Are the Montreal Canadiens a Legit Stanley Cup Threat?

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IDecember 14, 2013

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MARCH 10: P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens congratulates goalie Carey Price #31 after defeating the Vancouver Canucks in NHL action 4-1 on March 10, 2012 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Rich Lam/Getty Images

Carey Price and P.K. Subban are top-three at their positions, giving the Montreal Canadiens two key ingredients of a Stanley Cup contender. Having finished fourth overall last year, and briefly fighting their way to the top of the Atlantic division standings, some fans are making the Habs their early dark horse pick. Is that justified?

The short answer is no, it is not. The longer answer is that the Canadiens have most of what it takes to be considered a legitimate contender, including a great top defensive pairing, good special teams, a well-rounded offense and a great goaltender. What they still need is stronger depth on the blue line, and a return to the type of possession-based play that made them so successful last year.

The Habs were generally viewed as a top-10 team this year, including through the lens of hockey analytics, where they were predicted to finish seventh. But despite a recent 11-1-2 stretch that catapulted them to the top of the Atlantic division (albeit briefly), they're currently 12th in the NHL in terms of winning percentage.

Fantastic special teams, which are top-six in both power play and penalty killing, and hot goaltending have masked what has otherwise been fairly average play. To truly enter the ranks of legitimate Stanley Cup threats, Montreal needs to step up their possession-based play and shore up their blue line.

Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Hockey Law

One of the more interesting trends recently discovered by analytics is that the top teams are those who consistently control the play. This is measured by a statistic called "close game Fenwick", which is simply the percentage of all on-ice attempted shots that a team takes in even-strength situations.

Studying these percentages in close-game situations only results in a close correlation to a team's time of possession and time in the opposing zone, which makes sense since the most likely outcome is an attempted shot.

The true value of this statistic is its consistency. While shooting and save percentages can fluctuate wildly throughout a season, often taking a team's goal differential with it, a team's puck possession percentage tend to remain consistent. That's why it's been such a great predictor of each team's future success.

Last year, for instance, three of the final four Stanley Cup contenders all ranked in the top six in the regular season by this measurement, which is surprisingly typical. With one exception that we'll discuss in a moment (Pittsburgh), seven of the remaining 10 Stanley Cup finalists since 2007-08 finished in the league's top four.

Stanley Cup Finalist's Puck Possession
2011-12Los Angeles53.6%3rd
2011-12New Jersey51.1%10th
Behind the Net

What does this mean for Montreal? They currently rank 19th in the NHL, controlling the play 49.4 percent of the time. And this has been trending down, according to the data at Extra Skater. Their recent success has been a result of great special teams and save percentages, not improved possession-based play. That means that it may not last.

There is one team that has been a consistent Stanley Cup threat despite poor possession numbers, and that's the Pittsburgh Penguins. They're the one exception in last year's final four, ranking 15th in the NHL with 49.9 percent, and the main exception the table of Stanley Cup finalists above.

Of course, Pittsburgh is blessed with players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. You don't need to generate more scoring opportunities than your opponents when you have players like these in your lineup because you can capitalize on a far higher percentage of your own.

Like most teams, Montreal is not blessed with players of that caliber. What they do have is a well-balanced lineup that often favors skill over size and shares both the offensive and defensive load evenly between the veterans and their youth.

Montreal's Forwards at Even Strength, Veterans vs Youth

Montreal isn't modeled after Pittsburgh, but they're better off emulating teams like Chicago and Boston anyway.

The Canadiens can be successful if they return to the possession-based play they achieved last year. In 2013, they finished eighth in the NHL with 53.6 percent, which would put them right where Los Angeles and Vancouver were in their Stanley Cup runs.

Of course, the Kings and the Canucks had championship-level goaltending in Jonathan Quick and Roberto Luongo. Can the Canadiens match them on that front as well? Yes.

The Price is Right

Montreal has allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league, thanks to red-hot goaltending from Carey Price. The recent loss to Los Angeles was the first time Montreal allowed four goals in a game since November 7. That level of consistency is absolutely critical to Stanley Cup contention.

Despite some up-and-down play over the years, Price is clearly a strong goalie. A comparison of his underlying save percentages to recent Stanley Cup finalist goalies, both overall and at even strength, is a highly favorable one. Only Tim Thomas' 2010-11 regular season performance with Boston is arguably superior.

Carey Price vs Stanley Cup Finalist Goalies
SeasonGoalieTeamSV%ES SV%
2010-11Tim ThomasBoston.938.947
2013-14Carey PriceMontreal.933.939
2012-13Tuukka RaskBoston.929.938
2012-13Corey CrawfordChicago.926.934
2010-11Roberto LuongoVancouver.928.934
2011-12Jonathan QuickLos Angeles.929.933
2009-10Antti NiemiChicago.912.914
2011-12Martin BrodeurNew Jersey.908.911
2009-10Michael LeightonPhiladelphia.905.904

If Montreal can improve their possession-based play, and Price can continue competing at the same level as Stanley Cup winning goalies of the recent past, the only remaining element they'll need is stronger depth on the blue line.

The Bleu, Blanc et Rouge Line

In P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, the Montreal Canadiens have one of the league's better pairings. They otherwise don't have a blue line at the same level as recent Stanley Cup finalists.

The following Player Usage Chart from Hockey Abstract demonstrates the primary issue very well. The horizontal axis represents the percentage of shifts started in the offensive zone relative to the defensive zone, while the vertical axis indicates whether a player is taking on top opponents, or primarily the depth lines.

Most importantly, the colored circles are based on how well the team does possession-wise when that player's on the ice. Subban and Markov have dark blue circles because Montreal outplays, outshoots and outscores their opponents whenever they're on the ice.

Hockey Abstract

Montreal needs a second pairing. Alexei Emelin missed the first part of the season recovering from knee surgery, and he has gotten bombed possession-wise since his return. The 27-year-old Russian may be a hit machine, especially compared to frequent partner Josh Gorges, but he has also taken eight penalties while drawing only two, in just 13 games.

They are the only two defensemen signed past this year (except Davis Drewiske, who is out for the year), but the Habs need a better pairing in their top four. Raphael Diaz was frequently used in Emelin's absence, but the puck-moving Swiss defender might not be the answer either.

Montreal's other options include veterans Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon, both of whom could safely be considered disappointments thus far. Youngsters Nathan Beaulieu and the giant Jarred Tinordi are also unlikely to be answers in the short-term. Montreal may have to look outside their organization for assistance.

Closing Thoughts

Are the Montreal Canadiens legitimate Stanley Cup contenders? Right now I would say no, but the path from where they are to where they need to be is clear and attainable.

First, they need to regain the same level of possession-based play that made them successful last year and that was typical of Stanley Cup finalists like Los Angeles and Vancouver in the recent past. They'll also need continued goaltending of this caliber from Carey Price.

Finally, the most challenging development required is an upgrade on the blue line to support Subban and Markov. While it's possible they can achieve this with some combination of Emelin, Gorges and Diaz, it is more likely that they'll need to get some help at the trade deadline.

The Montreal Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups, the most of any NHL franchise. With a few adjustments, they could become a dark horse to hoist number 25, 20 years after winning their last. 

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL. 


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