Montreal Canadiens' Special Teams: What's to Love and Hate
The Montreal Canadiens had an up-and-down season on special teams in 2013.
Their power play was dominant. The Habs rode the brilliant play of defensemen Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban to the second-most power-play goals in the league. Their scoring rate of 20.7 percent ranked them fifth overall in the NHL.
The Canadiens' play while shorthanded was a different story. The Habs struggled under the new system implemented by Michel Therrien and his staff. Their penalty-killers allowed 35 goals against while only killing off 79.8 percent of opponent's power plays, ranking them 23rd in the league.
The 2013-14 Montreal Canadiens roster looks quite similar to that of last season, with Danny Briere being the only newcomer who is likely to impact special teams. The Habs will be looking to maintain their power-play excellence while making vast improvements to their penalty-killing.
Here is what to love and hate about the Montreal Canadiens' special teams as the 2013-14 NHL season approaches.
Penalty-Kill Love: Tomas Plekanec
The Montreal Canadiens' penalty killing was disappointing in 2013, but one bright spot was the play of Tomas Plekanec.
Plekanec is the type of player all coaches love. He gives 100 percent each night. He wins faceoffs. He plays equally as hard at both ends of the rink. He can center your top scoring line or your defensive shutdown line. He can lead your power play or be your top penalty-killer.
While Montreal coaches over the past few years have used Plekanec in a number of different roles, one constant is that he has been used as the team's top penalty-killing forward.
One reason Plekanec is relied on while down a man is his ability to win faceoffs. Plekanec finished last season with a 50.6 faceoff win percentage, good for 10th in the NHL. Winning the defensive-zone faceoff gains possession and chews up at least 15 seconds of the opponent's man advantage. It is vital to the success of a good penalty kill.
The Canadiens penalty-killers struggled as a whole in 2013, and the four-on-five game has surely been a topic of high importance for Michel Therrien this offseason. There are many questions surrounding the Habs penalty-killing unit as we approach next season, with Tomas Plekanec being the only sure thing at forward.
Penalty-Kill Hate: Carey Price
The 2013 season was a frustrating one for Carey Price. The Habs netminder started off hot before stumbling to an ugly 2.59 goals-against average and a hideous .905 save percentage on the season.
What was even more concerning last season was Price's play while killing penalties.
Price's save percentage while shorthanded was a league-worst .804 among qualified NHL goalies. He allowed 30 goals on the penalty kill, which averages to an atrocious 8.87 goals against per 60 minutes while down a man.
Not all of those goals can be blamed on the goaltender, of course. Montreal's penalty-killers did not offer much help in front of Price last season. Opponents were often left wide open and given a shot on goal that no goalie could stop.
But a good penalty kill needs solid, consistent play from the goalie. Price was nowhere near that last season. He'll need to be much better when the Habs are a man down if they hope to improve on their penalty kill in 2013-14.
Penalty-Kill Hate: A Lack of Offensive Aggresiveness
When shorthanded, the objective is, of course, to not allow the other team to score. You have done your job as a penalty-killer if the two minutes (or more) expires and you have kept the other team off the scoresheet.
Generally, leading an offensive rush isn't on the minds of the penalty-killing unit. Any goals mustered while playing a man down are just a bonus.
Here's a fun stat: The Montreal Canadiens did not manage to score a single shorthanded goal during the 48-game 2013 season. The Tampa Bay Lightning were the only other team in the NHL not to score a shorthanded goal (their penalty kill was ranked an unimpressive 19th).
Not scoring while down a man in itself might not be cause for concern, but it does provoke an interesting thought.
In order to score a goal, the puck needs to be on your stick. And, of course, every second the puck is on your stick is another second that the opponent cannot score. This is the basis of advanced possession statistics.
While there is no stat that directly measures puck possession, not scoring a single shorthanded goal is a pretty good indication that the Canadiens had little puck possession while killing penalties last season. Watching the forwards continually dump the puck out of their zone instead of looking for odd-man rushes is another.
Perhaps allowing the Canadiens' more skilled players a chance to kill penalties could improve their chances of shorthanded success.
