not so suprising.

But at even-strength, once again, the perception that Desharnais’s playmaking led to an explosion of goal-scoring from Cole is not well-supported by the data. I repeat myself, but that doesn’t mean Desharnais is bad, or dragging Cole down, or anything of the sort; rather, than Cole’s prodction is mostly a factor of his own ability to generate shots when aligned with competent linemates, be they Desharnais, Plekanec or even Eller. (I mean, he even scored a goal with Nokelainen!) This was bumped by a particularly good shooting year, with Cole shooting 14.5%, a fair bit above his career average of 12.9%. I’d expect some regression from him next year.

This sort of analysis is comparatively quite crude, so it is more about perception than about definitive conclusions, but it’s interesting to me that both wingers of the Habs’ “unbreakable first line” actually scored more goals 5-on-5 with other centers than they did with Desharnais. And despite how coarse-grained this exercise is, it’s hardly the first hole poked into the narrative of Desharnais as the team’s “undisputable #1 center”. Personally, I hope that Therrien will not take the sanctity of the 67-51-72 line at face value and will be willing to experiment with other combinations; the data certainly suggests that this much-ballyhooed combination might not be quite the miracle of chemistry as is suggested.

A chance-based analysis might get us more data, and give us some idea of whether that line really should be unbreakable, or whether it might be a good idea to use different units 5-on-5 than on the power play (a particular strength of Desharnais). I’m also curious, now, to see how other wingers (Cammalleri, especially) did when shifting between centers… but I think the first order of business will be to draw that third leg of the triangle, and see how Pacioretty and Cole have affected each other’s goal-scoring.


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