As part of the retrospective on the Flyers-Habs 2008 playoffs, let’s delve into the Habs’ 2007-2008 regular season. Led by head coach Guy Carbonneau, that season saw them finish first in the East, on the back of a very strong power play and despite a very weak puck possession game 5-on-5.
What I propose here is a Player Usage Chart. This concept was introduced by Derek Zona and Rob Vollman and as always based on the stats collected on the venerable, terrifying Gabriel Desjardins’s site, and it is a graphical representation of how players were used. You may remember seeing one of these before; I made one back in the day for another weak 5-on-5 team with a strong power play: the 2007-2008 Penguins which were coached by current Montreal coach Michel Therrien.
The chart for Carbonneau’s Habs is very interesting in how it contrasts with Therrien’s Penguins:
Click on the chart for a larger view. Interpreting the chart: the X axis represents offensive zone start — the percentage ratio of faceoffs taken by the player in the offensive zone versus the defensive zone. The Y axis represents “relative Corsi Quality of Competition”, a measure of the relative strength of the opponents that were on the ice at the same time as the player. The toughest defensive minutes would therefore be in the upper left — these players start a lot in the defensive zone against very strong opponents.
The size of the bubble represents “relative Corsi”, a measure of how well a player did in puck possession relative to his team when he was on the bench. Blue means the player did better than his teammates, red means the did better when he was on the bench, and the size of the bubble indicates by how much. A red bubble doesn’t automatically mean “bad player”, as the two factors above are a big part of the context; one would expect those players in the tough upper left section of the chart to tend to have red bubbles, even if they were very good.
I’d apologize for the large, hard-to-read clump in the middle of the chart, but that’s actually what I think to be the most important part of the chart. That clump indicates a large mass of players that Carbonneau used in roughly the same role: giving them offensive offensive minutes against middling opponents. That clump includes almost all of the team’s scoring forwards and all its defensemen except for the first pairing and Dandenault, who was often used as a forward. This means that there was fairly little difference in how those guys were used.
You will notice that Therrien’s chart does not have such a clump. That year, Therrien was much more proactive at managing the difficulty of his players’ assignments and matchups than Carbonneau. Therrien worked to give his defensive forwards (notably Staal) the tougher minutes so his offensive players (guys with names like Crosby and Malkin) could start in the offensive zone against relatively less capable opponents, allowing them to focus on offense.
That doesn’t mean that Carbonneau did nothing. Rather, he focused on getting certain players out against really tough minutes, leaving the rest to share the easier stuff roughly equally. The top pairing of Markov-Komisarek is, of course, prominent in this regard, as do defensive specialists like Bégin, Smolinski, Kostopoulos, Dandenault, and Lapierre. The presence of a 21-year-old Latendresse among that number is interesting. He wasn’t exactly pegged as a defensive forward, but ended up playing in that role. This did not keep him from putting up goals: at 14 even-strength goals that year, he was tied with Andrei Kostitsyn and not so far off the pace of Alex Kovalev, who led the team with 18. (We’re still quite a ways from this year’s leader Pacioretty who had 29.)
Carbonneau’s insistence on giving a lot of time to his bottom-six is revealed to make some sense here, then, as these players were often used in a very defensive role to open up the scoring forwards to easier minutes. It’s no coincidence that every forward in the middle clump has a blue bubble, as they were good players playing in easier minutes. The problem is that the fourth-liners just weren’t quality. Bryan Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos acquitted themselves well, but the others seemed to be in over their heads. If that was going to be the strategy, it would have been better to focus on filling those lines with quality defensive players, rather than Carbonneau’s much-beloved “energy” players who brought little else than physical hitting and energetic puck-chasing. A young power forward like Latendresse also was out of place in that role. It also seemed a bit of a waste of Koivu’s two-way talents and Plekanec’s budding defensive game. But ultimately the most important factor was that if Carbonneau wanted to roll four lines like this, his fourth-liners needed to be much better players than what he had. Bégin and Dandenault had all the will and the energy in the world, but they simply couldn’t cut it against good opposition.
Another note concerning the Clump(tm), one that is of interest to the 2012-2013 Habs: note the red bubble surrounding Bouillon despite getting pretty much the easiest minutes of any full-time Habs defenseman. Gorges wasn’t too far with him, but consider: that was five years ago. Gorges was 23; Bouillon was 32. Gorges got better since, and what I’ve said about Bouillon before seems to have started before he left for the Preds. Hamrlik is also in that clump, with a big blue bubble befitting a player of his caliber.
At the right of the clump we find Mark Streit who got easy minutes, often as a forward, but did very well with them. At the extreme right, we see Mikhail Grabovski, who at age 23 was a ways away from the solid two-way player he eventually became for the Leafs. Finally, a young (24 years old) Ryan O’Byrne, struggling against weak competition.
One thing to note is how very few people have an offensive zone start above 50%. This is because of the team’s weak possession game; it spent a lot of time in its own zone and thus took a lot of faceoffs near its goalies. In the same way, those bubbles represent relative puck possession, but in absolute terms literally everyone was in the red. The Habs were a terrible puck-possession team and were getting beat top to bottom; the better players (Kovalev, Kostitsyn, Koivu, Plekanec, Hamrlik, even Ryder) would stem the tide somewhat, but they could never reverse the trend. In this, Carbonneau and Therrien (whose only positive player was some guy named Sidney Crosby) are quite alike. Fortunately for both clubs, another common point was a killer power play, and that helped keep them afloat and bring the two teams to the top of the East, with the Penguins only getting passed by the Habs after resting Crosby for their last game when a win would have seen them win the conference.