Grading Michel Therrien's Performance with Montreal Canadiens in 2013-14

Brandon DuBreuil@@brandondubreuilContributor IIINovember 7, 2013

Grading Michel Therrien's Performance with Montreal Canadiens in 2013-14

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    Coach Michel Therrien
    Coach Michel TherrienMarianne Helm/Getty Images

    Michel Therrien is 16 games into year two of his second stint as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs have had an up-and-down start to their season, and it’s time to grade the bench boss’ early 2013-14 performance.

    The Canadiens sit at 8-7-1 after having played roughly one-fifth of their schedule. That record places them fifth in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division and second in the wild-card standings.

    Considering Montreal is the defending Northeast Division champion, a .500 record on its own would not be worthy of a very high grade for Therrien. Yet further examination shows that, for the most part, the Canadiens coach and his staff have had an impressive start to the season.

    Here are some early grades for Michel Therrien's performance with the Montreal Canadiens so far in 2013-14. 

Dealing with Injuries: A

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    Max Pacioretty gets helped off the ice.
    Max Pacioretty gets helped off the ice.Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images

    Injuries have destroyed Montreal’s depth chart early in 2013-14. According to ManGamesLost.com, the Habs have already had 79 man-games lost due to injury this season. Only the Edmonton Oilers have had more with 87, as of November 4.

    Therrien has been forced to juggle his lines and make Hamilton call-ups on a weekly basis. No fewer than 26 different players have suited up in the red, white and blue already this season, yet the Canadiens have managed to keep a decent record. A lot of the credit has to be given to the coaches for that. 

    Although the coaching staff did not have much choice as to who would fill the void created by injuries, Therrien and his staff have done an excellent job of putting the replacements in a position where they could succeed. 

    Therrien noticed that Michael Bournival's speed and skill made him an excellent fit for top-six minutes to help replace Max Pacioretty and Daniel Briere. By placing him with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, the rookie has been able to play his game while allowing the two veterans to help him along the way. 

    Placing Louis Leblanc directly on the third line, where he would see a regular shift, is another good example. The former first-round pick is simply not a fourth-line player. He is a talented forward who needs to spend time with the puck in the offensive zone. Allowing him to skate with Rene Bourque and David Desharnais has allowed him to show much more of his game than if he had lined up with Ryan White and George Parros. 

    Credit should also go to Therrien for the way he handled his young defensive prospects, Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, earlier this season. 

    When the Canadiens were in need of a sixth defender, he allowed both youngsters an equal chance to prove they belonged at the NHL level. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, the only thing Tinordi and Beaulieu showed was that they both needed more seasoning in the AHL. 

Special Teams: A-

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    P.K. Subban unleashes a one-timer.
    P.K. Subban unleashes a one-timer.Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    The Montreal Canadiens rank quite well on both the power play and penalty kill after 16 games. 

    With the man advantage, the Habs are scoring at a rate of 23.7 percent, ranking them fifth in the entire league. Their 14 total power-play goals are just three shy of the league lead. 

    The coach has done an excellent job in regard to who gets on the ice while up a man. 

    Therrien tends to go with the hot-hand approach up front, rewarding those playing well on any given night with power-play shifts. He does ensure there are fresh legs on the man advantage, however, and will sometimes roll three units on any given two-minute advantage.

    On the back end, it's simple. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov are probably the most talented offensive D-pairing in the NHL, and their power-play usage backs that up. They both average about four minutes of ice time with the man advantage each night. The next closest defenseman is Raphael Diaz at 1:30. 

    At the other end of the ice, Montreal's penalty kill is much improved from last season's 23rd-ranked unit. 

    Through a fifth of the 2013-14 schedule, the Canadiens are successfully killing penalties at an 86.2 percent clip, good for fifth overall in the league.

    Goaltending and shot-blocking are key reasons for the improvement, but so is player selection. By including more skilled players on the penalty kill this season, the Habs have been able create more pressure, control the puck and even score a few short-handed goals. 

    Lars Eller, Michael Bournival and Brendan Gallagher have joined the usual suspects (Tomas Plekanec, Travis Moen, Ryan White, Brian Gionta and Brandon Prust) to create a much-improved penalty kill so far this season. Their speed and puck-control abilities have made life much more difficult for opposing power plays. 

    The only baffling decision—and the reason Therrien's special team's grade is only an A- right now—is his recent refusal to allow the team's best player any ice time while down a man.

    Despite being part of the team's early-season penalty kill, P.K. Subban has not seen a regular shift while at a disadvantage since getting 1:44 of ice time against the San Jose Sharks back on October 26. That was five games ago. 

    While Subban is obviously more known for his offensive talents, he is hands down Montreal's most talented player and needs to be on the ice in all situations. The reigning Norris Trophy winner has earned the right to kill penalties, and Coach Therrien needs to let him do so. 

Team Offense: B+

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    The Canadiens celebrate a goal against Colorado.
    The Canadiens celebrate a goal against Colorado.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Grading Michel Therrien and the team's offense isn't easy to do given that most injuries to the team have been to its forwards. When taking into account the losses of Pacioretty, Briere and others for extended periods of time, the coach deserves an above-average grade, however.

    Montreal sits 15th in total goals scored with 43. The team is averaging 2.69 goals per game despite the prolonged injuries to its best goal scorer (Pacioretty) and its $4 million acquisition (Briere), as well as the complete disappearance of its opening-night No. 1 center (David Desharnais and his one point in 15 games). 

