Montreal Canadiens’ Problems Go Beyond Therrien

Alexei Emelin Photo: The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes

Alexei Emelin
Photo: The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes

Watching this week’s Montreal Canadiens was like watching a cliché scene in a horror film. The victims cry out for help, the bad guy finds where they are and they die a slow, painful death. Montreal played the victim this week.

Saturday night’s 5-0 loss to the Washington Capitals capped off what was arguably the worst week for the Habs this year. The team struggled to control the puck, could not find the back of the net and left Carey Price out to dry on multiple occasions. Oh, and it was sarcastically cheered for getting a shot on goal, but that story’s for another time.

The reality is the Canadiens are digging themselves a hole that only seems to be getting deeper. These past two months have not been indicative of the level the Canadiens have been playing at. In other words, the performance has not dictated the results. Well, this week it did, as Montreal was outscored 14-2 en route to a 0-3-0 record.

Fans are in a panic, players have been left scratching their heads and Michel Therrien cannot seem to find any answers. Needless to say, Habs Nation is in a chaotic mess right now and with no signs pointing to improvement, it begs the question: where do the Canadiens go from here?

We have seen the tweets. We know the trends. The verdict is in. Montreal wants Therrien removed as head coach of their beloved hockey team. Therrien has Nos Glorieux playing a style of hockey that is the polar opposite of last season. The Canadiens are going into defensive shells, making uncharacteristic mistakes and, ultimately, playing a losing brand of hockey. Whether that’s because the coach has changed his style or has lost the room completely, one can only guess. One thing is certain: it is time for change and, unfortunately for Michel, it starts with him.

But I don’t want to talk about Therrien. That’s beating a dead horse. Montreal’s problems go well beyond the coach; size up front being one of them.

Now, there are critics who deem size to be an irrelevant factor when it comes to success. Well, I have news for you. Size does matter, but not in the way you might think.

The Canadiens are ranked 30th out of 30 NHL teams in the height category. That’s right, dead last. Skeptics will often cite the Chicago Blackhawks as legitimate justification for Montreal’s lack of size. Well, let’s compare Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge’s top-six forwards (scoring) with the 2013 defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Chicago BlackhawksHeight (inches)Weight (lbs.)Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsCF% 5v5ShDst
Patrick Kane711815324355955.3%27.9 ft.
Patrick Sharp731995326265258.0%34.5 ft.
Jonathan Toews742085317324959.5%21.4 ft.
Marian Hossa732104821224358.6%27.9 ft.
Brandon Saad732025315203558.3%25.9 ft.
Andrew Shaw701805114112558.6%22.4 ft.
Average72.3196.751.819.524.343.858.1%26.7 ft.
Montreal CanadiensHeight (inches)Weight (lbs.)Games PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsCF% 5v5ShDst
Max Pacioretty74217432193052.7%32.1 ft.
Tomas Plekanec711965216143045.0%33.7 ft.
Brian Gionta67176518172544.9%31.3 ft.
David Desharnais67170498172550.6%25.4 ft.
Brendan Gallagher691805113112452.7%26.8 ft.
Alex Galchenyuk732034410132348.4%24.5 ft.
Average70.2190.348.312.713.526.249.1%29.0 ft.

Looking at these two tables above, it is apparent Chicago’s top six forwards (scoring) dominate every category. It spends more time with the puck, scores more often and has a significant size advantage over Montreal. This may be stating the obvious, but this data set represents and defines exactly what the Canadiens are missing most: size that can score.

Obviously, the Canadiens have a small group of top six forwards (scoring). However, their average weight is not what concerns me. It is the height advantage every team in this league has over the Habs that is bothersome.

Montreal is a team built around speed and skill. Playing a strong transition game and scoring off the rush is crucial to their success. But a truly dynamic team, like the Chicago Blackhawks, are able to score goals in a variety of ways; ways the Canadiens are not built for.

Pernell Karl Subban Photo: Bill Wippert

Pernell Karl Subban
Photo: Bill Wippert

For example, Habs fans know P.K. Subban has an absolute cannon from the point. It is a great asset to have, especially on the power play. The problem is, it is not being put to good use. Subban’s shooting percentage on the year is only 5.6 percent. A player with a shot like P.K.’s should have a shooting percentage almost double that. It can be argued that shots from the point are usually easy to stop if a netminder has vision of the puck, but why is the goalie seeing it? Don’t Subban’s shots mostly come on the power play? Why isn’t the goaltender being screened?

I will tell you why.

Montreal has a hard time crashing the net. The team cannot pounce on rebounds and rarely screen the opposition’s goalies. When it does, it is usually one of three players: Brendan Gallagher, David Desharnais or Brian Gionta. These three forwards play with a lot of heart, but all of them come in at well under six feet tall. Small players are not as effective at screening, are easily pushed out of the way and, quite literally, goalies are able to see over them. This is why, at times, the Canadiens make average goalies look brilliant (Craig Anderson in last year’s playoffs). That’s not to downplay the role Gallagher, Desharnais and Gionta play. But having a forward with more size and a knack for scoring garbage goals in front of the net would help Montreal in leaps and bounds.

Additionally, if you compare Chicago’s average shot distance from their top six forwards to Montreal’s, the Hawks average over two feet closer in proximity. Why? Because it is able to get closer to the net before they shoot. The closer you are, the better the scoring chance. Due to Montreal’s inability to get close to the front of the net, it is forced to take lower percentage shots from the outside, resulting in less goals. That is why the Habs do not have a scorer inside the top 60, at the moment. Chicago has five in the top 30.

The defending Stanley Cup Champions also outshone the Canadiens’ top-six forwards in puck possession (CF percentage 5v5). However, the Canadiens were a lot better last year than it was this year in that category. So, it is debatable whether puck possession has a correlation to size. With that being said, at many points in a game, teams will find themselves battling in corners for the puck. Montreal has found itself in situations like that far too often this year. Thus, having players who are strong on the puck and capable of effectively battling along the boards (i.e. Jaromir Jagr, 6-foot-3, 240 lbs.) would only add to the Canadiens’ depth up front.

If Montreal’s fan base thinks firing Therrien will magically make the Habs’ problems disappear, they are heavily mistaken. The Canadiens are a good team. The core is there, but it is still a few pieces away from being a Stanley-Cup contender. Firing the coach is a start. However, the Canadiens troubles go beyond the Habs’ style of play this season. Size that can score has been a part of almost every recent successful NHL team, including the Blackhawks. That’s not to say the Canadiens have to be the biggest team in the league, but having a height advantage certainly furthers a team’s chances to succeed throughout the regular season and into the playoffs. Montreal’s scoring has been small for far too long and the change this team needs (besides Therrien) will depend on the man in the press box: Marc Bergevin.

By Ryan Skilton, former AATH writer

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2 Responses to Montreal Canadiens’ Problems Go Beyond Therrien

  1. The Habs lack of size has been well-known for years throughout the league. No wonder they’re called the Habbits.

    During the Gauthier years, the Canadiens as an organization made the decision that hits and fighting were going to be banned from hockey and built a team based on that dream, not reality. In the meantime, the rest of the league got bigger and meaner.

    I must say I let out a chuckle while reading your line about Gionta screening goalies.

    As well, Habs need a good backup goalie that could motivate your #1 to work hard.

    Betrayed by the Habs January 27, 2014 at 1:19 pm Reply
    • however it is true, the 3 guys you typically find in front of the net are DD, Gally and Gio. Gionta is the one who practices tips in front of the net the most at practice, at least that is what it feels like.

      Michael Gomez January 27, 2014 at 5:00 pm Reply

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