The five-on-five turnaround?


Today I’d like to you about a team who, twenty-odd games in the season, was one of the top five-on-five squads in the league. Their strong possession game was reflected in their metrics, and as a result they were copiously outshooting their opposition at even-strength, which led to an enviable positive goal ratio.

I’m talking about the Habs.

Last season’s Habs, I mean.

Now, the 2012-2013 Habs are a very strong possession team buoyed by some very good fortune. After their 27th game, they are at 55.5% Fenwick Tied and 53.6% Fenwick Close. These are extremely impressive numbers, but their 1024 PDO, largely on the strength of a 10.1% shooting percentage 5-on-5, which is better than anyone had last year over 82 games. Their goaltending, at .923, is above league average but reasonable. Their 1.40 5-on-5 goal ratio certainly represents playing somewhat above their heads, but there is no doubt that their true talent level is heavily positive.

Nevertheless, luck or not, their possession game at the moment is in Cup-contender territory, which is extremely impressive and speaks well of Michel Therrien’s work as the Habs’ coach. You’ll recall that I expressed some doubt about Therrien’s ability to coach a good puck possession squad, based on the work he’d done with the 07-08 Penguins (a strong special teams club but weak 5-on-5) and the almost immediate turnaround that followed his replacement by Dan Blysma. Well, either Therrien learned a few tricks in-between or the 2007-2008 Penguins’ talent level, outside of its superb centers, was overvalued.

That being said, while some portion of the last-to-first trip of the Canadiens rightfully belongs to its coach, the turnaround is less shocking than it may seem on the surface, because the 2011-2012 Habs entered the season as one of the top 5-on-5 squads in the league.

The Canadiens concluded the 2010-2011 season as a positive puck-possession club; with 51.6% Fenwick Close, they fell just outside the top-10, and their 52.6% Fenwick Tied left them 7th in the league. They did not outscore their opposition 5-on-5, however, due to an run of bad shooting luck; while their .925 five-on-five goaltending was strong, their 7.0% 5-on-5 shooting percentage was second-worst only in the league, leaving them with a PDO of 995.

So when they entered the 2011-2012 season having added another weapon in Erik Cole, there was good reason to believe that their luck would turn and that they would have a good season. And at 5-on-5, their luck did, in fact, turn. They started the year heavily outshooting opponents, despite various injuries to their roster. The Habs’ 5- on-5 game peaked on November 21, 2011, at their 21st game of the season. At the time, their Fenwick Close was 54.6%, their Fenwick Tied was 52.6%, and their 5-on-5 goal ratio was 1.33.

The Habs lost that game 1-0, on a 6-on-5 goal scored on a delayed penalty, despite outshooting the Bruins 33-18 — a loss that was emblematic of their season to date.

Their 5-on-5 PDO had obligingly regressed to more reasonable numbers; they would finish the season at 1001, with 8.7% shooting percentage and .916 goaltending. But the team’s luck failed in three other, vital respects.

First, their power play shooting percentage cratered, so much so that at some points it was not only the worst in the league, it was also worse than 28 teams’ five-on-five shooting percentages. Therefore despite generating as many shots and chances as they had in years prior, the Habs’ PP goal production absolutely cratered, and the optics were made worse by a few high-profile shorthanded goals. The gains they made 5-on-5 were eaten up by their inability to buy a goal with the man-advantadge. Despite their 1.33 goal 5-on-5 ratio at the time, their overall goal- differential was a mere +1 — +3 if empty-netters are omitted.

Second was their inability to convert their goal-differential into wins. A +1 goal differential is no great shakes, but a team that scores as many goals as it allows should expect to win about half their games. Add in a few loser points, and that team can generally end up on the playoff bubble. But after that game the Habs had a 9-9-3 record; they were winning only 3 out of 7 games. This put them in 11th position in the conference standings. This would dog them all year: they would finish the season last in the conference, despite sporting a mere -2 goal-differential once empty-nets had been removed.

Still, they were at most three points out of a playoff spot, and with 55 games remaining, it was certainly reasonable to expect a 52-54% puck-possession club with an exceptional PK and a strong-but-unlucky PP to make up that ground. What killed the Habs was the third bit of bad luck: incessant injuries to important players. At some point, the Habs would simply become unable to cope with the diminution of their roster; they played the vast majority of their early games with an on-ice roster that did not even crack the salary floor. The Habs’s possession game really started plunging after that Boston game, with their tipping-point injury being, quite ironically, the one to Scott Gomez.

The rest is history. Panicked by this nosedive and the team’s inability to win games, Gauthier fired Martin and replaced him with Randy Cunneyworth. The flap over the coach’s inability to speak French got the most press, but it was a red herring. Cunneyworth simply didn’t seem ready for the role, and struggled to identify roles for players he had surprisingly watched for over a third of a season, before finally settling on a deployment scheme that was basically Jacques Martin’s. His simplistic system didn’t help matters. But to be fair, it was unlikely any coach would have done well with the decimated remainder of a roster he had to work with.

But make no mistake: the early 2011-2012 Habs were a good team, displaying strong 5-on-5 ability in their first 21 games. So while there is certainly a large measure of improvement relative to the best work from last season’s squad, it’s not quite the terrible-to-awesome change it’s been heralded as. Bergevin and Therrien have done excellent work with what they have, but what they started with was not quite a hopeless wasteland. There was some real talent on the Habs’ roster, though much of it was absent by years’ end; it was too often forgotten, I think that the roster that played that final game against Toronto was nothing like that which had started 2011-2012, or that which would being the 2012-2013 season.

I had identified two things that might prevent the Habs from repeating their early 2011-2012 success at even-strength: the team had not replaced the loss of two top-6 wingers, and a question mark surrounded Therrien’s ability to coach a strong possession game, based on the 07-08 Penguin’s dismal 46.5% Fenwick Close. I’m very glad that these concerns were wrong. Not only did Bourque resurrect his game, but Gallagher took on the top-6 offensive winger role brilliantly. More impressively, Therrien proved to be capable to preside over an impressive puck possession team, not hesitating to skew his player deployment to best advantadge and emphasizing a style of play that involves lots of carry-ins. As a result, the 2012-2013 Habs have been able to match, and even exceed, the 5-on-5 excellence displayed by the early 2011-2012 Habs.

Montreal’s turnaround in the standings is a pleasant surprise; but when looked at closely, it hardly came out of nowhere.

SeasonGPFenCloseFenTied5/5 GF/GAStandings

Fenwick, as a reminder, is a ratio of all goals, shots and misses, for and against; it has been found to correlate very strongly with scoring chances. “Tied” means all five-on-five situation while tied; “Close” adds times when the score is within 1 in the first two periods. PDO is the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage at five-on- five; it has been shown to return close to 1000 over long periods, though exceptional goaltenders can hold their teams’ PDO slightly higher than the 1000 average.

Many of the numbers in this article were retrieved from the invaluable resource; others were crunched directly from official play-by-play sheets.