    Therrien can be credited with rewarding his kid line (Eller, Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk) with the ice time they deserve. They have consistently been Montreal's best offensive line, and the coach has given them ample opportunity to shine. 

    Montreal's bench boss has pushed all the right buttons so far this season, but his toughest decisions lie ahead as the team returns to health. 

    Pacioretty is back and obviously needs top minutes. Briere is no longer feeling the effects of his concussion, according to NHL.com's Arpon Basu, and should return soon. Brandon Prust's shoulder should be healed near the end of the month, and he'll need ice time as well.

    With Michael Bournival, and even Louis Leblanc, playing so well, what will Therrien do to accommodate everyone? 

    Coach Therrien has done well in regard to offense up to this point, but it seems his biggest challenges are still to come.

Team Defense: B

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    Brandon Prust blocks a shot against Toronto.
    Brandon Prust blocks a shot against Toronto.Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    Statistically, the Montreal Canadiens are playing some seriously good team defense this season, and it's not just because of the hot starts from their goaltenders. 

    The Habs rank fifth in total goals against, having only given up 33 in their 16 games in 2013-14. That average of 2.06 goals per game is quite the improvement from the 2.58 they gave up last year. 

    Netminders Carey Price and Peter Budaj are playing fantastic hockey and have undoubtedly benefited from the guidance of goalie coach Stephane Waite. But they're also receiving a lot of help from their teammates. 

    As a team, the Canadiens have blocked more shots (305) than any other squad in the NHL. They have made a committed effort to getting in the way of the opponent's shooting opportunities, and it's paying off handsomely. 

    Yet all is not rosy on the back end. 

    Despite being the best shot-blocking team in the entire league, Montreal has still given up an average of 31.4 shots on goal per game. That number is too big on its own. And when you add to it the 19.1 shots being blocked each game? There's reason to be concerned. 

    Montreal is allowing its opponents far too many chances to direct pucks at its goal. You have to think that eventually the Canadiens' shot-blocking numbers will fall and more pucks will hit the net.

    Considering the Habs are already allowing more than 30 shots against per game, they can't let that happen. Montreal needs to find a way to stop allowing its opponents so many chances to direct pucks toward its goal. 

Ice-Time Decisions: C-

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    P.K. Subban
    P.K. SubbanFrancois Lacasse/Getty Images

    P.K. Subban needs more ice time. He is Montreal's best player. A team needs its best players on the ice to help them win hockey games. 

    Michel Therrien needs to stop trying to shelter Subban and just let him play. Sure, he'll make some defensive mistakes. But, like all great athletes, he'll learn from them and become a better player.

    The 2013 Norris Trophy winner was on the ice for just 20:52 against St. Louis November 5. That's less time than Andrei Markov, Raphael Diaz and Josh Gorges. Subban needs 25 minutes a game. The positives that will come with an extra five minutes of ice per night will far outweigh the negatives. 

    But this isn't the only ice-time situation that has left Habs fans scratching their heads this season. 

    Even though he has clearly been one of Montreal's worst players this season, David Desharnais has an average time on ice of 13:12. Yes, the 5'8" center with one point to his name this season is averaging more ice time than Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Bournival, just to name a few. 

    Sure, Therrien was forced to keep Desharnais in the lineup due to injuries and finally got the chance to scratch him November 5. But that still doesn't explain how or why Desharnais was seeing more ice time than four of the Canadiens' top forwards when he was in the lineup. 

    And this next ice-time breakdown is the most baffling of all. Here is how Therrien allotted his power-play time November 5 against the Blues:

    P.K. Subban 1:22
    Martin St. Pierre1:09
    Andrei Markov1:07
    Alex Galchenyuk 1:07
    Max Pacioretty 1:02
    Rene Bourque 0:46
    Lars Eller 0:41

    Even the most casual of Habs fans will notice one glaring problem with this table: Who is Martin St. Pierre? 

    Well, he's a career minor leaguer who Therrien apparently thought was a better fit for his power play in a close game than, say, the guy with the second-most goals on his team, Tomes Plekanec. 

    Coach Therrien obviously has his reasons for the decisions he makes, but some of the Canadiens' ice-time statistics this season are simply mind-boggling. It certainly seems like he could start making better use of his players going forward. 

Overall: B+

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    Michel Therrien
    Michel TherrienFrancois Lacasse/Getty Images

    When he was hired in the summer of 2012, Michel Therrien was given a second chance at coaching the same team, which is something very few coaches in professional sports get the privilege of doing. 

    Now in his second season behind the Canadiens bench, Therrien is off to a pretty good start. He has guided his team to a 8-7-1 start, despite numerous key injuries. 

    Overall, Therrien has earned himself a grade of B+ through one-fifth of the Canadiens' 2013-14 season.

    Special teams have been a key reason for the relatively high grade.

    Therrien has put together a top-three power play that is scoring at a 23.7 percent rate. His penalty kill, a weakness last season, has improved to fifth best in the NHL. He'll look to keep up the team's success on special teams going forward. 

    At even strength, the offense is playing decent hockey and reinforcements are on the way as the forward unit gets healthy again. Because of that, he'll have some key roster decisions to make in the coming weeks. 

    At the other end of the ice, his players are blocking shots like never before, but they will still need to find ways to limit their opponents' offense if they hope to keep their goals against down. 

    His time-on-ice decisions have been questionable, however, and he'll have to make some changes if he hopes to get Montreal on a roll as we head toward midseason.