Knocking off a Stanley Cup favorite and the defending Stanley Cup champions on their way to a hard-fought loss in the Eastern Conference Finals, followed by a blazing 7-3-1 record to start the season - does that sound like the NHL's worst team? According to the results of our projection system published in the 2010-11 Hockey Prospectus annual, yes.
By opening the hood and looking at the numbers behind the projection we'll determine if this prediction is likely to be filed in the same waste bin as last year's forecast for Colorado (27th) and Phoenix (28th), or if the Habs are truly on the eve of a truly brutal collapse.
Thank you Gary Bettman
If Montreal truly becomes the worst team in the NHL, the tumble isn't nearly as far as you'd think despite their spectacular finish in the final four. Though their complete lack of even-strength offense is well-established, less is known about their terrible defense, which allowed the 5th most shots in the league, despite blocking the 3rd most. Only the Edmonton Oilers spent a significantly higher proportion of each game in their own end, watching their opponents move the puck at will.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, solid goaltending and top-tier special teams allowed them to stay in most games long enough for regulation time to expire. They were 3rd in the NHL in OT/shootout appearances, 2nd in OT/shootout wins, earning 40 of their 88 points in the random point-allocation that we call Overtime and the shootout. In regulation time, which is far more representative of a team's skill than brief 4-on-4 overtime frames or a coin-flip (aka shootout), Montreal was 24-33 - worse than even 27th place Columbus (27-35).
Having established that the Montreal Canadiens are entering this season not as the 4th best team in the league but rather the 25th or 26th, you can make the argument for a drop to 30th in one word: Halak. Jaroslav Halak, arguably the very reason they made the postseason at all, let alone the final four, was shipped off to St. Louis for nothing of immediate value in exchange.
Though the Canadiens otherwise kept their core intact, they're not a very deep team and parted ways with some relatively important depth pieces, like secondary forwards Sergei Kostitsyn, Glen Metropolit and Guillaume Latendresse (in a mid-season trade), and Marc-Andre Bergeron on the blue line, the combined impact of which essentially equals Halak's departure.
Fortunately their remaining departures, players like D'Agostini, Mara, Laraque and Stewart, were playing below replacement level and the young players that will replace them ought to improve the club's fortunes immediately.
OImp: Offensive impact, measured in goals (GVT)
DImp: Defensive impact, measured in goals (GVT)
Departure OImp DImp
Matt D’Agostini +2.1 +0.8
Paul Mara +0.8 +0.6
Georges Laraque +0.9 +0.2
Gregory Stewart +0.4 +0.2
Sergei Kostitsyn -1.1 -2.3
Dominic Moore -1.8 -2.0
Glen Metropolit -4.3 -1.2
Marc-Andre Bergeron -7.5 +0.5
Guillaume Latendresse -6.1 -1.6
Jaroslav Halak -21.1
Total -16.6 -25.9
Using GVT we can get a grip at a high and abstract level just how significant the impact of these departures will be. Overall the Habs have lost almost 17 goals of offense and will be preventing 26 fewer goals next season, for a goal differential loss of 43 - almost half of which is attributable to the loss of Jaroslav Halak.
With the obvious exception in the net, the replaceable nature of the various departures makes it possible to fill most of the open roster spots with players of equal or greater value. But just because it's possible doesn't mean it's been done - once again we can use the VUKOTA-projected GVTs of the new arrivals to see how much of the void has been filled.
Arrival OImp DImp
Benoit Pouliot 1.9 1.4
Dustin Boyd 0.9 1.9
PK Subban 1.5 1.0
Alex Auld -- 2.1
Lars Eller 0.9 0.6
Mathieu Carle 0.4 0.7 not used
David Desharnais 0.5 0.5 not used
Yannick Weber 0.4 0.5 not used
James Wyman 0.4 0.4 not used
Jeff Halpern -0.4 1.1
Ryan White 0.2 0.3 not used
Total 6.7 10.5
The Habs are replacing Jaroslav Halak's ice-time in part with extra playing time for Carey Price, and the rest with Alex Auld. While this is obviously going to have a negative impact on their ability to keep their own red light from illuminating, the money they saved could have been put to good use to generate more offense or tighten up the defense.
Unfortunately they replaced departed veteran forwards Sergei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse and Glen Metropolit with players of equal or potentially inferior value like Benoit Pouliot, Dustin Boyd, Jeff Halpern and Lars Eller. On the blue line, a lot is riding on PK Subban to match the productive value of Marc-Andre Bergeron.
The net result is that the new arrivals have made up only 17 of the 43 goals caused by the departures. They're projected to lose 10 goals of offense and allow an additional 16, though a lot of that is dependent upon the development of the many young players on which Montreal will be relying.
The various departures and arrivals don't tell the entire story, so what about the players left behind? With their core players like Andrei Markov, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta all in their 30s, is it reasonable to assume everyone will continue to contribute at last season's level?
Player OImp DImp
Maxim Lapierre +1.9 +0.9
Michael Cammalleri +2.9 -0.5
Max Pacioretty +1.1 +0.4
Tom Pyatt +1.0 +0.4
Jaroslav Spacek +2.2 -1.2
Ryan O’Byrne +0.3 +0.3
Josh Gorges +1.4 -1.1
Mathieu Darche -0.2 +0.2
Andrei Kostitsyn -0.1 +0.3
Roman Hamrlik +0.7 -0.9
Hal Gill -0.7 +0.3
Scott Gomez 0.0 -0.5
Brian Gionta 0.0 -0.6
Travis Moen +0.5 -1.2
Andrei Markov -0.4 -0.7
Carey Price -- -2.4
Tomas Plekanec -4.0 -1.7
Total +6.6 -8.0
Fortunately several of their players were playing at or near replacement level, so it would be quite easy for players like Ryan O'Byrne, Tom Pyatt, Maxim Lapierre and Max Pacioretty (AHL) to pick up the slack as the veterans slide.
The two biggest question marks are Carey Price and Tomas Plekanec. While Price has the great opportunity to take advantage of the added opportunities and contribute at a level close to Halak, the historical evidence on which VUKOTA is based doesn't consider that one of the likeliest scenarios. Similarly, with the up-and-down nature of Plekanec's performance over the years, it's not surprising that his production is expected to drop this season.
Overall the expected slide defensively is projected to exceed the expected improvement offensively, but perhaps that could be averted with exceptional play from Carey Price.
Don't let the clever disguise fool you - the Montreal Canadiens were a weak team disguised as a strong one. When you ignore overtime and the shootout, and you don't let the hot playoff stretch deceive you, the true nature of the Habs becomes obvious - they were one of the NHL's weaker teams last season, ranking ahead of only teams like Edmonton in generating even-strength offense or controlling the play.
One of the few pieces that kept them in the game - goalie Jaroslav Halak - has been dealt to the St. Louis Blues, and for very little immediate gain. A substantial bite has been taken out of their already limited secondary scoring, and neither their new arrivals nor their aging core is likely to completely fill those holes.
Departures -16.6 -25.9
Arrivals +6.7 +10.5
Changes +6.6 -8.0
Total -3.3 -23.4
Adding it all up, somehow one of the league's worst offenses will manage to get slightly worse, and without the Halak Dam standing behind one of the league's weaker defenses, the nearby villages are about to get flooded.
There is a lot of solid ground under the last-place projection, to avoid that fate a lot is riding on Carey Price, their aging veterans, and a host of raw, young talent.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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