Last season, Jeff Halpern led the Canadiens forwards in average time on ice while shorthanded. Next on the list was Travis Moen, followed by Tomas Plekanec, Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong. Not exactly a list of offensive skill.
Max Pacioretty averaged just six seconds of ice time in four-on-five situations last season. David Desharnais averaged seven seconds per game. Brendan Gallagher received a total of 39 seconds of shorthanded ice time on the season. Alex Galchenyuk totaled just six seconds all year.
Perhaps it's time Michel Therrien and his staff reconsider which forwards they employ to kill penalties. At the very least, they should give the likes of Pacioretty, Gallagher and Galchenyuk a chance. After all, they can't do much worse than those used in shorthanded situations in 2013.
Power-Play Love: Andrei Markov
When it comes to power-play defensemen, the Montreal Canadiens feature two of the league's best. One of those is Andrei Markov.
Markov missed most of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons because of ACL problems that required two surgeries. While he has lost some of his speed, his power-play effectiveness is as good as it has ever been.
The 34-year-old Russian was dynamite in man-advantage situations last season. Markov led the Canadiens in power-play goals with eight. He also had 15 assists, and his 23 points with the man advantage were second-best on the Habs and tied for fourth-best in the NHL.
Markov still features one of the game's best outlet passes, and his offensive vision on the power play is elite. His ability to stay healthy in 2013-14 will play a big part in Montreal's success with the man advantage.
Power-Play Love: P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban had his coming-out party in 2013.
After a brief contract holdout, the 24-year-old defender had an incredible year which culminated with the Norris Trophy. While Subban has made strides in his defensive-zone play, most of the attention and accolades he earned stemmed from his success on the power play.
Subban led all NHL defensemen in power-play points last season with 26, just one behind co-leaders Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro. And the best news for Habs fans? There's reason to believe he'll score more in 2013-14.
When Subban returned to the lineup after six games last season, he was not yet a part of Montreal's top power-play unit. The Canadiens had won four of six games without Subban, and coach Michel Therrien did not want to split up the successful pairing of Markov and Raphael Diaz.
As NHL.com points out, Subban only had six points in his first 10 games of 2013. He did not reach 23 minutes of ice time until his 16th game of the season. Therrien eased Subban into the season, but once he reached full speed he was nearly unstoppable, going on to record 22 points in his final 26 games.
Having fully earned the respect of his coach, Subban will be the Canadiens' workhorse from Game 1 in 2013-14, which will of course include plenty of ice time with the man advantage. Subban and Markov will team up to anchor a Habs power play that should once again be one of the best in the NHL.
Power-Play Hate: Lack of Production from the Forwards
When you're a forward on an NHL power play, you're expected to score goals. It's that simple. The Montreal Canadiens' group of power-play forwards had a hard time doing that in 2013, however.
Last season, the Canadiens scored 42 goals with the man advantage. That tied them with Pittsburgh for second most in the league—an impressive total to say the least.
What's shocking, though, is that the two aforementioned defensemen, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, combined for 35.7 percent of Montreal's goals with the man advantage. Defensemen scored more than one-third of the Canadiens' power-play goals in 2013.
Last season, Montreal's forwards were led by current New Jersey Devil Michael Ryder's six power-play goals. Brian Gionta had five goals on the man advantage, Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec four apiece and Brendan Gallagher three.
The Canadiens' power play is set up to run through the defensemen. A typical Montreal power play sees a forward set up on the boards before working the puck back to Markov or Subban for a shot from the point. Employing this system does generate more offense from the defense, which is one reason for the success of Markov and Subban.
The NHL is a smart league, however, and teams will adapt. The Canadiens' opponents in 2013-14 will likely key on Subban and Markov while penalty-killing, forcing the Habs forwards to beat them.
Last year's power-play production from Gionta, Pacioretty and company was simply not good enough. Perhaps newcomer Daniel Briere or sophomore Alex Galchenyuk will help ignite the Canadiens' power play up front.
If the Canadiens hope to enjoy continued success with the man advantage in 2013-14, their forwards will need to be better.