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October 21, 2011
Stats and Fury
The Sky Isn't Falling, Montreal

by Kent Wilson

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While the details of my previous piece on early season mirages were interesting, the takeaway point of the article was that it's still very early in the NHL season and just about anything can happen in small sample sizes, particularly in a league with this much parity.

As such, nobody should be proud or panicked about their team's successes or failures just yet. Chasing surface results is always a good way to look foolish in the long term, but especially so after only five or six games of an 82-game season.

The fascinating corollary of knee-jerk emotional reactions to extreme outcomes over brief samples is the very human tendency to jump to conclusions and fabricate explanatory stories and illusory correlations to make them seem sensible.

Take, for example, this Puck Daddy post by Greg Wyshynski dubbed "The Early Season Mess of the Montreal Canadiens". The Habs have just one win to open the season, and being in perhaps the most rabid hockey market on the planet, that means their struggles have already been placed under a microscope. Wyshyinski notes that

It's the Canadiens' special teams, their bread-and-butter under Martin in previous seasons, that's taken a tumble: 2-for-25 on the power play in six games, and 21-for-25 on the penalty kill — not a bad mark, but the penalty kill is supposed to be ahead of opponents' power plays in October; witness the six teams killing better than 90-percent right now.

An explanation for the Canadiens' lackluster special teams is offered by the Upper Canadien a little further down:

What are the reasons for the badness? Well, the power play is a big one, but I've beaten that like a lumpy pillow. Another big one, which I suspect will become more talked about should Montreal lose Saturday to Toronto, is that coach Jacques Martin lost his deputy, Kirk Muller, and Muller was clearly the players guy. He helped run special teams. He communicated between the coaching staff and the team. He was a key cog in the wheel, and they're missing him right now.

Later in the Wyshynski article, it's noted by Rick Stephens of All Habs that the team is suffering from a "lack of identity", "poor chemistry" and players who are unaware of roles on the team.

But is there really anything to these assertions and theories? Remember, weird things happen in small samples in the NHL. Sometimes the results don't match the talent or effort level. Consider the San Jose Sharks early season struggles to score, despite their extremely high shot rates, shot differential, and possession numbers.

It looks like something similar is happening to the Canadiens. In six games, Montreal has managed to generate a high rate of shots on the power play, to the tune of 59.2/60. That's the sixth-highest rate in the league so far. Despite that impressive volume of shots, the Habs have precisely zero goals at 5-on-4 in 2011-12 (their two PP goals have come at 5-on-3 and 4-on-3). That means the opposition's goalies have a perfect 1.000 save percentage at 5-on-4 versus Montreal in the early going. In contrast, every other club that has managed 55-plus shots per hour has scored at least four 5-on-4 goals this season (with the notable exception of Anaheim who have the lowest amount of gross PP time amongst those teams).

As for the penalty kill, the Habs actually boast the second best shots against per 60 rate in the early going, yielding just 33.1/60 at 5-on-4. That means their shot PP/PK shot differential (ignoring 5-on-3 and 4-on-3 situations) is plus-26.1, which is obviously exemplary. Unfortunately, a SHSV% of .810 versus a power play shooting percentage of 0.00 has rendered the difference in shots moot in the short term and has the Canadiens faithful frantically casting about for an explanation.

That said, I'm not totally deaf to arguments about chemistry, leadership, and coaching. But they are rather dubious hypotheses when a club manages to perform in at least one part of the equation. In the Canadiens case, it's unlikely the departure of Kirk Muller would merely result in the percentages suddenly dropping for Montreal, especially without a concurrent drop in shots for and against. At least, not if it were truly a causal agent in Montreal's special teams problems.

So relax, Habs fans. Don't start brandishing your pitchforks just yet. Even without Cammalleri, Markov, and Campoli, the club is still putting a lot of pucks towards the net and allowing relatively few. Things are bound to turn around at some point.

And one further piece of comfort: P.K. Subban's struggles are of a similar nature. The sophomore defender has the highest possession rate on the team amongst defensemen (+19.27/60) and it's merely bad bounces dragging down his results right now (his PDO is 89.6). Once the percentages regress to the mean, he'll look like a star again.

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