There’s obviously no way Montreal sustains the sizzling play that produced a 12-1-1 start. Analytics suggest a regression. But will it be a big one?
There’s something about these Montreal Canadiens and piping hot starts. They opened 6-2-0 in 2012-13. In 2013-14: 5-2-0. In 2014-15: 7-1-0. In 2015-16: 9-0-0. And now, in 2016-17: 12-1-1. In this second era under coach Michel Therrien, no team has flown out of the gate more consistently.
How have the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge run circles around the NHL this time? Everything has just, well, gone right. The Habs have played and won all nine of their home games at the raucous Bell Centre and played just five road games thus far. Alexander Radulov, the low-risk, high-gain free agent signing, has brought his star power with him back from the KHL. The promise of a more mature Radulov than the curfew-skipping prima donna we last saw in the NHL has rung true so far. He’s been a major contributor, especially thanks to some surprisingly deft playmaking skills. Young center Alex Galchenyuk has carried over last season’s breakout and then some, with six goals and 14 points in 14 games. Shea Weber has bested P.K. Subban so far since the summer’s blockbuster trade, at least on the scoresheet.
And above all else, there’s Mr. Carey Price. Two years ago he was not just the best goalie in the world, but the best player, period, and he’s staking his claim to that status again. Price is an untouchable 9-0-0 with a 1.56 goals-against average and .953 save percentage. Factoring in his amazing 2014 Olympic run for Canada in Sochi, his epic MVP season in 2014-15, his dominance before injury last season and his sterling play for Canada at the 2016 World Cup…we haven’t seen this type of sustained, video-game esque dominance since Dominik Hasek’s mid-1990s reign.
So it’s easy enough to see how a team can explode for a 12-1-1 start. The questions bouncing around in many hockey pundits’ heads right now: will the Habs regress? And can they challenge for some historical records?
Let’s start with the first one. Of course the Habs will regress. The advanced statistics suggest they’ll do more than just regress. They’ll crash pretty hard.
Montreal has scored on 11.6 percent of its shots so far. That’s the NHL’s third-best rate. The good news: that number isn’t astronomical. The league’s top sharpshooting team has finished between 10.1 and 10. 7 percent each of the past three seasons. The Canadiens’ number will come down, but it’s not like they’re shooting an absurd 14 percent, like the New York Rangers are.
The bad news: leafing through the Habs’ surprising early contributors, it’s clear most won’t sustain their efforts Some Habs, like Radulov and Brendan Gallagher, are converting shots at close to their career rates. Max Pacioretty is even due for some major positive regression, as he’s scoring on just 5.3 percent of his shots and is an 11 percent career shooter. The guys providing unexpectedly outstanding efforts early on won’t keep it up, however.
- Paul Byron: four goals, shooting 25 percent, is a 16.6 percent career shooter
- Phillip Danault: four goals, shooting 21.1 percent, is an 8.6 percent career shooter
- Alex Galchenyuk: six goals, shooting 23.1 percent, is a 13.5 percent career shooter
- Torrey Mitchell: five goals, shooting 55.6 percent, is a 9.5 percent career shooter
- Shea Weber: five goals, shooting 15.2 percent, is an 8.2 percent career shooter
That quintet makes up five of Montreal’s top six goal scorers in 2016-17. So yeah, there’s a big regression coming. The Habs are a hideous 29th in shots on goal per game at 27.5. They allow the second most at 33.6. The regression police siren gets louder still. Look under the analytics hood and you see they rank 24th in the NHL at 5-on-5 Corsi percentage at 47.86. So while they are scoring plenty, they are among the league’s worst teams at generating shot attempts, and they allow more shot attempts than almost any team. Their peripheral stats look like those of a pretty weak team, a non-playoff squad, even.
Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of someone more educated on advanced statistics: THN writer Dom Luszczyszyn. His daily end-of-season standings simulation has the Habs regressing from an .893 to a .596 points percentage over their final 68 games, good for a 36-23-9 finish, which would make them the 10th-best team over that span.
So yeah, big-time regression. Yet Dom doesn’t have Montreal winning at the rate of a basement-dwelling team, which the Corsi numbers suggest it might. A 36-23-9 finish means the Habs end up 48-24-10 with 106 points, an Atlantic Division title and, according to Dom, the NHL’s second best record. Why?
One word: Price. I’m as much a believer in analytics as anyone, as Corsi has predicted the past seven Stanley Cup winners beautifully. But amazing goaltending can make a bad possession team look good. The 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche were terrible in possession but finished five points short of the Presidents’ Trophy because of Semyon Varlamov. The 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs were a joke in analytics but had James Reimer set a franchise record for save percentage in a season. And those two are not Price. He’s on another level. He can singlehandedly transform a team from average to good or from good to great.
We thus shouldn’t rush to declare Montreal a disaster waiting to happen – unless Price gets injured again. It happened last year, and the Habs missed the playoffs even after a 9-0-0 start. That’s how important Price is to his team. No player in hockey impacts his team’s fate more, actually. And as long as Price remains on two skates, the Habs should remain a contender.
As for that second question about Montreal chasing history? Let’s not get carried away. Price can only do so much. He needs a break sometimes, and we’ve seen what happens when he rests.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin